The office and distribution centre for the West Cheshire Food bank are located in an inconspicuous warehouse close to Cheshire Oaks. Food bank usage is on the increase in the UK, and in the news in Chester, after the Cwac Cabinet announced the set up of a Poverty Truth Commission. Three years ago the food bank was set up by a group of community leaders who saw that there was a growing need and decided they had to react. I spoke to Development Office Alec Spencer to find out the good work being done to help those in need.
The food bank employs 3 part time staff, but the bulk of the team is made up over 120 volunteers. “We are basically a volunteer led organisation. Trustees are volunteers, and paid staff are simply here to support the community response” says Alec. This figure doesn’t include volunteers at the referral agencies, or the people collecting food. There are about 200 local businesses, schools, and churches across Chester and Ellesmere Port who have collected food for the charity in the last three years.
Alec explained that families and individuals have to be referred to the food bank via a partner agency such as Citizen’s advice, the debt advice network, social worker as well as some schools. Vouchers are supplied for three days provision of emergency food, and can be redeemed at one of 5 pick up points located in Chester, Lache, Blacon and Neston. Alec says that “we expect the agencies we work with that they’ll work with that family/person to find out a bit more about how additional support can be provided.”
The food bank collects food from supermarket collections and has an ongoing national partnership with Tesco. Alec says the relationship works well because its flexible, with Tesco’s recent collection being focused on toiletries as the Foodbank currently has high stocks of food as a result of generous donations over Harvest and in the run up to Christmas. Tesco compliance manager Hayley Sale, who accompanied me, commented “We have stores that have permanent collection banks, Sealand Rd has one of them. We work with the food bank so we don’t overload them with certain types of food. Its great that people want to donate but its important that people donate the right things. In the supermarket we can make it easier and sort it for the volunteers to collect.
Alec continues : ” Every month we put out a standard list of items that we collect, then every month we’ll send out a list of specific items we need that month. 3 items based on stock keeping and management systems. (this month the list includes mashed potato, jams and spreads and UHT milk ) .This enables us to balance the stock we have.”
Over 90% of donated food comes from members of the public, straight from the supermarket shelf. The food bank has just one van to supply the whole area. “If people can bring food along to us themselves, that makes a huge difference to us. Van drivers are volunteers..they just keep going, working very long hours.
A new larger van was recently acquired enabling larger loads to be delivered, “we needed something with a side door that was more accessible and put less strain on the volunteers, so its safer and more efficient.” The van was part funded by donations from ESSAR and Lloyds. Funding comes from a range of sources, some of it is ad hoc statutory funding, the majority is from grant making bodies and public donations. Tesco provide a 30% top up of the value of the items donated. The food bank has no service contracts with anyone. “We’re clear that we need to be independent, our role is not simply providing emergency food, but about providing opportunities for the people we serve, to make their voice heard, on issues where we consider theres an element of injustice. ”
“Over the last five years there has been a dramatic rise in the need for emergency food provision, that’s what our data would suggest. Its very linked to social policy, what happens in the next couple of years, whether the demand increases or falls is largely connected to what the Government decides to do. Government policy on sanctions, how would people cope if they lose their job and have to wait 6 weeks before payment of universal credit? Those kinds of policies about built in delays or sanctions, will have a huge impact on food bank use”.
” We don’t necessarily believe we have all the answers. From the very beginning we have said “why are food banks really needed”.. We don’t want to be here, we are seeking an exit strategy. We don’t believe that food banks provide the most dignified or empowering support, but we don’t see an alternative at the moment.”
Warehouse coordinator Peter Stelfox told me that he worked ” four days a week minimum. I started off doing a couple of hours and within a month it was four days.. Nearly three years… We work as and when required..” What motivated him to volunteer with the food bank ?
“There was need for it. I retired from work 4 years ago and wanted to keep active. I started off volunteering for the Boat Museum in Ellesmere Port, that fell flat , so I got collared for this! It is interesting, you are seeing life from a different angle. We have a lot to do with the rough sleepers in Chester, we take things to city mission. We were dropping off some deliveries, and across the road we heard “alright lads!” It was a couple of rough sleepers they actually recognised us from sight. We get donations all the time, one guy donated about 50 coats last week , its never the same, chap came in the other day and bought a car full in, lady the other week bought in a van full of advent calendars! Luckily we’ve been able to get them all out in time!”
Hayley from the Tesco concludes : “it amazes me how much they manage to do from one little building!”
Full list of collection points and agencies and how to help at :http://westcheshire.foodbank.org.uk/