Letter from the Foodbank

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

It’s our foodbank’s first winter. We started collecting food and giving it to people who haven’t got any in August. Since then we have had to open two more distribution centres in our corner of Norfolk, and we have two more planned for the near future. When we started, we were the 194th UK foodbank to be founded under our parent charity, the Trussell Trust. Since then, 80 more have been set up. Between us, we have given three days’ worth of food to 100,000 hungry people in the last six months. Ours is a success story. But what sort of society needs that sort of success?

The vast majority of the food that we distribute is given by individuals, much of it at supermarket collections, when we invite shoppers to buy an extra item and give it to us as they leave. I was manning the collection boxes outside Morrisons one day when an ancient couple shuffled out, pushing a trolley stacked high with trays of cat food. They looked as if they would have fallen over if they hadn’t had something to hang on to, but as they approached the exit, the old man disengaged himself, unhooked a plastic bag that I hadn’t seen hanging on the back of the trolley, hobbled across, smiled, and gave it to me. I thanked him, and he hobbled back to his cat food and his wife. After three or four steps, they stopped, and the man made his unsteady way back to me. This time, his expression was anxious. ‘Those people you are looking after —’ he said, ‘they will be all right, won’t they?’


It was my turn to answer the phone, and the man at the Citizens Advice Bureau asked if we could do something for a mother and her 13-year-old asthmatic daughter, and do it pronto. She lived out in the sticks, and couldn’t get into town to collect a food parcel. Could we deliver one? Of course. When I got there, the house was cold, damp and dark. Mum explained that she had been passed from benefit pillar to benefit post for six weeks since she had had to give up her job because of illness, and she had no money for electricity, gas or food. When I brought in her parcel and explained that it was what nutritionists had calculated to be three days’ worth, she told me it contained more than she had long been used to buying in a week. Then she wept.

Five per cent of people helped by foodbanks are homeless, and that presents a particular challenge, as the food that we collect and distribute needs to be cooked. The first homeless person to come to us was a big man who had been living for months in a small car, and we gave him a picnic stove and a couple of pans so he could use his three-day food parcel. But people living on the streets have nowhere to store food or the kit needed to cook it on — what can we do for them? The local branch of the St Vincent de Paul charity came up with an answer: a rough sleepers’ kit, containing a boil-in-the-bag meal with a single-use chemical heating pack, a cup of coffee in a self-warming can, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of water, a carton of fruit juice, a foil survival blanket and some toiletries. It won’t solve the problem of homelessness, but in the bleak mid-winter, it might very well save a life.

Ours is a radically ecumenical Christian undertaking, and before we open a distribution session we say a prayer. Last week, it fell to me to lead it: we said the ‘Our Father’. Afterwards, one of our volunteers pointed out that between us, we had said three different versions of it. I hadn’t noticed.

A smart 4X4 drew up outside what we grandly call our ‘warehouse’ — a church hall lined with shelves of donated food. The driver, a well-dressed woman in her sixties, got out and flung open the boot. It was stacked high with goodies: cakes, fancy biscuits, mince pies, multi-packs of crisps, and nets filled with gold-wrapped chocolate coins. None of those things appear on the list of basics we invite donors to contribute. We deal in survival fare: packets of pasta and cereals, tins of vegetables and meat, cartons of UHT milk and juice. Yes, we get a trickle of luxuries given by people who want our clients not just to survive, but to survive joyfully, but we had never taken a delivery of luxuries and luxuries alone. ‘Marvellous!’ I said. ‘Thank you! Where’s it all from?’, thinking that it had been collected by a local church or school. ‘It’s from me,’ she replied. ‘The government’s just given me my winter fuel payment. But I can afford to keep warm, and there are people who can’t afford to buy food.’

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Jayne EndBsl Jones

    I have been trying to get hold of the Cardigan branch to no avail!

    • Simon Gothard

      I didn’t realise they provided knitwear also.

  • alabenn

    You do not need a food bank if you drive there.
    Food banks users should stop smoking and drinking.
    If you have children and using food banks you are wasting the money for your kids on yourself.
    There is no reason for food banks except for lazy singletons.

    • Shorne

      The only references to cars that I can see in this article are a person living in one and people using them to deliver food. By the way you are also a smug,self -satisfied heartless git…every offence meant.

