Happy birthday to me!

It’s been just over a year since I started volunteering at my local food bank, and blogging about my experiences (as well as quite a few other things!). Thinking back on my year at Southampton City Mission, what stands out is how many lovely people I’ve met – both clients and volunteers. Talking to people while they wait to get their food parcels is one of my favourite parts of volunteering. I’ve had such interesting conversations with local people I’d never have otherwise come into contact with. I’ve also had some moving encounters with clients who have absolutely nothing and have been unfortunate victims of circumstance. These conversations have reminded me why I started volunteering at a food bank in the first place and, a year on, have made me realise that I’d like to be able to do something more than just offer a listening ear, so at the moment I’m finding out about other organisations I could volunteer with in Southampton, in the hope I’ll be able to make a bigger difference and to develop new skills.

In the past twelve months, I’ve also really enjoyed connecting with folks through blogging and Twitter who share my ‘love food, hate waste’ philosophy. But I’ve enjoyed discovering more generally how big the zero waste community is, plus how many people out there – like myself – are trying to declutter their lives by being more minimalistic. Something that’s had a big impact on me since I started my blog is Project 333; I own about 50% less clothes than I used to thanks to Courtney Carver’s website, and as I’ve never been remotely into clothes, shoes, handbags or fashion anyway, I now have a pretty small wardrobe!

Who knows what exciting things might be in store in my next blogging year?! I hope I continue to enjoy writing as much as I have this year! 🙂

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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.

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 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.