Tales from the food bank (60)

by Rick Johansen

We’re at full capacity here in the Melchester food bank. We turn people away if they turn up without having been referred by external services. It’s not that we don’t believe people who just come in off the street. It’s the only way we can manage the numbers we have coming in. Some food banks in other parts of the country, like the one in Bow, operate an open access arrangement, where people can just turn up and go away with food. I can only think that they must have far greater resources in terms of food and non food items than we have. It wouldn’t work here.

Because I am such a great human being, as well as being incredibly modest, I’ve volunteered my services for another day of the week because our existing arrangement simply isn’t enough for people who need us. So on future Friday mornings I’ll be out on the front line helping to feed the world.

We’re based in a church. Some of our volunteers are religious, most are not. It is my feeling that everyone who is working there is doing so because they want to ensure people don’t starve to death rather than in order to impress God. I have certainly known and indeed worked with people – not at the Melchester food bank, I hasten to add – who did good things in order to seek God’s approval in order, one must imagine, to sail through the Pearly Gates of Heaven without too many questions. Let me put it like this: God don’t impress me much.

I have certainly heard people talking about the Christian ethos within the food bank system. If he had been around today, Jesus himself would have been with us on a Thursday afternoon, helping to pack bags and, with any luck, using his magic tricks to bolster our store cupboard. I don’t buy any of that. My ethos is that I want to help people who have nothing, or next to nothing, and the reason I work there is because I like it. There’s no spirit involved, although I have been known to enjoy a single malt after a long day in the food bank.

When I was in the food bank today, I came across some interesting statistics about the real levels of poverty. They make grim reading, but here’s that grim reading:

  • Around one in five of our population (20%) were in poverty in 2020/21 – that’s 13.4 million people. Of these:
  • 7.9 million were working-age adults
  • 3.9 million were children
  • 1.7 million were pensioners.

I don’t know how many of them visit our food banks but it must be quite a lot. Yet there are plenty of people who are too embarrassed – maybe too proud? – to use us at all. I spoke to a guy today who spent a good while oohing and ahhing before finally coming in to the food bank. He just didn’t want to be there, yet he knew that without being there, neither he nor his family would have any food to eat. I have no statistics to back that up with but I’d wager his experience was shared by many people. And who could blame them? No one wants to be poor, although you might think from reading the gutter press the poor chose being poor by way of a choice.

Finally, two callers asked whether we had any jobs going at the food bank. I explained that as of now there were no vacancies, although they could always ask again at a future date. As they were about to leave, I asked if they knew that the jobs we did were voluntary – see my lanyard – and we didn’t get paid. A look of surprise registered on both their faces, but maybe it shouldn’t have.

In Broken Britain, we’re the sticking plaster. Sticking plaster to stop people starving. If you can’t get your head round that, then join the club.

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