“Food and water and warmth aren’t luxuries, they’re the bare necessities and we can’t pay”.
Anthea, They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!.
How does it come to this? Who finds themselves in need of a Foodbank? What is a 3 day emergency package and how can a Foodbank be the first step in putting a family or individual back on track?
An hour after my theatre history tour with Julian (see previous blog), I sat down with Kevin Baker, Manager of York Foodbank.
Kevin is an extraordinary gentleman with a tapestried history of his own. From retail to auxiliary nursing, he has straddled two remarkably different career paths and brought them together in his current role at YFB. Following a City and Guilds course in care, Kevin continued training on the job, working in a specialist unit for young children with rare disabilities and disorders. Supporting patients with autism, challenging behaviour and mental health issues, he worked up the age range from children to adults.
After a relocation from Surrey to Yorkshire he found a role in Drug Treatment. This involved working with people on court orders, uncovering the the link between their addiction and offending behaviour: “…people commit crimes to fund their drug use, if you deal with the drug addiction, you deal with the offending behaviour.”
Kevin is passionate about being part of a solution to someone’s problem rather than a source of punishment and judgement.
When the job at YFB materialised “…it was almost like the perfect storm for me, bringing (together) my past experience of all those years, combined with my core values in terms of what I believe and my faith.” (York Foodbank is a church based project and Kevin is a Christian).
The whole aspect of York Foodbank is based on “…helping people in very tangible practical ways that have real outcomes related to a fundamental part of human life: what we eat. Food is something we take for granted, we are completely surrounded with it in terms of our society…and yet some people just don’t have it and are unable to feed themselves or their families.”
Working at a Foodbank gets “to that basic level of human need and deals with it” and that is why Kevin chooses to do this job. We go on to discuss the different kinds of people who are met by Kevin and his team when they find themselves in need.
“There is this stereotypical idea of a person who accesses a Foodbank: somebody who’s maybe on benefits, somebody who has maybe mismanaged their finances”.
But the reality is much more complex than that. Yes, there are people on benefits accessing the Foodbank but there are also people who have worked all their lives as, for example, a nurse or a member of the armed forces, who might find themselves on long term sick, bringing up a child on their own and simply finding it difficult to cope. There are only so many times you can save money by missing a rent cheque or electricity bill. The easiest cost to reduce is your food bill. There are examples of parents choosing to feed their child over themselves.
It blows your mind, yet it happens every day.
Follow these links to hear some real life stories:
Foodbanks aid people fleeing domestic violence: “…so (the victim) may be located in London but moves up to York”, to remove themselves and their children from a troubled home life. “But because they’re having to leave everything behind, that creates an enforced sense of poverty…we support refugees in a slightly different way but again they have no access to benefits, they have no rights to work, so how are they supposed to support themselves?”
This can have a knock-on affect with the rest of the community, as displaced people can become a scapegoat for other social problems, which can then fuel a viscous cycle of hostility and segregation.
The government has brought out a new benefit system called Universal Credit.
It is a single benefit, which replaces traditionally 6 means tested benefit streams:
Kevin observes that “the problem lies in the cross over, when somebody stops their existing benefits and is caught in the assessment period, before their new benefits via Universal Credit, kick in. This change over can last 6 weeks and during that time, that person has no money coming in.”
“Since this has been fully implemented in York there has been a 50% increase in people accessing York Foodbank, because of the change.” (An increase that has been mirrored across the country).
So it can be as simple as:
“my benefits have changed. It’s got nothing to do with how I’m managing my finances, nothing to do with my lifestyle, this is an enforced change upon me that has resulted in not being able to buy food, pay my rent, etc etc”
The Three Day Emergency Parcel
As a Foodbank and part of the Trussell Trust Network, YFB issues people with a 3 day emergency food parcel, which is made up according to a packing list that the Trussell Trust has developed. It contains ambient food, it doesn’t deal with chilled products, like meat and cheese as this would take them into a whole new ball game when it comes to handling and storing food. The aim is for it to be as nutritionally balanced as it can be without fresh produce.
“What we’re looking at here is emergency crisis support, not an on-going transition of somebody’s diet. So we have this packing list, which is the same for an individual as it is for a family of 7, it’s just larger in quantity: more tins of beans, more cereal, more pasta etc”
The other aspects of the food parcel are spread over two tables at the centre:
Table 1 consists of toiletries, cat food, dog food, female hygiene products etc
“It’s all well and good giving people food but it someone can’t wash their hair or have access to female hygiene products they’re going to feel negative about themselves. Or maybe their dog is their only family member and they can’t feed it and if you don’t give them provision for their pet, they’re going to take what you give them food wise and give it to their dog”
Table 2 consists of fresh fruit, bread, vegetables etc
“It’s a little bit add hoc as it comes from another company called Fare Share. So it’s produce picked up from local supermarket stores such as Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s on an evening – items they can’t put out the next day but are still good to pass on.”
Both tables are help yourself and sometimes they’ll have special treats over Easter or other holiday seasons.
“As a Foodbank we partner with over 126 statutory and voluntary agencies…everything from health services to social services, to housing, to community groups”
Kevin is pragmatic about the measure of aid that a Foodbank can offer. He feels that it is a first step in putting a struggling family or individual back on track. And because there is a network of organisations invested in three dimensionally offering support, accessing a Foodbank can also lead to recommendations of counselling, medical assistance, housing etc. (Or vice versa, asking for help from one of the partners can lead to the added benefit of food support).
Taking a first step may also influence your personal outlook: from feeling hopeless, you may begin to regain your positivity and strength.
“There are parts of York where whole communities are struggling and yet it is those people, who don’t necessarily have a lot, who are giving. I love the fact that it isn’t just the rich giving to the poor, there is this distribution of wealth right across the community. And the reason for that is because it is a simple solution. A packet of biscuits. 30p”. If everyone gives something, the results (as evidenced) are enormous.
YFB have been operating for 6 years and during that time they have been inundated with support, both in terms of food and financial aid.
“For me, that just goes to show the social conscience, of people in York.
…this whole concept of community spirit, of coming together for the greater good is strong and I think it is only getting stronger. I feel rather privileged to be on the receiving end.”
“I think ultimately the reward for me is found on an individual level, when I’ve spent one to one time with people who have accessed the Foodbank and I hear their stories and I shake their hands and I know that they are leaving in a much better place. That is the reward. You can’t put a price on that.”
Kevin goes onto share the rewards he feels from his exceptional team at YFB. He receives a salary to mange the centre, (which includes a hands on approach), but his workforce are entirely voluntary:
“We have a workforce of about 70 volunteers none of whom are paid, all of whom do it because they care, because they want to make a difference and I’m part of that. What a great reward. You’re part of something that goes beyond monetary value and is all about human goodness and love. Sometimes these elements can be hidden and rare, but what the Foodbank does is make them visible, it draws out human goodness and makes it visible.”
I’ll leave it there. Thank you Kevin and thank you York Foodbank. Wow.