Helping non-English speaking food bank clients

Volunteering at the busiest, city centre branch of Southampton City Mission’s food bank means I encounter many clients who have only a basic level of English or, sometimes, virtually no English at all. Like other cities in the UK, Southampton has a sizeable Polish community, along with refugees from countries such as Somalia. While we can obviously still make up a food parcel for somebody who doesn’t speak English, it does make finding out basic information like their date of birth or the ages of their children more problematic. Being an English teacher, I’ve found myself better able to communicate with our non-English speaking clients than volunteers who haven’t had as much practise as me! For example, I extracted a date of birth from a baffled foreign client once by writing down my own birthday to illustrate what I meant. The main set of questions we ask a client when they come in is what types of food they’d prefer in their parcel. I originally hit on the idea of holding up packets of rice, pasta, tea, etc so the client could indicate which they wanted, but then decided it would be more efficient to have a set of pictures all the volunteers could easily use, and came up with this: Capture As we get a fair number of Poles coming in, I asked a Polish speaking friend to translate our standard questions, so clients can read and point at the sheet to indicate their answer: Capture Many clients who visit us are experiencing stress related to their current situation – be it because they’ve lost their job, haven’t received their benefits, are struggling to feed their children, or any number of other reasons. People find it difficult to accept help, even when it’s offered, and embarrassment at having to rely on a handouts from a food bank is a widespread feeling amongst our clients. I know from living abroad myself, things that are straightforward in your own country can be a nightmare to negotiate in a foreign country, particularly when you don’t speak the language. I’m hoping my new sheets will help non-English speakers to feel a bit more at ease when they come to collect their food parcel, and also like we’ve made an effort to try to consider their needs.


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