Tales from the food bank (40)

by Rick Johansen

Our food bank is part of a group of food banks that covers a substantial part of Bristol and surrounding areas. The admin staff meet frequently to ensure that, at a time of increased use and declining donations, we are operating in the most efficient manner possible. Obviously, they share views, anecdotes and experiences. Having spent the vast majority of my working life as part of the social security system, I feel I have knowledge and understanding of what poverty looks like and how it affects communities. For some our kind and caring volunteers it can be a wake-up call.

Our food bank is situated in an area covering a wide mish-mash of social groups, from the comfortable middle classes to those who have nothing. We have the odd ‘incident’ involving raised voices and people getting angry – how could you not at a time when people don’t have enough, or any, food to eat? – but generally ours is a calm food bank. A nearby food bank, in a generally less affluent area, has been anything but calm in recent times.

Just a few weeks ago, they ran out of food altogether and weren’t able to open at all. Generally, and somehow, calmness prevailed and I believe callers were directed to charities and other third sector organisations, but it is not always like that.

Only last week, at the same food bank barely two miles away from ours, a frustrated caller kicked a glass window, smashing it to smithereens, with shards flying everywhere. Then, another caller arrived with blood streaming down his leg. He had just been stabbed on his way to the food bank. As I understand it, at no time were any of our volunteers or admin staff at any direct risk but who knows whether one day something awful will happen, either to a food bank user or volunteer.

That said, I don’t tend to think about possible dangers when volunteering in our food bank, although the professional training I had when working for the DWP Fraud section automatically kicks in wherever I am and whatever I am doing and I try to remain aware of my circumstances at all times. The last thing I would want to see, and this is actually a thing in some countries, is security guards at the food bank. But who knows where this ends? I see no intention from government to deal with food poverty and desperate people often take desperate measures. Let’s not speculate, though.

Yesterday,  we were relatively quiet but there were still callers in desperate straits. One man arrived without having been referred to us. Generally, we require a referral letter but we are not heartless enough to turn people away who, like this man, said he had not eaten for three days. I won’t go into detail but suffice to say his story rang true, as he started crying while telling his harrowing story. These were no forced tears, trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Here was someone at the end of the line. But rules are rules and here’s what we did (not me: the admin staff).

We explained that the referral system exists to provide order and certainty. It’s not that we don’t believe people who show up without being referred, it’s just that with increasingly limited supplies who knows what would happen if people just came in off the streets? Word would get out and it’s not inconceivable we’d soon get swamped and run out items at breakneck speed. So, we gave him something to see him through until he got a proper referral.

Next week, once we’ve closed for the day, our volunteers are decanting to a nearby pub for a social get together. As usual, I’m completely overthinking the situation, you know, after spending the afternoon helping people who have nothing we swan over to the boozer, necking a few jars while those we just saw are opening a tin of potatoes and some economy ham.  But then again, we’re a close knit group who love what we do (although we hate the reason why we have to do it in the first place) and if having a social early evening brings us even closer together, then that’s probably a good thing for us and, more importantly, food bank users.

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