Your foodbank needs you this Christmas

Andrew Stewart-Darling packing food hampers to give out to people from the Stour Valley Vineyard Church. ENGANL00120131223141225
Andrew Stewart-Darling packing food hampers to give out to people from the Stour Valley Vineyard Church. ENGANL00120131223141225

We all have our own idea of the perfect Christmas. But, chances are, at the heart of it is the family clustered around a table laden with food.

Sharing Christmas dinner is one of the magic moments of the season ... even if the pressure to get everything just right can add a large helping of festive stress.

But what if the worry was not whether the roast potatoes would be crisped to perfection, but if you could afford to put food on the table at all?

That is the stark reality facing hundreds of families across our region.

The anguish of wondering how you will pay for your next meal is bad enough at any time.

At Christmas, as others look forward to turkey, pudding, and “maybe just one more mince pie”, it must feel more crushing than ever.

In the coming weeks our local foodbanks will be calling for help to bring some seasonal cheer to people struggling to buy even the basics of life.

All year round they provide an emergency lifeline to families and individuals who – for all kinds of reasons – suddenly find they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Food boxes packed with donated non-perishable staples like pasta, canned vegetables and fish, and breakfast cereals are handed out to people in need.

But in November and December they step up a gear to ensure they can give not just the essentials, but some of the seasonal luxuries most of us take for granted.

Christmas cakes, puddings, mince pies, biscuits, sweets and chocolate treats will be needed and, as ever, the foodbanks are depending on kind-hearted donors to help.

Regular collection points exist in each town and in some cases extra ones are added as Christmas approaches.

They are often put in supermarkets in the hope that shoppers will buy extra items to donate.

Ten years ago, foodbanks were a rarity. Now it is more unusual to find a town without one.

In market towns where the idea of a family going hungry was once unthinkable, scores of food parcels may be provided every month.

The reasons vary enormously. It could be the sudden loss of income through redundancy, benefit delays, or family break-ups.

Proposed cuts in working tax credits and child benefit are causing concern for fear more families will find themselves unable to cope.

For recipients, going for the first time to collect a food parcel is often one of the hardest steps they have ever had to take.

But the foodbank organisers stress that it could happen to almost anyone. As one put it: “We tell people, you need help today. It could be us tomorrow.”

In Sudbury the Storehouse foodbank was started by the Stour Valley Vineyard Church in 2007, in response to a phone call from social services asking them to feed a young lad who was homeless and in trouble.

It now has around 40 collection points in Sudbury and surrounding villages, and also offers money management courses and acts as a bridge to get further support for people in crisis.

“A wide social mix of people use our services,” says the church’s senior pastor Andrew Stewart-Darling, “from single parent families falling on hard times to young people in recovery programmes.

“It takes a lot of courage to walk through our door and ask for help. The stories of abject hardship never get any easier to hear.

“We aim to restore their self-esteem and self-worth. To that end we often say: ‘Take it. Tomorrow it could be us.”

In Bury St Edmunds the foodbank is run by the Gatehouse charity, in partnership with churches and other organisations,

They took on the job of collecting and distributing food in 2012 although they have provided Christmas hampers for disadvantaged people for 20 years.

Chief executive Amanda Bloomfield says: “Our recipients come from any walk of life. So many people are only one pay cheque away from needing a food parcel.

“Often they are working and have young families. They may be on zero hours contracts and one of the problems is that when their hours change, benefits can’t be adjusted quickly enough.”

She says there is also a hidden homelessness problem in Bury. “Quite a lot of people are sofa-surfers, staying at friends’ houses but with no home of their own.”

Gatehouse volunteers start wrapping Christmas hampers in July. Children come in from local schools to help, and last year 354 hampers were distributed.

While donors may automatically think of giving food, cash is needed too. “We need donations towards our running costs to continue the service,” Amanda added.

“We are really grateful for the generosity of people in Bury who make it all possible.”

Haverhill Foodbank is one of several poverty-relief services run by the town’s REACH Community Projects.

REACH, staffed by around 70 volunteers, also has a busy debt centre, furniture bank, and drop-in centre that offers help filling in official forms.

Organisers believe the debt and budgeting advice may be why demand for its food parcels has not gone up, bucking the national trend. But they worry recent welfare reforms will worsen the situation of clients already struggling to cope.

“We’ve been working in the community for 10 years now, originally as a debt centre run by Henry Wilson,” says REACH operations manager Ann Merrigan.

“In an average month around 45 food parcels will be given out here and we’ve noticed our numbers haven’t increased in comparison to national statistics. We’d like to think this is as a result of us trying to get to the root of the problem.”

The foodbank, part of the national Trussell Trust network, relies on regular donations of food from churches, schools and individuals, and supermarket collection points.

“We know that for many it is a big step to come through the door and ask for help,” said Ann. “However, we do also have a number who feel rather at home with us as we continue to offer emotional support where we can along with the vital cup of tea and biscuit.”

Newmarket foodbank is run by Churches Together’s Open Door charity and grew out of one of the country’s oldest modern-style foodbanks.

It was started in the early 2000s by two homelessness charities in Cambridge before merging with Open Door in 2008.

General manager John Durrant said their recipients came from all walks of life.

Sudden temporary loss of income through benefit sanctions was a common reason for needing help.

“I also think more welfare cuts will inevitably lead to more demand for our services,” he says.

“We are slightly unusual in instead of giving out boxes of food we have a little shop where people can select what they want.

“A lot of them hate asking for help. They find it demeaning. We do our best to make them welcome, and make no judgement on why they are here.

“Clients must be referred to us, usually by the CAB, councils, probation service, social services or churches.

“We have an appointments system so that when they are here they have some privacy.”

He added that the generosity of supporters who kept the project supplied with food was amazing.

Waveney Foodbank provides the service in Diss, as well as Eye, Bungay, Harleston and Long Stratton.

It has been operating for three years, with its warehouse on Broome Airfield and distribution centres staffed by around 70 volunteers, some of whom have been recipients of food parcels themselves.

“We try to reach as many people as possible in what is a largely rural area,” says its spokesman Graham Reardon.

“We are well supported by local churches, schools and clubs, so that food and money supply generally meets demand.

“Our largest category of clients is those in work whose pay is too low, but there are many others on benefits which get sanctioned for a large number of unfair reasons.”

One client, who went on a pre-booked and paid-for family holiday after being made redundant, said they had their benefit stopped for six weeks for missing a signing-on day even though the DWP had been told in advance.

“It must be dreadful for people to have to admit they can’t feed themselves or their family,” said Graham.

“They come to us upset and embarrassed. Our volunteers are carefully trained to be sensitive, caring and confidential.”