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More to foodbanks than the food

BERNADETTE HORTON spends a day at her local foodbank and finds it is taking on a whole range of former local government responsibilities

MY LOCAL foodbank is in Prestatyn and Meliden on the north Wales coast.

It’s not the most obvious place to need a foodbank — a pretty seaside town with a brand new retail park and flourishing house prices. But the facade hides a reality of dire need.

My local councillor invited me recently to a steering group meeting to discuss the foodbank as the volunteers are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people they have to help.

I spent a day with the foodbank to see the work it does and the people it helps. What I heard and saw has left me with the deep impression of the depth of need in the area.

The foodbank is run by a local church.

It’s not part of the Trussell Trust (TT) group, preferring the greater flexibility it gains from independence and not wishing to make its volunteers learn how to use TT’s computerised system since many of them are elderly and may find that hard.

As with all foodbanks, referrals are made by professionals such as social workers, school liaison officers and support workers.

Walking through the church door is just the start of what may end by turning the lives of many clients around.

The senior administrator tells me: “As soon as a client comes through our doors they can expect to be treated with dignity and compassion — there are no judgements made here.

“No place for media rhetoric or ‘spongers and scroungers.’ Many people are taking a giant step coming in and asking for help. They feel humiliated that their lives have come to asking for a food parcel, their pride has taken a tremendous knock and they are at their most vulnerable.

“Compassion is needed first and foremost, and then practical help and advice.”

Compare that to the media images of people swaggering into foodbanks “on the scrounge,” looking for free food. Tory has-been Edwina Currie said recently: “There is no need for foodbanks at all.” How wrong she is.

There’s a huge downstairs room with lots of toys for children to play with while the clients are helped by the volunteer staff.

One volunteer shows me food he is date-labelling in cupboards and I am shown outside where a huge metal container holds more food.

The facility is no longer big enough to cope with the number of people now arriving, but as an independent foodbank grants are not forthcoming. The community steering group is looking into how this can be rectified.

Several other churches of varying denominations — Catholic, Anglican, Church of Wales — collect food in their own churches and turn it over to the Prestatyn foodbank for distribution.

Churches working and uniting together is welcome. But the gap they are filling has arisen because of the slashing of the welfare state and other support networks.

The senior pastor invited me into his office and I was surprised to see four huge whiteboards, each with different counselling notes on them.
“Food is an immediate emergency, but actually quite an easy part of the work we undertake,” he tells me.

“A foodbank parcel because someone has no money for food is a first response. My role is to uncover why that person has arrived here and what help they may require.

“I used to do counselling sessions on two mornings a week. I now counsel Monday-Thursday, four whole days. There’s a myriad of reasons why people arrive at our foodbank.

“Benefit delays, money mismanagement, lack of education, lack of life skills, debt, life events are all in the mix.

“I try to sort out why each individual is here and then proceed to help them get their life onto a more even keel.

“This can take weeks or even months of ongoing counselling sessions.

"I need to know their circumstances, perhaps liaise with other organisations or signpost people to places that can help, or where debt is concerned act as an appointed nominee to negotiate repayments.”

I can’t contain my astonishment — isn’t such work the domain of social services?

He agrees, pointing out that increasingly the burden shouldered by foodbanks is one that social services would traditionally have borne.

“Once we’ve handed over a food parcel we unravel the person’s human needs. Sometimes that involves total education on how to handle personal finances and budget.

“Some people have no cooking skills and have never been taught how to make a healthy meal. Gently we try to show them how this can be done.

“We see many single mothers struggling to bring up children — mum is doing all she can but sometimes it simply is not enough.

“What may start as mum having trouble with a cheeky five-year-old son can escalate into her having an out-of-control teenager on her hands. Absent fathers are a huge problem.

“But there is a ceiling on how many people we can offer help to.

“My fear is that there are people slipping through the net, who can’t get access to professionals to refer them to a foodbank, perhaps because they are elderly or disabled and housebound.

“But the more people arrive the more pressure there is on the volunteers and then we are unable to cope — it’s a vicious circle.”

The scrapping of crisis loans and the use of council discretionary payments to those in need has added to the foodbank’s burden.

People used to apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for a crisis loan form, and then repay the loan from their wage or benefit.

Now people have no idea where to turn and even whether they will receive a loan at all, since the funds are not ring-fenced by councils.

Foodbanks are being forced to fill that void. All very well if the need is small-scale, but not when Trussell Trust reports that it has more than half a million clients nationwide. There are no stats on how many people independent foodbanks like Prestatyn’s help on top of that.

Prestatyn takes children’s needs and life’s essentials into account when distributing goods, meaning its lists differ slightly from TT foodbanks.

Bottles of orange squash, toothbrushes, shampoo and sanitary towels are considered as important as the traditional soups, tinned meats and pasta.
One recent innovation allows clients access to fresh vegetables.

The foodbank teamed up with a food co-op with help from a council adviser.

“Rather than stock fresh produce at the church, we had some recent cash donations so we would purchase fresh veg and put a £3 voucher into each foodbank parcel.

"The client would visit the food co-op and obtain the fresh items themselves. This will be a great supplement to the parcel,” the senior administrator says.

Asking local supermarkets for collection days for the foodbank is also under consideration.

But as volunteers become more innovative more work is placed on them.
The work used to be carried out by local government services with trained, paid staff. The senior pastor is a trained counsellor, but everyone else at the foodbank is a volunteer.

They are being asked to fill roles that would previously have entailed a university education and years of on-the-job training, with a salary commensurate with the job title.

I came away from my day at the foodbank in awe at the work it does, knowing it is merely a tiny ripple on the pond of foodbanks helping people in crisis around Britain.

Independent foodbanks deserve more support, full stop. If foodbanks are here for the foreseeable future we need to collect stats to show how many people the independent ones are helping.

There should be grants both for training volunteers and for premises.
Local councils need to collate information on all the roles foodbanks are fulfilling, so it is easier to liaise with them and help.

And foodbanks need help now.

It’s down to people like us to bang the drum and get this message heard.

Bernadette Horton blogs at www.mumvausterity.blogspot.com.

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