Food Banks & Volunteering – Not Just For Christmas

After last year’s Christmas Day feast, we all decamped to plump sofas, slightly tipsy and stuffed full of turkey with all the trimmings. “Gosh we are lucky” someone muttered, “we’re enjoying the big day with our family, happy and warm – not everyone is so fortunate.” Which is when the first inkling that I might like to do some volunteering came to my mind.

In all honesty, that idea lay dormant for most of 2019 before I actually got round to investigating what help was needed in my local area.

I started by looking online. Good old Google. Popped ‘Volunteering near me’ into the search bar and up came several organisations. It wasn’t long before I was filling in application forms and had dates in my diary to meet with two potential charities.

Food Banks & Volunteering - Not Just For Christmas
Almost 20% increase on the previous year

The first was my nearest branch of the Trussell Trust. They support a UK network of 1200 food banks which provide emergency food and support to people locked in poverty. They also campaign for change to end the need for food banks as there are currently more than 14 million people living in poverty – including 4.5 million children.

So what exactly is a food bank? It was very different from how I imagined. I thought it would be permanent premises to which anyone could come, at any time, to ask for emergency food. In fact, in Sussex at least, it tends to be a one day a week venue (often a church) where people can come only if they have a voucher.

Each food bank works with different frontline professionals, such as doctors, health visitors, social workers and the Citizens Advice who refer people after they have assessed their need. Each voucher entitles the bearer to a minimum of three days emergency food at their nearest food bank centre. The amount of food depends on the size of the person’s household. Usually they receive only three vouchers every six months.

Food Banks & Volunteering - Not Just For Christmas

I am due to have training in January after I have had DBS clearance but the Trussell Trust sent me along to two food banks as an observer.

The atmosphere is warm and welcoming. When a ‘guest’ arrives they are offered a hot drink and a biscuit while they wait for their food to be put into carrier bags. It is also a time, if the guests would like, to talk – the volunteers are always ready to offer a sympathetic ear and to ‘signpost’ – which means giving the contact details of organisations that try to help solve problems, debt advice for example. There are many reasons people are forced to use food banks – most commonly because they are having to wait five weeks for their Universal Credit.

In an ante room meanwhile, the ‘pickers’ are sorting food – mostly dried goods – into carrier bags. Specific dietary requirements are catered for and, if there are any miscellaneous donations ie toiletries, they will also be supplied.

Food Banks & Volunteering - Not Just For Christmas

I chatted with a thirty-something Eastern European lady who came in with one of her children. Despite making every effort, her husband had been unable to find work – even applying to stack shelves in a supermarket had proved to involve filling in endless forms to no avail. She was run ragged looking after her three young children and worrying about lack of money.

Then I spotted an older lady, perhaps in her early seventies, hovering nervously at the door. One of the volunteers went straight over to her and, holding her hand, guided her to a seat and offered her refreshment. This was the lady’s first ever visit to a food bank and she was shaking with fear and embarrassment. Most of the guests put on a brave face – especially difficult when they have fallen on hard times despite their best efforts.

Some were chatting with each other, others were solitary figures such as the transgender lady sitting quietly in one of the chairs, avoiding eye contact. Several sat silently, waiting for their food with forlorn looks on their faces.

I left, two hours later, feeling that my life had been firmly put into perspective. So I’m looking forward to my training session in January and to doing regular shifts. You don’t have to commit to very much unless you want to – it’s only a couple of hours per shift and you can volunteer every week or perhaps once a month, depending on how much time you’d like to give.

Grace with Roger and Claudia at the UK Harvest pop up cafe

Next time, I’m going to tell you about my experience volunteering with the second charity of my choice, another brilliant organisation – UK Harvest.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for highlighting how to go about volunteering in your area. I know from experience that there are many people who would like to help but don’t know how to go about it. I too help at our local Food Bank and it has given me an insight into the problems local people face often through no fault of their own. It also encouraged me to look at volunteering in other organisations locally and I now help another organisation as well. Whether you have special skills or are just keen to help in some way there will be an organisation locally that would love an extra pair of hands and a friendly face. If you’ve been thinking of doing ‘something’ don’t hesitate – it is so rewarding and don’t worry if you try something and find it’s not for you, there are many different areas you can help in and you will find something that’s the right fit for you.

  2. Dear Grace,

    After retiring from the City a little while ago, my husband decided to volunteer at a Trussell Trust Food Bank in East Sussex. He has met some amazing people with whom he has engaged in many interesting, worthwhile and often humbling conversations. He says that your observations in your very well written piece are absolutely spot on!

    Thank you for your super magazine which I have followed since it was launched. It is not easy to come up with a continuous stream of innovative and interesting ideas for articles and you both deserve much continued success.

    Happy New Year

    Pamela

    • Dear Pamela, we are very touched by your lovely comments about our website. Thank YOU for being such a loyal reader. Delighted your husband has found such a fulfilling thing to do – am looking forward to my training later this month. Happy New Year to you both. Best wishes, Grace

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