      • Simon Gothard

        He might be smug, self satisfied and heartless. But he is correct in everything that he posted snd i couldn’t have said it better myself.

        • Shorne

          So what does that make you?

        • Gareth

          No, if it were that simple, most people would have made those changes already. It’s a comment from someone who knows nothing of the circumstances upon which he is pronouncing. It’s easy to make such complacent, self-congratulatory comments from a position of ignorance. But not only is he smug, self satisfied and heartless, but he’s also wrong. It sickens me.

          • Simon Gothard

            No. No No No No you are wrong. If you smoke you don’t need a foodbank because you stop smoking and buy food. If you drive a car you don’t need a foodbank because you give up the car tax petrol tax and insurance and spend the money on dood. If you have children you DO NOT need a foodbank because the government(taxpayers) PAY YOU MONEY FOR YOUR CHILDREN in benefits.

    • Karl Montague

      You are wrong. First off, there aren’t enough jobs to go round (fact), so lots of people are out of work, whether they’re lazy (prove it or shut up) or not. Sanctions aren’t just affecting lazy people. The DWP has had sanction targets and people have been sanctioned for a variety of reasons, including sickness, dyslexia, and being too far away. Working people are using food banks, because there’s not enough hours, and one still has to pay the rent, buy clothes, transport, gas, electric. With no job, and no benefits (including housing benefit), what is the next step?
      I feel sorry for you. You make an argument based on something you pulled out of your behind (or someone else’s) – some sort of ignorant perception you have, I don’t know.
      Tell me this – what percentage of unemployed are lazy? Figures, please – that’s right, you don’t know. You are ignorant. You are wrong.

  • Judy Mansfield

    There but for the grace of god go I. We are all, if we did but realise, a whisper away from needing a FoodBank. Illness, redundancy, caring for an elderly parent, ever rising living costs… Who knows what may be the trigger that would turn me from a ‘have’ to a ‘have not’? Before anyone judges those who use a FoodBank, think about how they feel. They haven’t chosen to be in their position. Thank goodness there is still some compassion. I donate 20% of my food shop to FoodBank. I wish it could be more.

    • jojo

      I sincerely am glad for people like restores my faith in the Human race…I’m 53 educated intelligent so if bad times can happen to me they can happen to anyone..people need to be aware as times get harder n the financial squeeze gets tighter a lot more of us might have to use a foodbank whether we want to or not..alabenn beware!

  • jojo

    Who are we to judge anyone? There’s only one judge n that’s God our creator..I’ve never needed to use a foodbank n I hope I never have need to…but I’ve come pretty close..bullied at work till I had a breakdown then my boss wouldn’t pay me sick pay…fixed my bills into finances in chaos…no sick benefits..luckily the British legion gave me Asda cards to buy food with..I was a whiskers short of needing a foodbank people still have pride the majority don’t want to use the but like any system there’s alus those that abuse the system but that’s not a good enough reason to have no system at all.better to feed a few abusers of the system than to leave the genuine people to starve..alabenn have you ever known what its like to be in desperate need through no fault of your own if it happened to your friends or family would you still have the same views?

  • Philip Tomas

    People will always take free food. No wonder foodbanks are in such demand. Think I’ll take a look myself.

  • History Lover

    For some people these foodbanks are a Godsend. Under the last Labour Government there was no such thing in the area that I worked in. We had to rely on the Salvation Army, who were excellent but their nearest centre was about 15 miles away. Fortunately we had a minibus and a driver and he would regularly collect parcels for people. The situation that is described above, the mother who had had to give up her job and the benefit nightmare is quite familiar and we used to have to beg food vouchers from Tesco in order that we could give them to people in an emergency. I am sure that there will be unscrupulous people who will use them fraudulently but the great majority will be in need.

    Even if people are in work they fall on hard times, rack up a bit of debt, maybe your hours are cut at work. Your car breaks down and you need it to get to work you take on more debt and suddenly you can’t cope. There but for the grace of God go all of us.

  • Yorkieeye

    I wonder why I’m paying so much bloody tax if people in our ‘welfare state’ don’t have enough food! I guess there will always be some who fall by the wayside for various reasons, they have always been there and good Chriistians like nothng more than the loaves and fishes thing. But seriously what is this about? The one circumstance quoted was a benefits mess up, suggesting that the help is there but the will to do the job is not. Arses need kicking in our complacent bureaucracies or stop picking my pockets.