While the focus of this blog has been on the personal stories of food bank clients, I thought I’d mention what goes on behind the scenes, and try to find out what makes the Trussell Trust food banks here in Greenwich run so smoothly. I’m also going to try to find out why people want to help out as volunteers.
Greenwich food bank currently runs seven food banks throughout the borough. Thanks to the continuing support of the Royal Borough of Greenwich – and its partner organisation Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Greenwich food bank opened two new public donation points earlier this year at the Arches Leisure Centre in Trafalgar Road, Greenwich and at Charlton House in Charlton. This meant that people living in the west of the borough could donate more easily. There are already donation points in Woolwich and Eltham Centres, Greenwich Community College, Tesco Extra and Sainsbury’s in Eltham.
The food bank’s network of churches across the borough also provides collection points, and many of the schools in the borough also donate, particularly around Harvest Festival time. The amount of food donated seems to be on the increase, as awareness grows about the need for food banks.
A small but committed army – the vast majority of them volunteers – keeps the show on the road. In Greenwich borough there is one central food bank warehouse, where food is sorted by volunteers according to type and its ‘best before’ date. They also check it is undamaged, then pack it into boxes and store it, ready for use. Food is then taken to foodbank centres by van, where it’s made up into food parcels ready for use.
The Greenwich food bank operation is thriving in no small part because of its volunteers of all ages and background. Many of them are drawn from local churches. Some are secondary-aged children helping out for an hour or two as some form of local community activity. A number of volunteers work ‘front of house’ – greeting clients who bring in food vouchers issued by frontline professionals such as social workers, GPs and Citizens Advice Bureau staff. If facilities are available – as is the case in Eltham – they’ll get a cup of tea and the chance of some emotional support as well as an emergency food supply. A lot of ‘signposting’ can get done at this point, if clients can spare the time and energy to talk. The volunteers I see are great at engaging with the people who come in,. They try their best to offer useful help, or whatever it is that someone needs most that day.
Some clients just want a person they can talk to who will actually take their minds off the harsh realities of the ghastly situation they’re in. Sometimes they don’t want ‘solutions’. They might want help with a crossword rather than analysis of the likely outcome of their application for employment and support allowance.
The people I’ve seen are instinctively good at knowing what clients really need. Yes, they need food on the table, but more than that they want to be valued for who they are. Many of the clients end up wanting to volunteer at the food bank themselves.
Maeve Adams, a lovely lady with a grown-up daughter, is long-standing volunteer in the Eltham warehouse. She doesn’t meet clients, as her role is to sort out the donations as they’re received. She’s very committed indeed, and has been helping here for over a year. She dedicates a couple of hours each Wednesday and Friday. Why does she spend so much of her free time volunteering? ‘The first time I heard about food banks was on the news. I didn’t realise there was still a need for food banks. I’m not naive, but I didn’t realise they still existed. That was a shock. I really enjoy helping out here.’
She does have religious convictions – she’s a Catholic – and for her it’s about wanting to give something back to the community. ‘We’ve all got our own individual ways to feel wanted and needed, and for me I feel that I’ve got that balance. There are people worse off than me. The people here volunteer for different reasons. There are different age groups, but everyone here has the same intentions, so it’s easy to blend in. We want to do something good.’