Tales from the food bank (42)

by Rick Johansen

I have mixed feelings about what will be my last food bank volunteering session for a few weeks. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me – possibly my previous role with the DWP fraud department – I have been appointed as the go to volunteer when a ‘difficult’ caller comes to visit. I am happy enough with this situation because I feel confident in my ability to diffuse an awkward situation and to hold my own, not necessarily physically, in a confrontational situation. Today that difficult caller came to visit, I was pre-warned he was on his way and saw him when he arrived.

He shouldn’t have been with us at all because of a cock-up by the referrers because the last time he called muggins here incurred his wrath and he went off on one.  His care workers only go out with him in pairs. Today they didn’t have two workers available and the referrer told him to come down on his own, which he did. Anyway, he was very angry and sweary with me, accusing me of laughing at him (he tried to take a photo of me smiling – I didn’t smile, which made him even more cross). Rather than take an order from him, my colleagues essentially bumped him up to the top of the list and guessed what he would like to have. It seems unfair to give priority to someone with anger issues, ahead of those waiting patiently, but you had to be there. The main point is that he is a very sick man and it is a sad reflection on society that a hungry, mentally ill person is put in this position.

I could have thought, well, why am I bothering to help given he is so ungrateful? But I didn’t think like that because, as I put it to him, I am there because I want to help people. When I told him that, he replied I was only there to help myself first. I didn’t bother to reply to that one.  I was the volunteer sacrificial lamb. He would have been angry with anyone who came to see him.

Did it unsettle me? Yes, a little bit. I didn’t want it to break out into some unedifying brawl, although most of me, though not all of me, thought that unlikely. But once he had left, I overthought about what could have happened and that’s always quite sobering. What if, what if and what if. But when my colleague game him his bags of emergency food and said, sincerely, “Take care” he replied with a drippingly sarcastic ‘Take care” of his own. If I’d thought his attitude and anger was all about me – and I knew it really wasn’t – there was the confirmation I would have needed. He isn’t well.

If my faith in human nature had been dented, the dents would have been swiftly mended soon afterwards. Usually, we leave the front door open throughout the session but today we closed it in case the earlier gentleman I saw returned. When the doorbell rang, we went to answer it and a passing member of the public said he wanted to donate to to the food bank. We said of course and he produced from his wallet a £20 note, which he gave to my colleague. Then, shortly afterwards, the bell rang again and a man and his three young children stood at the door with a box of food to donate to us. Two random acts of kindness in a society that regards food banks as being normal and abandons sick people who really need help. People are much nicer than politicians think they are.

Soon, we will start to see the annual appeals for kind folk to help provide Christmas hampers for families who are in food poverty. Of course, I have no wish to discourage people from contributing, but here’s the thing. There are nearly four months to go before Christmas and Christmas hampers will do nothing to alleviate food poverty today and many food banks are understandably struggling with donations which are barely meeting demand. Indeed, the Christmas events are truly wonderful and shine a light in the gloom but we need to remember this: food poverty is not just for Christmas.

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