Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Food? Just the tip of the iceberg for Independent Foodbanks

My local Foodbank, Prestatyn and Meliden on the N Wales Coast, is not the first place you would think is even in need of a Foodbank. A pretty booming seaside town, with brand new retail park and flourishing house prices, hides a facade of dire need. My local councillor invited me to a steering group meeting to discuss the Foodbank recently, as the volunteers are overwhelmed with sheer volumes of people and work, and need constructive help on where to go next, how to plan and cope and how to get the message over that the town has a hidden depth of need.

I volunteered to spend a day with the Foodbank to see the work they do, and the people they help. I did not go with any pre- conceived ideas, but an open mind: but even so, what I heard and saw has left me with a deep impression on the scale of need volunteers are trying to deal with. My Foodbank is independently run by a church in the town. They are not part of the Trussell Trust Group. One of their reasons to stay independent, was to be able to provide some flexibility, and not have their volunteers dependent on the TT computerised system. Many volunteers are retired and may not have the necessary skills needed to operate this system.  Something that obviously has to be taken into consideration.

As with all Foodbanks, referrals are made by professionals like social workers, school liaison officers, support workers. But walking through the church door is just the start of what can become a lengthy journey of life change for many clients. The Senior Administrator explained.

"As soon as a client comes through our doors, they can expect to be treated with dignity and compassion. There are no judgements made here. No place for media rhetoric of "spongers and scroungers". Many people are taking a giant step coming in and asking for help as they feel humiliated their lives have come to asking for a food parcel, their pride has taken a tremendous knock, and they are at their most vulnerable. Compassion is needed first and foremost, then practical help and advice."

In my head I am comparing this to the media images in the Daily Mail of people swaggering into Foodbanks on the "scrounge", looking for free food or as Edwina Currie has said recently "There is no need for Foodbanks at all". How wrong she is.

There is a huge downstairs room with lots of toys for children, while clients are helped by the caring voluntary staff. One volunteer shows me the foodstuffs in a couple of cupboards he is busy date labelling and putting on an inventory. I am also shown outside to the car park where there is a huge metal container, which holds more foodstuffs. Obviously the need is great, but the facility is not ideal
for the amount of people who are now arriving. As an independent Foodbank grants are not
forthcoming, and the community steering group is looking at how this can be rectified.

One thing that literally gladdened my heart was the fact that several other churches of denominations such as Catholic, Anglican, Church of Wales, collect foodstuffs from their churches and then turn it over to the central Prestatyn Foodbank for distribution. Churches working and uniting together, filling the gap of governmental services is welcome, but has arisen through need due to the slashing of the welfare state and other support networks.

The Senior Pastor invited me into his office and I was immediately surprised.There were four huge whiteboards, each with different counselling style work upon them. He proceeded to explain his role to me.

"Food is an immediate emergency and in fact quite an easy part of the work we undertake when a client steps through the door. A Foodbank parcel because someone has no money for food is a first response. My role is to uncover why that person has arrived here and what help they may require. Just to let you know the scale of need, I used to do counselling sessions on 2 mornings a week: I now counsel Monday - Thursday; four whole days. There is a myriad of reasons why people arrive at our
Foodbank. Benefit delays, money mismanagement,  lack of education, lack of life skills, debt, life
events, are all in the mix. I try to sort out why each individual is here and then proceed to help them
get their life onto a more even keel. This can take weeks or even months of ongoing counselling sessions. I need to know their circumstances, perhaps liaise with other organisations or signpost people to places that can help, where debt is concerned act as an appointed nominee to negotiate debt repayments, and sometimes just educate people to enhance their life skills and their life choices."

"I'm astounded." I replied. "Surely you are shouldering the burden that was once the domain of social services for example?

"We are indeed finding that. Once we have handed over a Food Parcel, we then unravel the persons human needs. Sometimes that involves total education on how to handle personal finances and budget. Many young people for example, have never had parental support  to know how to budget. How can someone manage their finances if they have never been shown how? Some people have no cooking skills or been taught how to make a healthy meal. Gently, we try to show them how this can be done.  We see many single mothers struggling to bring up children with no positive male role model in their children's lives. Mum is doing all she can, but sometimes it simply is not enough. What may start as Mum having trouble with a cheeky five year old son, often escalates with her having an out of control teenage lad on her hands. Absent fathers are a huge problem. However with
the numbers of people needing help, there is a ceiling to how many can receive counselling. My fear is that there are people slipping through the net who cannot access professionals to get a Foodbank referral perhaps because they are elderly or disabled and housebound. But the more numbers arrive, the more pressure on the volunteers, and then we are unable to cope. It is a vicious circle really."

The scrapping of Crisis loans and the use of council discretionary payments to those in need is also adding to the Foodbanks burden. People used to apply to the DWP for a crisis loan form and then repay the loan from their benefit. Now people have no idea where to turn to and if they will receive a crisis loan at all, as the money is not ring fenced by councils. Foodbanks and their volunteers are then being forced to fill that void. All very well if the need is small scale,
but not when TT Foodbanks report statistics in excess of half a million clients and no stats are available as to how many people Independent Foodbanks are helping on top.

Our Foodbank takes into account the needs of children and life's essentials on its Foodbank list. This is where it differs slightly to the TT run Foodbanks. Bottles of orange squash, toothbrushes, shampoo, sanitary towels are also considered to be of utmost importance alongside the traditional foodstuffs of soups, tinned meats, pasta etc. One innovation to come is the use of fresh vegetables says the Senior Administrator.

"We have asked a local town council advisor to team us up with a food co-op. Rather than stock fresh produce at the church, we have had some recent cash donations so we would purchase fresh veg and
put a £3 voucher into each Foodbank parcel for the client to visit the food co-op and obtain the fresh items themselves. This will be a great supplement to the parcel."

Asking local supermarkets for collection days for the Foodbank are also under consideration. But as volunteers become more innovative, more work is being placed upon them. The Foodbank is obviously non-political and non partisan, but I can't help feeling both angry and humble as I see the work they are being asked to do. This work used to be carried out by local government services with paid and trained staff. Although the Senior pastor is a trained counsellor everyone else at the
Foodbank is a volunteer. They all have considerable life experience, but are being asked to fill roles that would previously have entailed a university education and years of on job training and a salary commensurate with their job title.

I came away in awe of the work going on here, knowing it is a tiny ripple in the pond of all the other Independent Foodbanks helping their townspeople in crisis throughout the UK.  My feeling is that increasing numbers of young people are not being equipped with the life skills they need while at
home or in local authority care. Schools are focussing on taking exams not teaching life skills. As a mother of four sons I would love to see Home Economics classes compulsory from Year 4 in primary school, teaching children how to cook on a budget, how to manage pocket money, how to decorate a room, how to wash and mend clothes. More male teachers and male community mentors in sports and other activities for disillusioned boys and young adults who have no male role model.

The Independent Foodbanks deserve more support full stop. If Foodbanks are here to stay for the foreseeable future or long term then stats should be collected on how many people Inde's are helping. Grants both for training volunteers and for premises should be available to both TT and Independent Foodbanks - now. Acknowledgement and liaison by local councils looking at all the roles Foodbanks are providing need collating -now. Independent Foodbanks need help now, not when poverty is so prevalent that Foodbanks cannot meet the needs of the numbers of people involved and buckle or close under the strain.

Nothing less will do. It is down to people like myself to bang the drum and get this message heard.