It wasn’t so long ago that I walked into Southampton City Mission’s food bank and looked around in wonder at the amount of dry goods surrounding me. Now that I’ve been volunteering at SCM for a few weeks, I’ve got used to precariously balanced baked bean towers, the piles of rice and the pasta mound that threatens to collapse, Jenga-like, every time you remove a packet. As I discovered this week however, SCM has got nothing on the distribution centre at the Trussell Trust’s head office in Salisbury. Think warehouse. Think cash and carry. Think feeding of the five thousand. Well, nine hundred thousand actually, as that’s the approximate number of people who used a food bank in 2013-14.
As well as supplying the neighbourhood food banks, the Trussell Trust’s distribution centre is where food parcels get packed before being held for clients at various other locations. In other words, the centre isn’t actually a food bank itself, so I wasn’t working ‘on the front line’ like I do at SCM. I found it interesting to compare the different systems each organisation uses, from how the food is sorted to the contents of the food boxes themselves.
Due to the volume of food, everything at the Trust’s distribution centre is rigorously categorised according to its use by date. When I say ‘rigorously’, I mean tuna expiring in 2014 gets put away in an entirely different box to tuna expiring in 2015, 2016 or beyond. This is done for every single product (including the cat and dog food!) to prevent anything expiring before it can be given to clients. At SCM, while we check food is in date before storing it, we have such a rapid turnover of stock that we don’t need to be too strict about expiry dates. As you can see from one of our rather bare cupboards below, we often get through a large percentage of our supplies before re-filling from a separate storage facility.
The Trust’s food bank manager was kind enough to spend some time chatting to me and showing me around this week, and I learnt from her that a major food producer is working with the Trust to help check the nutritional content of the food parcels. Overall, SCM and the Trust provide clients with almost identical food but in different quantities. A single person visiting SCM will get one tin of rice pudding or custard, for example, whereas they’ll get two at the Trust. At SCM baked beans and spaghetti are considered separate items; at the Trust they are interchangeable. I’m not sure how much these slight differences matter, but it was interesting to pick up on the variations.
It’s no doubt my natural instinct for turning mess (bags of donated food) into order and tidiness (neatly stacked shelves) that meant I enjoyed working in the distribution centre. It was nice to do something practical, in addition to helping out the fundraising team in the office. Perhaps variety is the key to a satisfying volunteering role… as well as a nutritionally balanced food box!