December 24, 2014 by Sian Rowland
It’s almost Christmas time and whether you celebrate or not it’s a good time to reflect on life. As a freelancer I have flexibility in my working hours (this is the same as an actor ‘resting’ by the way) so when I saw a shout out on Twitter that my local foodbank needed emergency volunteers I was able to down tools and help. Like most people I always mean to do more and help out but life gets in the way. This time however, I actually sent the email there and then and committed to doing a stint.
Foodbanks have been a political hot potato (no pun intended) in recent years. The rise and rise of the number of people who use foodbanks is frightening. There has also been a lot of dismissive talk about foodbanks- people can wander in and grab a bag of shopping if they can’t be bothered to go to the supermarket; they’re for lazy people who can’t be bothered to find work; for immigrants whose idea of heaven is a trip to the UK and a tin of Tesco Basics beans. This infographic on foodbank use tells a story.
Clients are in fact, referred to foodbanks by frontline staff like social workers and healthcare professionals. They are issued with a voucher for three days emergency food which is redeemed at a local centre. It is by no means a jolly and is often a stopgap between meagre benefit payments.
The centre (in a church) was organised chaos. There were over thirty volunteers (including teens from a local secondary school) sorting food, weighing, measuring and collecting. Over the course of the day donations arrived in a steady stream- individuals dropping off bags, school, church and synagogue collections. The one thing that struck me was that the donors were every age, ethnicity and religion and was a reflection of the local community. I had been out with some choir friends the evening before and asked them to bring a small donation if they could. The two bags I ended up with were so heavy I could barely carry them!
I was put on shopping duty- I had a shopping list for one person and a trolley and collected supplies from the store room. One packet of cereal, three tins of soup, one litre of longlife milk etc. Once I had collected the items, I put them in bags, weighed them, and filled in the form. The bags then went into a crate ready for delivery or collection. The crates stacked up and I was promoted to shopping for a family of five. Drivers (also volunteers) packed their cars and vans with the crates and set off on their delivery routes.
The foodbank was using a church as a temporary centre so everything had to be spotless before we left for the day. We stacked the remaining food floor to ceiling in a storage container outside. The leader of the centre told us the store would be used up within ten days. Frightening.
It was a humbling experience and an eye-opener too. Three days of emergency food is great but you get what you’re given and it’s not that exciting. As most of us don’t have much money either the majority of donated food is supermarket basics ranges. I tried to balance my bags with a range of basics and one or two brand names too. And I snuck in a few extra sweets and chocolates too but don’t tell anyone.
At Christmas it’s great to donate time, money or food to a great cause but when January comes round there will still be people struggling to keep body and soul together. Let’s hope we can keep the foodbanks going until the day they’re not needed any more.