It was more by chance than choice that I first came across the Brecon Foodbank. –I was actually on my way to the volunteer bureau but it was closed…the foodbank was just next door and open, so I went in and they snapped me up as a volunteer. At first I was writing sell-by dates in big numbers on packets and greeting clients, but eventually settled behind the computer doing general administrative tasks. Now I´m the referral agency co-ordinator. My role is to try to build as many partnerships as possible. I also answer emails and write short articles and things like that. I find it very rewarding but at the moment can only give two hours a week. In fact the foodbank had started not that long before I joined (July last year was their official launch). After some time delivering parcels to the needy in an unofficial capacity, they joined the Trussel Trust and became an official foodbank.
So how does the foodbank system work? In order to access the foodbank a referral is needed through a referral agency. Of course in emergency situations, people can access the foodbank or another foodbank, but in general we don’t tend to identify people in need since the referral agencies are much better placed to do this. The referral agencies include Powys CC Housing, the Kaleidoscope project for those with drug and alcohol problems, Age Cymru, and others. The client requests/is given a voucher from the referral agency which they bring to us. We then enter into the Trussel Trust database and the client is given a coffee and biscuits and sits down for a chat while we assemble their parcel. All of the food parcels have been designed by a nutritionist and provide three days worth of a balanced diet in the form of tinned and packet foods. Normally a client would only have three vouchers in a row in the hope that their agency will have helped them out of their immediate crisis. This is a really important point. Foodbanks are not something that people can rely on long–term. We don’t encourage dependency and really are helping people out of a short–term crisis. However, in reality sometimes people request additional vouchers and we never say no!
There are advantages and disadvantages of being affiliated with the Trussel Trust. Often we would prefer to be able to give out food parcels without rules and without entering the person´s details into a database. However, it does provide a certain amount of legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders and the wider community and we are able to offer nutritionally balanced food parcels. The Trust also helps to encourage the continued generosity of all our donors. For me it’s also important that the Trussel Trust has a ‘more than food’ policy. In many areas they provide access to advocacy and advice services for clients. In Brecon we’re working on a booklet to encourage people to improve their diet by growing vegetables in their own back yard.
We also get access to statistics. In Brecon we don’t have a large number of clients. We have helped about 250 people in the last twelve months. Surprisingly Llandrindod have fed 900 in that time and the number in Cardiff is a shocking 10,000 clients – 40 times the number we have seen in Brecon!
Changes or delays in benefits payments seem to often be the cause of the client’s need for food parcels, however, debt and the struggle with being a low–income earner are regular contributors with the occasional case of domestic violence. Most of the clients in Brecon are unemployed and single with some families and also some homeless. The numbers vary from month to month. As we are still a fairly new organization we do not yet have enough statistics to know whether there are trends becoming apparent, but with more benefit cuts on the way we are expecting larger numbers to appear at our door this year.
Why is foodbank important? To me it’s not a party political issue. The volunteers come from all walks of life; some of us are vicars, some of us atheists, some of us are Conservative voters and some of us are paid–up members of Left Unity. Anyone can volunteer and help others and the community. For me though it has a different meaning. When people ask me why I volunteer at the foodbank my answer is simple: There shouldn’t have to be foodbanks in the UK in this day and age – simple as that. These people shouldn’t need to come to us for help. That’s not to say that this is the case for all charities – those working with the disabled or terminally ill will probably always be necessary, but this type of poverty in a developed country is scandalous. There is another issue here for me too. The people in ‘power’ can only have power over you if you allow them to. I believe a grassroots movement is the very best way to take power away from a government that allows and enforces inequity and inequality and give it back to the people. This is our country. This is our society and it is our responsibility. Claiming to be an anarchist, yet depending on the machinery of government is an oxymoron. If we want to control our lives I really believe that the best way to do it is simply to take up the problems of society and solve them amongst ourselves – grassroots solutions is the only way forward.
Stay tuned for the next instalment in which the author will discuss what are the problems of society in her view and how can we go about solving them to ensure proper grassroots solutions.
Written by Alix Miller