Many look to curb eating or adopt a healthier lifestyle as we head into Spring. But what if you are one of a number of residents who struggle to buy enough food to see you through a week, never mind make choices on whether your minced beef comes from grass fed cattle?
Earlier this year I spoke to Laura Chalmers about how she became York foodbank manager and the help they offer to York residents.
In 2010 Laura Chalmers stepped away from a career in childcare to volunteer with Christian Aid. She found her time at the orphanage in South Africa extremely rewarding and volunteered again – this time with TearFund – in Bolivia helping local people tackle issues such as drug abuse and child prostitution. On her return Laura found employment in the local youth hostel and that was when she heard that York foodbank were recruiting their first full time manager.
“Due to increasing demand their efforts had grown considerably. Eventually someone was needed to oversee the work, to keep it managed effectively and ensure sustainability. The Trussel Trust recognised that without a full time member of staff there may be no foodbank.”
Laura says that her time volunteering abroad had also brought her to the conclusion that there was a very real problem with poverty in Britain.
“At home the poverty is more hidden with a lot of complex issues and misunderstanding. We have seen a breakdown of community and people are increasingly disconnected from their neighbours. I saw my chance to take a job where I could make a real difference to my own local community.”
Part of her role involves visiting local schools, groups and professional bodies. These visits highlight many of the questions and misconceptions that exist around foodbank and the service they offer. I asked Laura to answer the six most common topics that come for up for discussion whilst she is out and about.
As the 6th wealthiest country in the world why do we need foodbanks?
“It’s true that there is a great deal of wealth in Britain but it is poorly distributed amongst the general population. There is a huge gulf between the richest and poorest members of society. Here in York the figures are surprising. 25% of children live below the poverty line, a higher percentage than the national average, and men living in the most deprived parts of the city die an average nine years earlier than those in the least deprived areas.”
Foodbanks are just an extension of the welfare state
“Whilst we take referrals from agencies such as social workers and health visitors, foodbank remains independent from the public sector and relies solely on public donations. We work hard not to be seen as a replacement for government provision in terms of assistance. Foodbank offers a safe place for people to access support without fear of judgement. The Trussel Trust looks to be part of the solution not part of the problem. We work in the hope that one day our services will no longer be required.”
People just don’t know how to manage their food budgets properly.
“Foodbank users are some of the most resourceful people I have ever met. Many know exactly how to stretch ingredients but, ultimately, that is not always enough. Without transport it can be difficult to purchase items in bulk or reach cheaper supermarkets; many people are forced to buy food from the nearest store they can access on foot – often the most expensive way of purchasing food.
An additional factor is the number of our visitors who have grown up in care. They’ve had little family stability and not learnt how to run a household in the same way many of us do. As a reaction to this the Trussel Trust has introduced the Eat Well – Spend Less workshops, teaching people how to make nutritious meals on a tiny budget.”
What about those of us who work and still struggle to survive? Why should help only be given to people on benefits?
“The foodbank is open to anyone in need of assistance, regardless of benefit status. Less than half of foodbank recipients are on benefits and often those who are receive ‘top up’ benefits to bolster low wages. Over 50% of individuals living in poverty in the U.K are from working households and many of those helped by foodbanks are in work.”
My neighbour needs your help. Can he drop into our local foodbank tomorrow?
“We cannot dispense a food parcel without a referral from a frontline agency. I suggest your neighbour speaks to his G.P. or makes an appointment with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. The largest group of visitors to York foodbank are young men of working age so he is not alone. Health visitors, head teachers and social workers can also provide a referral.”
Why don’t you provide visitors with fresh vegetables rather than packaged food?
“Fresh food is a complex issue and not suitable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is much harder for the foodbank to store without wastage. Additionally, fresh produce is more difficult to prepare if you haven’t been able to pay your fuel bill that week. Never mind ‘heat or eat’ – some can’t afford to do either. This makes preparing a cooked meal extremely difficult.”
I saw someone leaving my local foodbank in a car the other day. Why should we provide someone with food if they can afford to run a car?
“Many foodbank visitors struggle to get to and from a foodbank. Each food parcel provides enough food for three meals a day for three days per person in the household. The average family of four receives far too much food to carry home on foot or public transport. A beneficiary might need to be at work during open hours so a neighbour will pick it up on their behalf; or require help from a community support assistant to due to a disability. Also, there are many reasons why someone may need use of a car and, as I mentioned earlier, it is not our job to pass judgement on such choices.”