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The story of a happy food bank

Jacqui Cook, ChART Big Local, shares how within 9 weeks, a mixture of hard graft and carefully chosen volunteers have created a food bank where visitors feel at home and even enjoy themselves

August 2018

One of the biggest issues we identified as part of our Big Local plan was poverty and so much of our work is focused on how we can provide routes out of poverty for our community.

We got Feona, a community development worker on board and, after a conversation with people at our Children’s Centre, we realised parents on a low income in our area are really struggling. They talked about how the holidays can be very difficult for these parents. Providing extra meals can mean spending an extra £35 a week. If you’re on a low income, that’s a lot of money to find.

The summer holidays were 9 weeks away. We asked ourselves; could we do some sort of food project in the timeline we’ve got?

Feona and I arranged a meeting with the Assistant Project Coordinator of Whitefoot and Downham Community Food Project, (W&D), another food bank in the same London borough to understand exactly how it all worked and how they did it. Their model is a bit different from The Trussell Trust, who are just brilliant, and I think responsible for bringing the concept of food banks to England. At this one, visitors initially self-refer. Referrals from a GP or the job centre can be a big barrier to people needing support.

There’s a big emphasis on making people feel welcome and comfortable. Everyone is individually greeted and offered a drink when they first come in. We really liked how it worked there.

We get cracking

We saved a lot of time by getting permission to use W&D’s intellectual property, such as their form templates, essential for us to understand and meet community needs and secure future funding. Our local church agreed to partner with us too. They provide the storage and food bank space we need.

Suddenly, we had the green light to run a pilot food bank! Our priorities? To get food and basic hygiene products to people who need it most and to create a really positive environment for people when they visit.

'Our philosophy is not about handing someone a bag of food and off they go. The whole experience, from the second they step through the door, should be a positive one.'

The first point of contact with volunteers for visitors is so important. If they get a good impression, it sets the whole tone.

It was essential to Feona that we carefully select the volunteers who provide this contact. If a person can’t be compassionate and put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they shouldn’t volunteer at a food bank. Some of our volunteers are visitors to the food bank too. They get it. They know how people feel. We recognise the value which they bring and I believe they in turn feel valued.

We’ve been really clear about not creating a division between visitors and volunteers – a ‘them and us’ situation because we’re all part of the same community. Everyone deserves the right to be treated properly. We’ve chosen not to wear t-shirts, so that we’re not announcing we’re staff or volunteers. We just wear our civvies.

It’s important that the room is welcoming so we do little things, like using table cloths to lay the food on. I think ‘What would I like to see in this room if it was me?’ I think these touches encourage two-way respect. It makes people feel like we’re making an effort.

What’s happened so far?

Something which has organically appeared as the weeks have passed is what has become known as the ‘Laughter Table’. Roz, who provides welfare and benefits support at each session, came up with the name because she noticed every visitor who sits with two of our exceptional volunteers walks away laughing. They make people feel like they’re home from home. Visitors come to us for one sort of nourishment and leave with another!

We get beautiful feedback. Considering it can be a daunting prospect to come to a food bank, and some people do get emotional, they all comment on the happy, upbeat atmosphere.

We’re four weeks in and we get about an average of 23 visitors each week and provide food and hygiene products for about 45 people. (This includes the visitor's dependents). More than half of our visitors are ChART residents. It’s a mixture of repeat visitors and new people and attendance grows week on week.

Some of our visitors have jobs which is no surprise when we all know so many people have no option but to spend two thirds of their income on rent.

Future motivation

We’ve been inspired to see so many other other Big Locals run projects to address food poverty too, such as Disington’s Food Bank, SO18’s kid’s lunch bags and Fareshare and Worle’s ‘Kids Can Cook’ holiday scheme.

At the very least, we’d like to run this project again at half term and at Christmas.

Our food bank is creating a space where people can enjoy themselves and connect with other people. We’d like to do more and provide support which helps our community’s long term mental and social wellbeing. One space where people can receive a whole package of support, could be the answer.

For now, our motivation to keep our food bank running is best summed up by something Feona thinks every time she walks home from one of the sessions:

‘For some families in this area, they may now have a little less stress in their lives, even if it is just for a few days.This summer might be a better summer than they might have had.’

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