I recently spent an hour with the volunteers who run Exeter Foodbank and some of the families who depend on them. I have to say, I found some of the scenes I witnessed and stories I heard shocking in the 21st Century in a relatively affluent city like Exeter in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Between April 2012 and March 2013, the number of people using Exeter Foodbank, which operates out of the Mint Methodist Church, rose by 78%. Since April’s changes to the Social Security system there has been a further trebling of the number of people using the service. Contrary to popular myth, many of those reliant on the Foodbank are in work and an increasing proportion are families with children.
People can only use the Foodbank if they are referred by an official body or agency and are deemed to be in a crisis situation. They are only entitled to 3 visits per crisis at which they are given enough food to last 3 days. The food is donated by local people, churches and other organisations as well as collected at local supermarkets.
The indomitable and ever cheerful Joy who runs the service told me how when recently she was trying to publicise the Foodbank at an Exeter supermarket a man shouted at her: “What are you doing this for? I’m not helping all those scroungers!” Joy, angered by this asked the man if he’d like to win £10,000. This so startled him he stopped and she had a brief opportunity to explain to him what the Foodbank actually does. A few minutes later he returned with 2 shopping bags full of food he wanted to donate.
Joy, like most of the Foodbank volunteers got involved through one of the local churches that helped set up the service. None of them wants to be doing this work and they all feel angry that they have to. But they don’t feel they have a choice, given the desperation of the people coming through the doors.
Collecting, storing, sorting and allocating the food is a major logistical operation. It is distributed every Tuesday and Thursday lunch time and early afternoon at the Mint. On average, the volunteers are serving about 30 people in those two hours.
During my recent visit I spoke to people for whom the service was a lifeline. People who’d been made redundant but had had to wait for any social support to come through, people whose claims had been delayed or lost in the system and others who simply couldn’t make ends meet after April’s social security changes. To say that some of those I met were too thin would be an understatement. One couple had walked with their small children all the way from Clyst St Mary to collect their food parcel.
Exeter is no exception; the pattern is similar across the UK. A report published by church organisationsfound poverty in working households is now more common than in out-of-work households. Oxfam’s latest estimate, made before the full impact of April’s social security changes, is that over half a million people are relying on food banks.Three new foodbanks open every week and the Trussell Trust, a Christian organisation working against poverty which co-ordinates most of them, oversees 345 but says 1000 are needed to cope with current demand.
Indeed the Exeter Foodbank has already outgrown the space it has at The Mint. If you know of anywhere else in Exeter that might be able to offer them more space, with kitchen facilities and some parking for delivering the food, please let Joy at the Foodbank know. Alternatively, if you would like to help or volunteer in any way, the Foodbank would love to hear from you.
You can contact Joy Dunne and Exeter Foodbank at Info@exeterfoodbank.org.uk or on 07818 226 524.