Food bank stories: a legacy

Usually visitors to Southampton City Mission’s food bank walk in clutching the pink voucher they have been given by the agency that referred them to us. Today, however, a lady came in without a voucher, and looked around as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do or who to speak to. It turned out that she wanted to make a donation to the food bank and was wondering what type of items we were after. After thanking her for her generosity, one of the volunteers took the woman aside to tell her more about the items we distribute.

Once the lady had left, my colleague told me a lovely story. The woman’s mother had recently died, leaving behind her four children. Apparently their family wasn’t particularly well off when they were growing up, but every week when she was out shopping, the woman’s mother bought something to give to the food bank. Upon their mother’s death, her children had got together and decided they’d like to continue supporting SCM as a way of honouring and remembering their mum, and told us they wanted to make regular donations from now on.

We were all touched, of course, and chuffed that people had chosen to help a local organisation, rather than just writing a cheque for a national charity. I think one of the great things about food bank donations is that they are more concrete and ‘real’ than sticking some loose change into a tin, or sponsoring a friend to climb a mountain. When you spend money on buying something for a food bank, you know exactly what will happen to your donation and what your money is providing. Perhaps that sense of immediacy is one reason people give so generously to organisations like SCM.

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Food banks stories: Jo and her daughter

It was nice to be back amongst the beans at Southampton City Mission’s food bank this Monday, after having had a couple of weeks away. Many studies have identified a link between time spent volunteering and happiness levels, and my own experience definitely supports this. I might be a bit tired after volunteering, but I’m always in a good mood!

One reason I think the volunteering I do with SCM and Crisis is so rewarding is because of the people element. By this I mean things like coming into contact with complete strangers and finding ways to connect with them. Or putting somebody at ease with some small talk or a friendly smile. Perhaps just listening to somebody else’s concerns. Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve had – conversations that have stuck in my head for ages afterwards – have been with Crisis Christmas guests, or people using SCM’s food bank.

I had such a conversation with Jo (not her real name) on Monday. Another volunteer asked me if I could make up a food parcel for Jo and her seven year old daughter, and mentioned that as this was the first time she’d used a food bank, she was feeling a bit embarrassed and upset. The volunteer also said Jo enjoyed cooking, so was happy to eat anything we had going. Clients who come in and tell us they’re not fussy are great, as we inevitable have some fresh produce like sprouts or cabbage or melon to distribute that not everybody will want.

After I’d made up Jo’s food parcel, I took it over to her and said that I’d heard she liked cooking. I love the way the smallest of comments can open the door to a conversation. Jo was friendly and bubbly and started telling me how her daughter liked baking. It just so happened we had had a donation of marzipan and other baking products in recently, and Jo was delighted that she and her daughter could make some cakes. (We were delighted we’d freed up some space in our cupboard and the marzipan had found a good home!).

Jo explained she was at the food bank because her friend had come round to her house and when he went to make them both a cup of tea, had discovered her cupboards were virtually empty. Her friend insisted Jo went to the Citizens Advice Bureau, where she was given a food voucher. She said she felt terrible about having to rely on a food bank, and that she tried to protect her daughter from the truth about their financial circumstances. I was horrified to learn that as a result of wanting to make sure her daughter is properly fed and can concentrate at school, Jo only eats three meals a week.

Part of what I have come to hope is the result of blogging about my volunteering experiences is that more people realise how skewed the image the media portrays of those living on the breadline is. Jo didn’t come across as a ‘scrounger’. She didn’t come across as a bad parent. I’m pretty sure the reason she doesn’t have enough money to feed herself and her daughter isn’t because she’s spending it all on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Bad things can happen to good people. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But when bad things happen to good people, they are still good people.

Shopping, food bank style

The two shopping trollies below are parked in the corner of my local Sainsbury’s. Food banks mostly receive the bulk of their donations at harvest and/or Christmas, but the Southampton City Mission trollies are a permanent feature in the supermarket and excitingly always have bits and pieces in them whenever I go past. I confess I sometimes try subtly peering over, just out of curiosity to see what’s inside, but often the trollies are virtually full to the top anyway.

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It’s really nice to know how generous the community is, although such generosity isn’t limited to Southampton, of course. I was touched recently to get a lovely email from a friend and fellow blogger who lives in London, who told me she and her husband regularly contribute to a food bank, through their local Tesco:

We try to do this once a month – it’s amazing how many essentials you can get for just over a tenner, and how many meals that makes, especially for kids – and we hope it makes a difference somewhere.

