“There’s no such thing as a typical day!” smiles Maria Stevenson, 41, as I catch up with her for a behind-the-scenes look at the work done by Salisbury Foodbank, part of the Trussell Trust’s network. “One day I might have a plan mapped out, then a family reaches out in crisis and the whole plan changes.”
Maria is Project Manager for Salisbury Foodbank, where the Trussell Trust began, overseeing the food bank’s work across the city and surrounding areas, right out to Salisbury Plain.
“I started work as a volunteer with the food bank 2 years ago,” Maria says. “I knew very little about food banks. In fact, I’d been in the position in the past where I potentially needed a food bank.”
Food, support and a chat
Maria’s past experience isn’t uncommon. There are over 1,200 food bank centres in the Trussell Trust’s network, each providing food parcels for people from all walks of life who have, for myriad reasons, found themselves in crisis. But not everyone knows where to go to get help.
To receive a food parcel, families need a referral from a frontline professional, such as a doctor, health visitor, social worker or Citizen’s Advice adviser. The referral will provide them with a voucher that can then be used to claim a food parcel.
The food itself comes from donations, Maria explains. Non-perishable, in-date food is donated to food banks by members of the public and local companies and is then collected, sorted and organised into emergency food parcels – and there are more than 28,000 volunteers involved in making this happen in the UK.
“I started out sitting down, waiting for people to come in with their food bank referrals and quickly realised that it wasn’t just food that people accessing food banks are there for.”Maria remembers. “They’re there for the signposting, too.”
Signposting is the Trussell Trust’s term for the variety of ways that volunteers at the food banks can help people beyond providing food parcels. This might include referring them to another agency, such as Job Centre Plus or Refuge, or helping them with an immediate crisis or providing debt advice.
The exact services provided by food banks can differ between areas, as they are set up to work for the specific needs of their local community, but they all have one central goal: to provide help and support to local people in crisis.
“Some people just want to sit down and talk to you about their problems or what’s got them into that position,” adds Maria. “You’re there to listen and hopefully signpost them on to other support.”
‘I didn’t know where to start with asking for help’ – Jane*
I never imagined being in a situation where I couldn’t provide a meal for my son and thanks to the generosity of the Trussell Trust, I never got to that point.
I didn’t know where to start with asking for help and maybe didn’t feel worthy of helping for some strange reason. I just didn’t know what to do.
The team at my local food bank didn’t make me feel I couldn’t ask for things and went the extra mile with gifts for me and my son. I will never be able to thank them enough for making us smile again. I don’t know how I would have pulled my self together again.
There but for the grace of God…
Low income is the key reason people need food banks, and the growing number of job losses and redundancies across the UK as a result of Covid-19 has seen many people turn to Universal Credit, maybe for the 1st time. There can be a 5-week wait before the 1st payment and this can leave people who might never have experienced poverty before suddenly faced with no money for food.
Tony Pickles, 71, is a food bank volunteer based in Leeds and he speaks frankly about how easily any one of us could find ourselves in need of a food bank’s services.
“I remember a lady who came in seeking support due to benefit delays,” he says. “She couldn’t believe she had just turned 60 and was in this position. She said, ‘I have worked all my life. I never ever, ever expected to come through the doors of a food bank.’ She was embarrassed and it took great courage for her to come to ask for help.
“The inequality is so marked, so grossly unfair. And but for the grace of God, I could be there. And so, if I can help, you know, just by giving a few hours a week, then of course I will.”
Sade Popoola, 56, a volunteer at food bank in London’s Lewisham says the reality of poverty comes into sharp relief when you see the items donated. “In parcels we pack food,” she says, “but also dish soap, tampons, even nappies.”
People living in poverty often don’t have choices, just limited options. This might mean not heating their home to be able to buy food or paying the rent but being left with nothing to buy food. And if you can’t afford to eat, cleaning products and basic hygiene products become a luxury that’s way out of reach. This is why food banks create food parcels based on the needs of the individual.
When preparing a parcel, food bank volunteers use a shopping list to ensure it is nutritionally balanced, but there is also an element of choice. For example, they may ask whether a person needs pasta or rice, what flavour soup they would prefer, if they are vegetarian, if they have access to an oven/kettle and if they need any toiletries.
“Can you imagine needing tampons and having to make a choice between that or soap, food or nappies?” says Sade. “Babies won’t stop coming just because there’s a pandemic. These items can seem so inconsequential – until you don’t have them.
“So, it’s not all just food, it does a lot to the psychology of a person who has had to close their eyes to pride and come to get some food for their family. If there’s somebody who makes them feel human and good about themselves and understands and says, ‘Hey, look around, we’re almost like that. Don’t feel like you failed. Life has kicked us in the butt, but that’s what life does’, that can really help people.”
The need is great – and increasing
Back in Salisbury, Maria is receiving a delivery that will help stock the next round of food parcels.
She explains that 75% of people who come to a food bank have someone in their household with a physical or mental disability. This will always present a significant challenge, but even more so when coupled with poverty, and greater still when paired with the immediate challenges of Covid-19. Even as restrictions ease, making ends meet has become more challenging for people.
“We have seen an increase in need – and more so now that furloughs are coming to an end and many are finding there are no jobs to come back to,” she says. “It’s scary knowing that due to Covid-19, some people who supported us by donating last year are actually now the people who come to the door to seek some support from us.”
It’s abundantly clear that Sade, Maria and Tony are part of a network that is doing incredible, much-needed work but right now they need support more than ever.
“You’ll come in one day and think there’s so much donated, so much to sort through,” says Sade. “But then you come again, and it’s all gone. It’s all gone to people who really need it.”
‘We often went hungry’ – Julie*
After my brother became ill with mental health problems, I – his older sister – have been caring for him. It has been an extremely upsetting and challenging period of time, and with the added pressure of the lockdown we were struggling to eat. Our diet was minimal and we often went hungry and without.
Since the delivery from the food bank, our lives have improved dramatically. We have full cupboards with a selection of cans and our fridge is packed with fruit, vegetables and dairy products.
I cannot explain how much it has helped us or how truly grateful we are to all the staff, volunteers and donors. You are all a blessing. Thank you.
How you can help
Family dinnertime favourite Dolmio believes no one should go hungry and everyone should be able to put dinner on their table for the whole family to enjoy. But right now, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, 4 million of whom are children.
That’s why Dolmio is working with the Trussell Trust to stand against hunger, raise awareness of the issues of hunger in the UK, support people in crisis, and allow families to enjoy dinnertime together.
In the past 5 years, food bank usage has increased by almost 75% and the Covid-19 crisis has seen an even steeper increase in need, with the Trussell Trust reporting an 81% rise in the last 2 weeks of March and an 89% increase in April versus the same periods in 2019. All this means that donations are needed more than ever.
As part of this partnership, Dolmio is working to support the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks by providing 2 million meals for emergency food parcels to people in crisis via a £100,000 donation.†
Dolmio is also working to raise awareness of the sheer extent of food bank use in the UK, as the 1st step in increasing understanding and raising awareness around food bank use and poverty in the UK.
There are so many ways you can help – from donating or volunteering to helping to raise awareness. To learn how to support your local food bank or how to access help for yourself, call 01722 580 180, click here or pick up a promotional jar of Dolmio.
†In 2020, Mars Food UK Limited will donate £100,000 from the sale of its charity packs to the Trussell Trust. (Registered Charity Number England & Wales 1110522 and Scotland SC044246). © 2020 Mars or Affiliates
This campaign is brought to you by Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s, in support of the Trussell Trust
* Some names have been changed