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