Covid, commitment and concern!
As I write this post, I have realised that today (17th) marks thirteenyears of the West Brom Food Bank being open. During those 13 years, we have supported literally thousands of people across Sandwell and from other areas of the Black Country, as well as a few from Birmingham. At times it has been difficult, we have coped with very low food stocks, threats of violence, theft and people sadly trying to ‘work the system’.
We have also listened to the stories of those who have to use the food bank. Many of them have been horrendous. People have told us of how ill they have been, how they have lost their homes, jobs and relatives they have loved. At times we have wondered how they have coped. We have offered a listening ear and have referred them to agencies that can offer specific support for their needs.
When we opened the food bank we had no idea that thirteen years on the need would still be there and that we would still be giving out much needed food supplies. The original idea of food banks was to supply food to enable claimants to have a ‘breathing space’ while more permanent support was put in place. Sadly, although the idea was noble, in practice it rarely worked out as intended. Delays in claiming benefits, sanctions and a hard hearted attitude from those in authority only increased very much the issue of not having enough income to be always able to afford to feed themselves and their families. The financial crisis that led to the near collapse of some banks only added another layer to the misery being experienced by thousands across the country. Austerity measures were another nail in the coffin of financial stability.
The year we are now in saw another great crisis hit the UK and the rest of the world. Covid-19 had arrived! Suddenly millions were at risk of not only a deadly disease but of losing their jobs and homes due to ‘lock down’. Many were unable to work and had to either hope their employers would furlough them or that they would be eligible for benefits which took five weeks at least before any result were seen.
The first lock down of 2020 saw us in uncharted waters, businesses were closed, millions were confined to their homes, only allowed out for exercise and shopping! We, as a food bank, had no idea what to expect. Food banks were now being classed as an essential service and could open with volunteers to support those in crisis. We had to carry a letter confirming we were essential workers just in case we were stopped for being out! In a way, it was very ironic that food banks were now classified as an essential service. For years there ware political arguments about the need for them. Politicians, dependent on their political party were either for or against them. They were used to embarrass a Tory government during austerity and public figures used to vilify them as propping up the habits and lifestyles of food bank claimants. We were in a no win situation. Yet, suddenly, we were deemed essential!
Pre lock down we were open three afternoons per week including a drop in centre where people could come in, enjoy light refreshments and just chat to one another or our volunteers. Suddenly the drop in had to cease and we could only admit our volunteer team into the church. Although it was a major change to our way of working, the team coped magnificently. Early on in the lock down, we decided to open five days a week to maximise the support that was so obviously needed. It has worked well and we are looking forward to re-opening the drop in centre although we have no idea when that will be.
The response to the covid crisis by residents of Sandwell and local business has been truly inspiring. Companies that were forced to shut down responded by donating food stocks to us despite this meaning a further loss in their revenue. Financial donations were made by them to enable us to purchase more food. Major supermarkets donated goods including fresh meat. West Bromwich Albion were brilliant in their response. As well as donating food they had collected, players from the club distributed food packs to the most vulnerable. At present, they are supplying fresh Christmas dinners which we store. ready to give out to our clients. The surprise and joy of those offered these dinners has really tugged at our heart strings as they smiled happily and many of them saying ‘a Christmas dinner, really?’
Residents of Sandwell have also played their part by regularly donating food stocks. We are still receiving calls asking if they can donate, and at times they just turn up at our door with bags full of food. West Bromwich is classed as a deprived area so the donations that are coming in via residents mean even more! They are a great response to a crisis by people who may be in crisis themselves.
Sandwell Council, who very often gets a bad press have been magnificent in their response to the crisis. From opening emergency food hubs to donating stocks to the borough’s food banks they have played a vital part in the crisis. The support that has been offered in Sandwell and indeed across the whole of the UK has been brilliant.
West Bromwich Business Improvement District team are another agency that have offered unwavering support to the food bank. They have organised food appeals through the town centre businesses and are currently reaching the end of their latest appeal which has resulted in some great donations
As the manager of the food bank, my (at times) very difficult job has been made much easier by the response given in support across the borough. Many times I have been left wondering whether we will get enough food in to meet the need and although the need is always met, I still find myself ‘gobsmacked’ at the generosity, care and support given by residents, businesses and the local council.
This leads me into the last group of people I really need to thank, for without them there would be no food bank! They are our wonderful team of volunteers. Despite the health scares of Covid, their own health, they have all willingly given of their time to ensure that no one goes hungry. It has been inspiring for me to see their dedication and commitment. Even when they are extremely busy and under pressure there is always a smile and a joke from them and being extremely selfish for a moment, they can all make a great cup of coffee! Although we can only have five volunteers in the food bank at any one time they are always asking if they can come in and help. It is easy to say, but I do sincerely mean it when I say that they are a great, caring and wonderful bunch of people. I am very fortunate to work with them and also to count them all as friends.
As I finish this post, I am very conscious that in a few days it will be Christmas. I believe it will be a Christmas like no other! Although the situation may change, we can at present plan to meet our families over the Christmas period. I am really looking forward to that even though I have four grandchildren, three of which can be extremely boisterous!
The food bank will be closed for four days over the period. This will enable our volunteers to take a much needed break and to enjoy time with their family and friends.
My final thought is to wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and more prosperous new year. Take care, stay safe and enjoy the season. Thanks again to everyone for their support. It has meant a great deal to us.
Food Bank Manager