My local food bank

Food banks are on the rise. In the last five years the use of Trussell Trust food banks has risen by 74% and the number of adults who are food insecure in Briatin has quadrupeled since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Malvern is a quaint and wealthy Victorian town that’s is well known for its picturesque hills, Edward Elgar and C.S Lewis. It’s the last place you’d expect to have a food bank. But it does, and the fact that one exists here goes to show just how deep the UK’s hunger crisis has become.

The early days

Dot and Mike are two of the founding volunteers of Malvern Hills Food Bank. In 2013 the couple went along to a meeting that had been convened by ‘Churches Together’ a group that operate a community café in Malvern. Volunteers in the café, who were used to giving out food to homeless and hungry people, had been alarmed by the increase in numbers over recent years and realised more needed to be done.

The group quickly established itself. 70 people responded to the initial call for volunteers which allowed them to get going straight away with shifts of 10 people working at a time. Food was donated from churches all over Malvern and local supermarkets provide a good chunk of the food. Waitrose provides 20% of the food, which is another telling sign of the town’s affluence. In “the early days” they actually had too much food donated, and with no dedicated storage units Dot, Mike and others stored food in their own houses and garages.

Nowadays the food bank has it’s own dedicated unit on an industrial estate and they work with 40 local referral agencies who connect clients with Malvern Hills Food Bank. They’re also linked up with surrounding food banks in Upton (the community fridge in Upton actually takes fruit and veg donations, which is good to know if you ever have a glut) and Worcester.

Impacts of COVID

The initial group have morphed into Trustees and everyone knows their roles. Dot, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, does less of the heavy lifting at the unit and now manages the charities publicity; Mike is “the computer man”. They’re also now a Trussell Trust foodbank, of which there are around 400 in the country. Nobody knows the exact figures, but it’s estimated that there are about the same number again of independent food banks, probably more now since COVID.

Research shows that vulnerability to food insecurity has worsened for the economically vulnerable under COVID conditions. Health problems has meant some people have had to self-isolate and become reliant on food parcels. Others have lost their jobs and livelihoods and are now struggling to afford basic essentials. In Malvern the number of food parcels provided each week has more than doubled since March. With the furlough scheme reaching an inevitable end and more people losing their jobs, Dot and Mike are both braced for another spike in demand for the food bank.

Interestingly, you can see that demand for the food bank went down over the summer as universal credit kicked in. Summer holidays and Christmases are usually the busiest times for food banks as families do not have access to ‘free school meal’ vouchers. This is commonly know as ‘holiday hunger’.

How it works

People end up needing the food bank for a whole series of reasons, most commonly it’s because they’ve lost their job, are suffering mental or physical health problems, have become homeless or have gone through a divorce. Malvern Hills Food Bank, just like every other Trussell Trust food bank in the UK, is there to provide emergency, stop-gap food for people until they have managed to find longer-term solutions – such as a job, benefits or other state support. This means that the food bank doesn’t have ‘regulars’.

Each person gets a food parcel, so if a family of four need help then they will receive four food parcels. Parcels aren’t just filled with food, but basic essentials such as toiletries and household cleaning products are included as this “helps to give someone a sense of wellbeing, if they can keep their house and themselves clean”, Dot explains to me. Specific orders can also include pet food, or baby food and nappies, and they always try to put special treats in the parcels around Christmas time.

Ensuring that each parcel is well balanced is always the tricky bit, especially when there’s no way of including fresh fruit and veg and you’re dealing with a year’s supply of baked beans in your unit. Each parcel is made up with soup, beans, pasta, tinned meat, tinned fish, UHT milk, tea, coffee, tinned tomatoes, spaghetti, packet soup, pasta sauces and tinned vegetables. Dot tries her best to make sure there’s always some pasta sauce as well as some tins of vegetables, so that people have enough to be able to make some meals out of the ingredients. Dot admits though, it’s hard to always get a balance. She reminds me that some people don’t event have cooking facilities, or know how to, and “at the end of the day we just need to fill tummies, we need to provide something to sustain people”.

Baked Beans seem to be the donors choice at the moment. Malvern’s food bank has got enough beans for the next year and food banks all over the country are reporting similar. Most food banks will have a list of food on their website that they’re in short supply of, so it’s always best to check this before making your purchases. Money is an even better contribution, because that allows the food bank to buy exactly what they need to ensure a more balanced and effective food parcel can be given out.

If you, or someone you know needs emergency help from a food bank, then contact the Trussell Trust’s free helpline on 0808 2082138 who will be able to provide you with more information.

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