If there is ever a national shortage of baked beans to accompany our bangers and mash or fill our jacket potatoes, I know exactly where to get some. On Monday morning when the door to Southampton City Mission’s food bank opened at the Above Bar church, I couldn’t believe how many tins of beans lined the store cupboard shelves, waiting to be distributed to people in need. But England’s favourite canned product is just the beginning when it comes to food parcels.
Monday was my first time volunteering at the church run food bank, which operates in a different location around Southampton five days a week. While the City Mission is a Christian organisation, it gives help in the form of food and clothing to anyone in need, regardless of their religious background. Not being a Christian myself and being considerably younger than my fellow volunteers didn’t stop them from being quick to give me a warm welcome and have a chat. It wasn’t long before I felt at home and like a member of the team, albeit one who needed to ask a lot of questions.
Glancing around, it wasn’t immediately apparent where all the beans and other food I could see had come from or how it got to the people who needed it. However, once one of the supervisors had talked me through the basic process, I learnt there was a fairly straightforward method behind the apparent madness of the large variety of dry and fresh goods, stacked on shelves and crammed into plastic pallets at the back of the room. My first task was to help unpack the produce that had been delivered to the church that morning, sorting cans, boxes and packets onto their labelled shelves in four cupboards.
At 10am, we began receiving our first clients. In order to access the food bank, a person needs a voucher, issued by an organisation such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, the probation service, social services and even GPs. How much food somebody is given depends on whether they are only feeding themselves or other members of their family, so volunteers use a table indicating the quantity of each product to be put into the parcel per person. Apart from baked beans (two tins for a single person, by the way), other dry food includes soup, pasta sauce, tuna, corned beef, custard and sweetcorn. You can see the full list here.
The idea behind the food parcels is to provide clients with a nutritionally balanced diet, so I was pleased to see some fruit and vegetables on offer (this week including blueberries and asparagus, no less!) as well as bread and a small number of boxes of eggs. Clients are able to choose whether they want rice or pasta and tea or coffee in their parcel, and can also state any dietary requirements. One gentleman this week said he wasn’t too fussy, but made it clear where he stood on anchovies; another was a vegetarian, and Southampton having a sizeable Asian community meant several specified no pork.
Clients are offered a hot drink when they arrive and I noticed some of the volunteers going over to chat with them while they waited for their food parcel to be made up. My work with Crisis has brought me in contact with people living on the bread line before, so I felt comfortable talking to the food bank clients – something that can be strangely daunting at first for some. As with Crisis, I got to meet some very interesting people, with some unexpected life stories to share. The food bank reinforced what I’d already learnt at Crisis: there really is no such thing as a typical ‘homeless’ or ‘poor’ person, and the circumstances by which they have arrived in a situation of needing to rely on food donations are hugely diverse.
I’m curious to see if any of the clients I met this week will be back next Monday, but obviously I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’d love to chat more to the Iranian client who came in, and spoke to me about his experiences of living abroad, for example. He was easy to talk to and as I’ve also worked in a few different countries, we had lots to discuss. It’s odd building up a rapport with somebody in a short space of time and knowing you may never see them again. That being said, it can only be a good sign if a client doesn’t need our services two weeks running. I’m looking forward to my own return though, and am keen to learn more about how running a food bank works.