Food banks have started providing ‘shopping lists’, explaining what items would be most useful, but I have to say, as somebody who’s now spent quite a lot of time sorting through these donations, I find that people tend to give the same types of food. That baked beans are one of the items SCM is never in short supply of goes without saying, and soup, pasta, rice and tuna are also plentiful. So here are five alternatives to the usual food bank fare:

  1. Vegetarian food
    • Macaroni cheese, veggie sausages/meatballs, lentils and pulses are all winners
    • Some thoughtful people also donate lactose and gluten free products
  2. Pet food
    • Clients sometimes ask for cat or dog food, and it’s great to be able to give pet food to somebody whose dog you can actually see sitting by the front door!
  3. Baby food
    • Nappies can also be very handy
  4. Treats
    • We love being able to give out a little something extra, like sweets, chocolates (fun sized bags are ideal), crackers, crisps, breadsticks, cereal bars or dried fruit
  5. Toiletries
    • Because if clients can’t afford to buy food, they may not be able to afford to buy toothpaste or shower gel either

Be it beans or baby food, food banks and those they help are always incredibly grateful for everything they receive, so if you happen to be passing a collection point while you’re next out and about, pop something inside.

Perks of the job

One of the perks of volunteering at a food bank is that there’s no shortage of edible freebies. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve given a home to two boxes of Dorset cereal, a packet of soup mix, some delicious tomatoes and three eggs. I was restrained on Monday and didn’t take home a family sized bag of crisps (I rarely eat crisps, but for the record, these taste amazing!), although several other volunteers swiped some. About a month ago, I also ended up with some bread, simply because the homeless guy who sits around the corner from the church – who I’d been intending to give it to – refused to take it as he already had a loaf!

The deal is essentially this: any food that’s out of date at Southampton City Mission is up for grabs. But not before the clients themselves have had a chance to grab it. Food that has a short expiry date or has very recently expired gets put onto a table for clients to help themselves. This week we had loads of the aforementioned crisps and some cranberry drinks, for example. We also leave out slightly more unusual food donations; things like giant bottles of sauerkraut (seriously!), tinned lychees, golden syrup and creamed coconut, along with bread that’s taken too much of a battering and fresh herbs.

Food on the ‘help yourself’ table inevitably gets whisked away by clients by the end of the day, which is great. The crisps were a big hit this week. One young lad came up to me with an Oliver Twist sort of expression on his face and asked if he could maybe have a second bag as they were his favourites. Even though the food we distribute is obviously free anyway, there’s something nice about the idea of clients getting an extra freebie.

It can happen to anyone

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For me, the hands down best part of volunteering at Southampton City Mission, is coming into contact with a hugely eclectic mix of people. You never know who’s going to walk through the door and what you might end up talking to them about.

The first year I worked with people experiencing homelessness at Crisis Christmas, I realised that pretty much everything I thought I knew about ‘the homeless’ was a myth. I had a lot of preconceived notions in my head (thanks in part to skewed portrayals in the media) that turned out to be quite far off the mark. Food bank clients also lend themselves to certain stereotypes. Not everyone who uses food banks is chavvy or homeless or uneducated or unemployed. This fact really hit home this afternoon.

When talking to food bank clients, the volunteers naturally ask questions to show interest, make the clients feel comfortable, and simply to find out a bit more about them in case we can do anything else to help. Often the clients are curious about us, though. Today I’d gone over to a well-dressed Asian man with his food parcel, and initiated a conversation as I usually do. We spoke a little and then he asked me how long I’d been volunteering and what I did the rest of the time. When I explained I work at Southampton University, his face lit up. It turned out that he used to work in the Student Centre for years and spoke about working on the different campuses, until he was made redundant.

Usually when I’ve seen a client off, I feel a glow of satisfaction at having sent them home with some food, after a good chat and a bit of a laugh. Some of the clients really make my day and I hope by chatting to them they go away feeling cheerful, and as if somebody does care. For the first time today, as I said goodbye to the Asian gentleman, I felt a deep sense of sadness. At one time, this man would have been one of my colleagues. I might have spoken to him, passed him in a hallway, queued behind him for my lunch.

What many people don’t realise is all it takes is a series of unfortunate circumstances and pretty much anyone can find themselves without a roof over their head or in need of a food bank. I’m employed by the University on a zero hour contract (shocking, but more common than you’d think), for example. I could easily find myself with no hours… I’d struggle to find another job that paid as well… I have limited savings and the cost of living continues to rise… It doesn’t take much to find yourself in debt, for things to spiral out of control, for a load of little events to build up and get out of hand.

The realisation that homelessness and food poverty can be experienced by just about anyone – and I’ve heard of a barrister being on the street, by the way – is extremely sobering. More people need to recognise the reality that poverty isn’t a situation you end up in just because you’re lazy, stupid, bad with money or from a certain social background. You never know what life can throw at you and there’s a certain arrogant complacency to believing something like losing your home could never happen to you.

The next time you see somebody begging in a doorway, selling the Big Issue on the street or busking on the tube, please don’t immediately dismiss them as losers and wasters. You have no idea how they came to be there.