Aug 16

Food for Thought: An Interview

I have spent a while debating whether to post what I am sharing with you today.  When I did this interview after finishing my £10 challenge, the people I interviewed asked for the right to comment on the text before I published it.  I sent it to them twice, but received no reply.  However, I feel that it is very important for people to know more about the work of food banks, so I am choosing to publish the interview anyway.  I cannot think that there is anything here that is negative about the essential work they do, and my intention is just the opposite, but if this were to offend the kind people who so generously spared me their time, I offer a sincere apology.

It is a long post today, but I feel it is an important one. I visited a local food bank to donate food and find out more about their work, and I want to share what I found.

This particular food bank has been open since December 2011, and is entirely staffed by volunteers, most of whom have been there for two years or more.  The notes below are not taken verbatim from any one individual, but are a summary of what several of the volunteers shared with me.  They did not wish for themselves or the organisation to be named.  I am committed to respecting their confidentiality.

Me: How many people use your food bank?
Volunteers: Between April 2014 and April 2015 approximately 2700 people used the food bank.

Me: Can you tell me a bit about your users?
Volunteers: People can only come here if they have a voucher, which they can be given by someone who knows their circumstances, such as the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, job centre, GP or social worker.  About 60 different organisations currently send people to us.  This means that if we have a query about someone who comes to us, we can follow up with the relevant organisation.

Me: What sort of service do you provide?

Volunters: We are an emergency food service, because we do not have any fresh food here, so it isn’t really possible for us to provide a balanced diet in the long term.  In theory people are limited to three visits.  Frequently people come because of benefit delays or sanctions.  People will be employed, usually on very low wages, then something happens, such as a zero hours contract, or an illness or accident.  When you lose a job there is a delay before you receive benefits, and this can cause problems.  People have to pay rent and bills first – they are anxious about being thrown out of their home.  Because of this precariousness of employment we might not see them for a few months, then see them again.

Volunteers distributing food

Food bank volunteers provide an essential service for people in crisis. NB: these are NOT the actual volunteers I interviewed.

Me: What changes have you noticed since the food bank opened?
Volunteers: It’s the numbers.  There are lots more people.  When we started there weren’t many that came, but now there are thousands.  The most common thing we hear is, “They’ve stopped my benefits,” but sometimes it’s delays or other things.  We have concerns now with new government policy, where people’s tax credits will be stopped, but they won’t get a salary increase to compensate. We do get the odd malingerer, but we are pretty good at spotting those.  The vast majority of people are genuine.  Many people who come feel a bit humiliated.  They say “I never would have dreamed in a million years that I would be here”.

Me: What is the most important thing that those of us who are fortunate to have enough to eat do to help?
Volunteers: Bring something in to the food bank, particularly tins of meat and fish.  If we get a tin of steak and kidney pie, that’s a luxury.  People like hot dogs, spam, anything to provide protein.  At the moment we have enough cereal and pasta to share with a local soup kitchen, but what we need is protein, because that’s the expensive thing.  Bring your donations to the food bank or put them into the collection point at your local supermarket.  We depend entirely on donations.

Me: Is there anything else that you would like to say to my readers?
Volunteers: People need to be more aware about food banks, because the situation is going to get worse.  It doesn’t matter which government is in power because they are all tied by economic constraints.

I shared with the volunteers my experience of feeding 2 people for £10.  A lot of the things I had experienced seemed to resonate with what they had observed.  If you are someone who is fortunate enough to have sufficient money for food, please pick up a can of meat or fish next time you shop and donate it to your local food bank.  You could make someone’s day and help to improve the nutritional status of a family in need.  I plan to do this from now on.  It is such a small thing, but it could make such a big difference.

I wish health and happiness to you and your families.

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