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17
Dec

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.

Keith Turner

Food Bank Manager

2
Sep

Open every day!

Thankfully, lock down has eased, and millions of people are trying to adjust to a new way of life, while observing the 2-metre rule and wearing face masks. . It has been a tough five months and we live with the prospect of another national or local lock down.

At the food bank we have been carrying on ‘as normal’. We have been able to offer the usual service and in response to the crisis, we extended our opening hours to five days a week. We had one minor blip when we had to close for a week due to one of our team contracting a mild dose of the virus.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has had a tremendous impact on our community, our nation and the rest of the world. It is the invisible enemy and we have no idea who, among those we encounter may have the virus!

I have to say that I have been totally amazed at the reaction of our local West Bromwich community.  We have had people volunteering to deliver food, volunteers working in the food bank centre and others offering to help in whatever way they can.

West Bromwich Albion have played a great part in supporting the community by delivering food parcels and collecting from supermarkets and dropping them off to us and other food banks. Even though the crisis appears to be receding, they are still hard at work!

We have had total strangers at the food bank, dropping off donations and saying they will be back with more. Senior citizens have been donating food or finance with a smile on their faces.

Local councils often get a bad press, but our Sandwell Council have been truly brilliant! From opening an emergency food hub and operating a residents crisis line to altering the way they work (often from home) they have played a vital part in the crisis. Due to the relaxing of restrictions, the emergency food hub has now closed.

Faith organisations have also played their part by providing food from their places of worship or donating direct to the food banks.

At the beginning of August, West Bromwich Town Bid launched a big appeal to local business to donate to the food bank. The appeal runs the whole of August and we have already received a generous donation from the staff of BT based in the town and from the West Bromwich Building Society. The Town Bid also launched a just giving appeal which so far totals £360. All proceeds from this will be used to purchase food which will be delivered direct to us.

The crisis has had me researching into ways of making it easier for our partner agencies to refer their clients to us. We are conscious that due to the lock down we have missed probably many people who were unable to access the support they needed. Our thinking at the moment is to launch an on line referral system where referrals from agencies are delivered direct to the food bank by email.

As ever, I cannot finish this post without thanking our volunteer team. They have been working really hard and nothing has been too much trouble. I am thankful every day for the and the commitment they have shown to supporting the local community.

Stay safe and well!

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30
May

Lockdown – looking back, looking forward

It’s now been ten weeks since the lock down began. It’s been ten weeks of frustration, hard work and ten weeks of seeing the very best of our community heroes who have worked unceasingly without thought for themselves. We owe them a debt of gratitude which will be hard to repay. There are the NHS, care home staff, delivery drivers, bus drivers etc who are all going that extra mile! Without them I dread to think what would have happened!

West Bromwich Community church which is the operational base for the West Bromwich Food Bank was closed in March as were all other churches and places of worship. We are allowed to use it for the food bank. As we look around the church as we work, we come to realise that it does not resemble a place of worship, with the chairs set out ready to receive its congregation each Sunday! It now resembles a food warehouse, with food everywhere! We have been blown away at times to see the generosity of those who have donated much needed supplies. We think often of the local businesses who although forced to close have donated food stocks at great cost to themselves. They are too many to mention here but our food bank team really do appreciated each and every donation.

I think especially of the anonymous lady who would normally donate via her church. Because she could not do that, she sent us a cheque for £100 so that we could use it for food. The West Bromwich Rotary club and Hateley Heath & Stone Cross Big Local have also donated finance, specifically to purchase food. We also received a grant of £500 from the Tesco Covid Response Fund (which we have already spent!). The generosity displayed by so many has been truly awesome. We have also built on our strong partnership with Sandwell Council who have been literally magnificent during the ongoing crisis.

At this point, I would like to say a big thank you and also pay tribute to our amazing volunteer team at the food bank. Under guidance given by our church headquarters we are only allowed to have five people in the church at any one time (socially distanced of course!). Our team have willingly given of their time to make sure that the most vulnerable in our community are supported. They have unloaded, sorted and packed mountains of food. It has been hard work but they have done it all with a smile on their faces! We also operate a delivery system where clients are self isolating and cannot leave their homes. Our volunteer drivers have discovered parts of Sandwell they never knew existed. It is very true to say that without these volunteers we would struggle to maintain our service. I must also thank those volunteers who prior to the outbreak had no connection with the church or food bank, but have contacted us to offer their services when necessary. The whole ten weeks lock down has been a triumphant exercise in good will, hard work and a determination to support as many people as we can.

