Tales from the food bank (52)

Special edition from Melchester food bank

by Rick Johansen

Because much of what we do is confidential and all volunteers have undertaken to not reveal specific details about our food bank, today’s blogpost comes from the nearby footballing town of Melchester where I helped out today. Everything I describe happened, although I have changed certain details and all the names to ensure anonymity to all concerned.

I did an extra voluntary shift this morning at a local branch of the Tesainsissonsda supermarket group where we did one of our two annual collections, this one – surprise, surprise – for Christmas. Martyr that I am, this was on top of my usual afternoon stint at our food bank. If I don’t get a knighthood for this work – and that’s the only reason I do it, obviously – there’s no justice.

My job was to stand at the front of the shop and hand out leaflets to shoppers, telling them what we were doing and hoping they would donate. Melchester is generally speaking a middle class town, but like anywhere, there are people who fall each side of middle class. Tesainsissonsda is a very big and very busy supermarket and my two hours were enough to frazzle me, which suggests, rightly, it wasn’t the experience I expected.

I made the mistake of not properly preparing myself for my stint. I can usually cope with most things in life if I think it all through beforehand. How it’s likely to go, things that could knock me off track and all that kind of stuff. But this time, in a rare moment of overconfidence, I thought I’d wing it and it knocked me out of kilter.

Most people took a leaflet, though some chose not to and scuttled past. I do not judge people when they walk past us because I cannot possibly know the reasons. For all I know, they could be brassic themselves – we are in the middle of cost of living crisis, for goodness sake – so once they’ve gone, they’ve gone. Many people did buy items but some chose not to and there was a sense that perhaps some people were not pleased to see us.

One couple refused a leaflet and said that there were 127,000 asylum seekers at large, which I explained had nothing to do with what we were doing. “But you’re giving them free food,” she continued, which is, generally speaking complete bollocks, to use a technical term. We try to help everyone who is referred to us and us volunteers have no idea about the circumstances of any of our callers, unless they tell us. And they moved on. No one was outright abusive, but there were a number of abrasive “No thanks!” and more than a few dismissive waves.

Someone else explained that people managed all right in the past without food banks, so why do people today need them? “My mum had ten children and fed them all without going to social security or a food bank.” How do you respond to that one? Tell them that my maternal grandparents existed during World War Two Rotterdam by catching sparrows and other small birds on their apartment verandah and eating them raw? Or that my mum was so poor that she didn’t eat so that I could? They’d probably latch on to the fact that my mum was a migrant, as was my paternal grandfather, coming over here and taking people’s jobs. I just said thanks and carried on handing out leaflets. Another said that, “You don’t do anything for old people.” Of course, we do. We see anyone who is referred to us. I almost lost the will to live at that one.

After two hours, I was happy to get away from the place. God knows what’s going on but people in Melchester who have done these collections before told me that some attitudes in recent years have changed a great deal. There was cynicism about what we do, falling narrowly short of hostility.

Let me be very clear when I say that many people were incredibly generous and we collected plenty of things that will make many people’s Christmases bearable. Without their kindness, many Christmases would be unbearable. That’s as near a fact as it can be. But clearly there are people who don’t think we’re needed and are falling short of actually saying so.

Having left Melchester behind, I did my afternoon stint at our food bank. We’re ramping up for Christmas now and fortunately we had a near full house of volunteers. I felt a little brain dead after the morning exertions – I’m not used to a full day’s work these days – but still did my bit. Everyone I saw was genuinely in need and the last place they wanted to be was at a food bank. And every time I saw people leaving with a few bags full of food and sundry items, I wished I could go back in time and tell this morning’s crowd at Tesainsissonsda what a great thing they had done for people who had run out of food and money.

There was some light in this morning’s gloom, for me at least, when a woman came in to the supermarket to buy various goodies for asylum seekers and refugees. I chatted to her for a few moments and then she blurted out “we do it for Jesus“. I laughed out loud and thought, Well, I don’t do it for Jesus. I do it because I want to help people, to put something back into the society that did so much for me and because I enjoy it. Is she trying to get a free pass into Heaven by impressing God? I couldn’t think of a better, or more stupid, reason for doing that.

I’m tired now. Today has taken a lot out of me, mentally if not physically. Obviously, I’ll do it again when the big supermarket in Melchester comes calling for the simple reason this is about others, not me, and I’ll prepare myself properly next time.


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