Four tips for helping foodbanks
The Swansea East Side Food Bank made the news this summer when a spike in demand left stocks at a critically low level. It’s based at Mount Zion Baptist Chapel in Bonymaen, and is chaired by Baptist minister Chris Lewis. Here Chris shares practical advice on how to be intelligent givers to foodbanks
People ask us what we need, each week one of our volunteers posts general needs and shortages on our Facebook site. Some of our supporters are really interested in being intelligent givers. After running the foodbank for more than three years, we’ve learned a bit about the needs of people who seek our help. The sort of sensible, basic goods we buy on a routine shopping trip often help, but not in every case. Here’s why:
Sophie, one our young volunteers, was patiently writing ‘best before’ dates on the tops of baked bean cans, a pile of them. “If this lot fall down on me,” she said, “you’ll find my body underneath.”
“Yes,” said I, “having died of starvation as you haven’t got a tin opener!” At this, she giggled. Tins with ring pulls are helpful. Some people come to the foodbank having left home suddenly, in instances of domestic violence or eviction for example, with not much more than the clothes they are wearing, What is the point of giving someone food they can’t get into?
Think ‘Simplicity in preparation’
Every foodbank, I think, gets lots of dried pasta and bags of rice. That’s great, we give out lots with the jars of pasta sauce, tinned tomatoes, and meat, whatever can make a filling meal, or a series of them. So a definite, ‘Yes please’ here.
But not everyone has the mans to cook, fuel poverty often goes hand in hand with food poverty. Boiling things on a stove, rice particularly, may not be an option if you’ve little or no credit on a prepayment meter. Some of our clients are homeless, sleeping in tents with only a camping stove using gas that’s got to be ‘eeked out’.
We looked at a tinned pie, it said ‘warm through for twenty-five minutes’, how feasible is that? This where the sort of instant meals, can I say ‘Pot Noo… well, you know, that only need boiling water added can be very useful.
A local business supplies us with microwave rice, really useful, already cooked and easily and cheaply warmed, or at pinch, eaten cold (we always give something to make a more satisfying meal). We get a lot of pulses, beans, chickpeas and the like, and as with the rice, we offer them but sometimes, people apologetically refuse – they need too much cooking. Our partners at a charity that does soup runs take them, so they’re not wasted.
I’m impressed at how ingenious people are, tricks like soaking pasta in cold water and straining it, adding something for some flavour and nourishment, it could be tinned sausages or pasta sauce before a quick burst in a microwave to make an acceptable meal.
Someone who came to us for help was an experienced builder, no longer able to work because of a combination of age and illness. Determined to give something back, he helped us a lay a new floor in part of the chapel. Our members wanted to show their appreciation and gave him a practical gift – a basic microwave. He kept on telling us how much easier it was to manage.
One of the cruellest things of which I know was the Poor Law: a condemnatory attitude that imposes a regime of drab, grinding austerity on someone who’s down is hardly Christian.
So we try to introduce a bit of sweetness, tinned fruit, rice pudding, custard, chocolate and biscuits. Food poverty goes with a whole complex of low self esteem, depression even. Besides, if someone hasn’t been eating, you could argue that a bit of sugar will give some energy.
Please remember the costs
The other thing that can help a foodbank is cash donations. We can’t control what comes in (we’re having to ask people to ‘soft pedal’ on the baked beans at the moment), but we do use local supermarkets and wholesalers to ‘top up’.
Each week, we get ‘ambient’ goods, bread, bakery products, fruit and vegetables through the Fareshare Charity from the local Tesco Extra, but sometimes we buy a few loaves when we go to collect if there aren’t any or many in the offering. So yes, cash can be helpful. And like it or not, foodbanks have essential overheads that need cash too, insurance, volunteer expenses, storage boxes, shelving, contributions to heat and light.
If you are supporting a food bank, thank you. The response we had from the publicity was touching, and even actually, overwhelming. Friends helped us mobile extra storage. If all the publicity helped reveal the extent of hidden food poverty in our society, it’s been a good thing.
Photos | Trussell Trust
The Swansea East Side Food Bank is an independent foodbank and a charity registered in England and Wales number 1163300, based at the Baptist Chapel. It is a venture supported by the community, by various faith communities and businesses.
The Revd Chris Lewis is the East Swansea Community Chaplain, a ministry supported by Home Mission