A food bank poem

This poem is pinned up on a notice board at the Trussell Trust in Salisbury. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly who wrote it, but hopefully they won’t mind me sharing it, as it’s a lovely poem. I like the way it so neatly summarises the different aspects of a food bank, particularly the fact that volunteers often provide a listening ear and advice, as well as food itself. I hope you enjoy it.

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Being a Christmas hamper hamster!

December is a busy time of year, especially for charities. After helping the Trussell Trust pack Christmas shoe boxes to send to vulnerable people in Bulgaria a couple of weeks ago, on Wednesday I became a Christmas hamper hamster for the evening!

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It was great to be back at the Trussell Trust’s warehouse in Salisbury, where I volunteered over Summer. Unlike Summer, when it was just myself and one or two other volunteers sorting donations and packing food parcels, there were between 10 to 15 of us hamper hamsters. With the warehouse already full of donated festive food and food parcels that had been prepared earlier in the week by other volunteers, space was short. But as is generally the way when you throw a bunch of volunteers together, we good naturedly muddled along and had some laughs along the way.

I was glad I was familiar with the layout of the warehouse and the procedures for packing the food parcels, because it meant I could show other people what to do and where things were. Some of the volunteers knew each other, but given we were essentially a bunch of strangers, I think we organised ourselves quite efficiently. One gentleman took on the role of assembling the flat packed cardboard boxes, for example, while another monitored the amount of food on the shelves and re-stocked them when necessary.

The goal of our frenzy of activity was to help the Trussell Trust make up regular food parcels for people who will be in need of them over the holiday season, as well as special Christmas parcels. These contained festive favourites like mince pies, Christmas puddings, snacks (eg. crisps, nuts), chocolates, biscuits, etc. Most volunteers were packing for about three hours, so we got through a lot of boxes. And even though we were hamper hamsters, we were very well behaved and didn’t nibble on anything!

Christmas shoe boxes

The Trussell Trust is best known for its network of food banks across the UK. Not many people know their work actually started in Bulgaria (one of the poorest countries in Europe) and that they still run projects there to help people living in poverty. One of these projects involves sending Christmas parcels to Bulgarians, such as orphans, refugees and housebound elderly. This video shows last year’s Christmas boxes being packed and delivered:

On Saturday I joined some other volunteers in a warehouse in Salisbury to help get the shoe boxes ready to be driven over to Bulgaria in a lorry. Volunteering to put stuff into boxes probably doesn’t sound that great, but it was actually brilliant fun and the day flew by.

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Although the boxes had already been filled by churches, schools, community groups and so on, they still had to be checked (for banned items like alcohol, knives, medication) and labelled so that when they arrive in Bulgaria, it’s clear who the contents of the box are suitable for. There were shoe boxes for adult men, adult women, babies and children of various ages, including teenagers.

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While the contents of the boxes were age and gender specific, they almost all included sweets and chocolate, warm clothing (eg. gloves, socks, hat), and toiletries (eg. toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, sponge). It was lovely to see how much thought and effort people had put into making up their shoe boxes. There were lots done by children, who’d obviously gone through their toy collection and included anything they didn’t play with anymore! This was one of my favourite boxes as it was so lovingly decorated:

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I was also touched by the handmade card below which I found in another box:

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Once complete, the parcels were stacked inside larger cardboard boxes, so they could be loaded onto the truck. By the end of Saturday, after nearly two weeks of volunteers sorting out them out, approximately 8 500 Christmas boxes were ready to be taken to Bulgaria. This is pretty impressive in itself, but against the backdrop of the madness of Black Friday, it was reassuring to know how many people in my local area aren’t giving in to mindless spending, but have thought about those less fortunate than themselves this Christmas.

An alternative Halloween

I wanted to share this excellent article, written by the Trussell Trust, that urges people to consider Halloween from the perspective of those experiencing food poverty:

Everyone who receives an emergency food box from the Trussell Trust has been referred by a frontline care professional; these are people in genuine crisis, and the true extent of their suffering is often concealed. For these families, a Halloween celebration is out of the question.

It’s a sobering thought that while many of us will be – ahem – deliberately hiding at home with the lights off, pretending we’re not in so we don’t have to hand out sweets to neighbourhood kids, there are some families who would really like to be out trick or treating tonight, but simply can’t afford to.

More food bank logistics

In a previous post, I mentioned how large the distribution centre at the Trussell Trust’s head office is, and how the volume of food stored there means everything has to be carefully sorted according to expiry date. As one of the other volunteers told me, having been involved in logistics for the military, working in the distribution centre is right up his street. While the logistics behind the centre are probably not quite the same complexity as a military operation, it’s quickly become obvious to me that the system does need to be continually managed to enable it to function smoothly. It’s a good thing the Trussell Trust has no shortage of volunteers!

The first stage of the distribution centre is dealing with the donated food. To keep track of exactly how much food is coming in, all donations get weighed and this information is recorded with details of where the donations have come from. Often the regular donations come from local churches or community groups. The carrier bags of food need to be sorted according to product and date. The front section of the warehouse (below) is where this happens.

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As you can see, there’s a lovely big table which gives us lots of space for sorting and unpacking. The boxes around the walls on this side of the warehouse are where food that needs to be used first is stored. The labelled boxes are more or less arranged in the same order as the packing list for the food parcels, which makes things much easier, as you simply have to follow the boxes around the room. You start with cereal in the back corner and make your way round to treats/chocolate at the end.

What you can see in the picture above, however, isn’t all the food stored in the distribution centre. On the other side of the warehouse, food with longer expiry dates are held until they’re needed.

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The amount of food itself is quite mind boggling; it’s basically the equivalent of a small supermarket. But what’s truly astonishing is when you start thinking about how every single item given to the Trussell Trust and other food banks is donated. Free. To complete strangers. It’s great to know that so many people think about helping others on a regular basis. And anyone who has ever bought a few extra tins for a food bank with their weekly shop will know how much more satisfying it is to contribute in this way than simply dropping some loose change into a collection box. The feeling that you’re helping somebody is more tangible and personal; you know somebody in your local community will eat the very same soup you’ve donated.

Of course, the sad part of all of this generosity is that people need to donate to food banks in the first place, and those who rely on food parcels are growing in numbers. Food banks are only ever intended as a stop gap. So what fundamental societal changes are necessary to get to the point where an organisation like the Trussell Trust is shrinking rather than expanding?