A busy month

June has flown by and I’ve somehow not managed to blog at all, until faced by the prospect of not even having a single post this month, I decided I’d better pull my finger out and get typing! My absence has partly been due to technical difficulties (ie. a rubbish computer!), but partly I’ve just been busy with more outdoor, sunshiney activities than blogging.

Anyway, here’s a quick roundabout of some of my activities…

  • Curb cooked a thank you lunch for the volunteers at our local repair cafe. I’ve always been curious about the cafe, so it was good to see it in action. The idea behind the cafe is to encourage people to fix broken household items, rather than throwing them away and buying more. We cooked a Mexican themed meal, which was accompanied by smoothies and a fruit crumble to finish.
  • Last week, Curb also had a stall serving snacks at Southampton’s first upcycled fashion show. It was awesome to see the creations that local volunteers had worked so hard on, as well as to experience a fashion show – albeit without any supermodels! Among my favourite outfits were two dresses, one made from a re-purposed table cloth and the other from net curtains. It was inspiring to see what can be done with a bit of imagination and a sewing machine.
  • Almost a year after I started volunteering at the food bank, I finally got round to having my induction!! It was nice to meet people from the other food banks, and I did actually learn the odd new thing or two, but let’s face it, when is health and safety aspects of lifting trays of tinned food ever going to be exciting?!
  • In July, Curb is taking over the Community Corner at our local wholefoods co-op, Rice Up. We’ll be displaying posters and information about what we do to raise awareness of food waste and ways of preventing it.

I’ll have to try harder to balance being in the garden with being in front my laptop next month, although I could simply combine the two…!

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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.

Stalk soup

At Southampton City Mission food bank, we’re lucky enough to work with local supermarkets, who provide us with fresh food for our clients, as well as tinned goods. While our supplies of the latter remain fairly predictable (soup, baked beans, tuna, pasta and the like), there’s no telling what fruit and veg will come our way on any given week or how much of it there will be. Carrots and potatoes are fairly standard, but the supermarkets also send along all kinds of gems: blueberries, avocadoes, asparagus, melon… even pak choi! Yesterday, however, we were slightly taken aback by the discovery of a small plastic bag of broccoli stalks!

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I wasn’t quite sure whether to be pleased somebody had clearly had their anti-food waste hat on, or slightly put out that somebody had thought it acceptable to give us food that would normally get put in the bin. We didn’t feel it was appropriate to offer the stalks to the clients, so I ended up taking them home and following the success of my salad soup there seemed only one logical way forward: stalk soup! I would have loved to jazz up my soup with a bit of stilton, or walnut and feta (as suggested in my Abel & Cole cook book), but I didn’t have anything that lent itself to broccoli, so plain-ish broccoli it was. I say plain-ish because I did add in ginger and red chili, along with onion and garlic, a handful of spinach leaves I had left in the bag and, of course, some vegetable stock. This was my soup in progress:

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The red chili turned out to be hotter than I anticipated, so after blending, I stirred in some lemon and natural yogurt to take away some of the kick. Here’s what the finished – very yummy tasting – soup looked like: IMG_20150210_181630 Not bad for a bag of free broccoli stalks, eh?!

Christmas at the food bank

It’s been a while since I wrote about volunteering at Southampton City Mission’s food bank, and as yesterday was the last time I’ll be there until 2015, it seemed like a good occasion for a round up of what’s been happening recently.

We’ve been lucky to have got a generous donation of advent calendars from our local Sainsbury’s, which have been a nice addition to the food parcels. It was great to see a little girl’s face light up last week when we presented her with a Hello Kitty advent calendar, although her dad did confess she already had one at home! Well, you can never have too many treats around this time of year, and the adults have also been getting festive food as part of their parcel, such as Christmas puddings, Christmas cake, mince pies and variety packs of chocolates. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s lovely to be able to give people something that’s going to make them smile and that they will enjoy eating, as well as the usual food we distribute.

Some of the other volunteers have told me that the run up to Christmas last year got a bit crazy, with people having to queue up to get their food parcel. Monday was pretty busy, and now I’ve started working on the front desk for part of the day, things can get hectic. While I’m on the desk, I have to take calls from referral agencies and anyone else who phones up with a query. Referral agencies usually ask us before issuing a client with a voucher, so that we can check our database to see if the client has been given a food parcel before, and if so, how many. I also have to greet clients when they come in, make sure they get a hot drink if they want one and take down their food preferences, before passing over the voucher to another volunteer to make up the parcel. The information on the paper vouchers then has to be entered on our computer system. All of these tasks are straightforward enough, but trying to keep on top of them simultaneously is a good exercise in multitasking! I’m enjoying finding out more about how the whole system works however, and learning how to deal with problems or unusual cases that come up.

Being Christmas, and with all the media attention food banks have been attracting recently, we’ve had two reporters from local radio stations visiting in the past month. I was sorely tempted to get my five minutes of fame today by agreeing to do an interview, but sensibly referred the guy on to our food bank manager… I’m sure no good would have come out of me trying to spout intelligent sound bites, even if only on local radio!

People can be extremely generous at this time of year, and I know friends who buy the Big Issue, for example, or donate money, or buy charity Christmas cards or presents. It’s wonderful that we are so charitable in the UK and there are no end of good causes to support. As I say goodbye to SCM for 2014 though, what I really hope is that anyone reading this will spare a brief thought on Christmas Day for the many people who sadly aren’t going to be able to have Christmas dinner this year. Those of us who will have full plates and full stomachs don’t always appreciate how lucky we are.

Five food bank facts

People often ask me about food banks and what it’s like to volunteer at one, so here’s a bit of information about them.

1. Food banks aren’t just about food.

They also provide items like toiletries and nappies… and pet food! Plus they offer an opportunity for clients to have a chat with somebody who won’t judge them, and get information about other sources of help.

2. Food banks aren’t a free for all.

Everyone who uses a food bank is referred by a professional such as a social or health worker or by charities or organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau.

3. Food banks are only a stop gap.

Depending on the food bank, clients receive 3-5 days worth of food, which is supposed to provide a nutritionally balanced diet. Clients are limited to a certain number of visits to a food bank per year (usually 2 or 3).

4. Food banks aren’t only for people who are homeless.

Many people using food banks do actually have a roof over their head and may be in work. There are countless reasons why somebody might need to rely on a food bank.

5. Food banks are supported by supermarkets.

Food bank donations come from supermarkets as well as members of the public. Tesco is a partner of the Trussell Trust, for example, and increases public donations by a further 30%.