As we begin to emerge slowly from the lock down we are spending time thinking of what will happen in the future. We have no idea at the present as to what will happen and that makes any strategic planning very very difficult. At the moment we have to take things on a day to day basis. We never know even in normal times what will happen at the food bank, how many we will support and whether we will have enough food to feed everyone who comes knocking at our door. Pre lock down, we used to run a drop in centre, where anyone could come in, have light refreshments and chat to each other and our volunteers. It was a vital resource and one which |I know is greatly missed. We want to commence that again as soon as we can, but as social distancing measures will I think, be with us for some time, it’s very difficult to plan for.

Our team of volunteers promise you that we will do everything we can to continue the vital support service we offer. We are not  just here for the lock down!

Stay safe, and if I am allowed to say it, God bless you all!

 

10
Jun

Working together!

One of the major issues in running a support service like a food bank is the constant worry that your precious stock of food will run out. You therefore spend much time in thinking how to keep the cupboard well stocked!

Despite the excellent support we receive from individuals, churches, local businesses and Sandwell Council there is still that thought at the back of your mind as to how long your stocks will last. We are seeing an increase in demand at West Bromwich for the food bank which makes the question of sustainability even more pressing.

Bearing this in mind, it’s always great when someone offers to help without being asked! Our local MP Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) has contacted us recently offering to lead a food collection at a local supermarket. So it is that we can now announce that on Saturday 22nd June Mr Watson and his Parliamentary colleague Liam Byrne MP (Birmingham Hodge Hill) will be leading the quest at Tesco New Square, West Bromwich. They will be there from 10.00-12.00 encouraging shoppers to support the West Brom Food Bank, with the help of local volunteers.

Why not pop along, say hello and donate to a cause that is needed more than ever. The food bank supports some of the most vulnerable in the local community and your generosity will certainly help to make a difference.

The food bank is open each Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 12.00-3.00pm., at the same time the food bank is open we run a drop in centre where anyone can ‘drop in’, have light refreshments and take time to relax with no pressure! We are able to signpost visitors to various agencies who can offer the specialist support that may be needed.

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1
Jan

Farewell 2018!

As 2018 draws to a close I find myself, coffee in hand, thinking of the events that defined the West Bromwich Food Bank during that period. We had the usual mix of misery and disappointment, occasionally interspersed with moments of humour. Our clients are the reason we do what we do. Their lives touch ours and often leaves us with feelings of anger that they are in the situation they are. It is a well-worn cliché, but in one of the world’s richest economies it is, frankly disgusting that so many people are living in poverty and have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

We have sat chatting to our clients and very often the choice is to eat or heat their home. We are forever being asked for financial support by our clients, so that they can top up their gas/electric credit. It is heartrending for us when we have to say no and signpost them to another agency that has the right connections and may be able to support them.

We work with a fantastic agency Black Country Womens Aid who actively support victims of domestic abuse and who will many times over the year ask for our support as they move victims and very often their young children to a place of safety.

Officialdom has featured heavily in the year. We have lost count of the number of times that clients are desperate because of government policy especially in relation to Universal Credit (UC). We now have a special category ‘universal credit delay’ to reflect in our statistics how people are caught in the UC trap. We fully expect this category to be well used in the coming year. When a person moves on to UC it can take up to five weeks but so often takes longer. This has the potential of placing a client in a position where they are in debt. The country desperately needs an overhaul of UC but presently, the government appear to be ignoring the issue.

During the year we had to close our drop in centre temporarily due to anti-social behaviour by a small minority of our visitors which could have put other visitors and our volunteers at risk. We hope to reopen this valuable resource early in the New Year.

Some clients bring their children with them, and even after eleven years of the food bank it still tugs at our heart strings to see their faces light up when they see the food come out.

As I said earlier, we do have moments of humour. I am reminded of the guy who came in for the first time. We had a brief chat, we gave him his food and he was amazed at what we gave him. He said that he wanted to give something back when he could. As I said to him, there’s no need, he said I am going to win the lottery next Friday and I will bring in one million pounds! Let’s see what happens I replied. He then said, I did it last week and never got one number right! (Oh well, easy come easy go!)

As we enter 2019, there is one thing I am sure of. We will see more misery, anger and bad decision making. Over the years I have stated that it is my intention to close the food bank because it will not be needed. I am, however, pragmatic and realise that, (barring a large miracle) it will not happen in 2019!

The team and I have been at times, totally gobsmacked by the generosity of West Bromwich residents, churches and local businesses. The donations have been regular and at times totally unexpected! During the run up to Christmas due to the support of our friends at the West Bromwich Town Bid the appeal for donations went town wide, with three drop off points around the town. This resulted in a healthy amount of food, plus donations of toys and gifts which were passed on to Black Country Womens Aid for distribution.

We reopen the food bank on Wednesday 2nd January 2019 following our Christmas break, and expect to hit the ground running as we begin a new season of support and encouragement.

My personal wish list for the food bank for 2019 is:

  • Less misery and despair for those forced to use a food bank
  • More compassion from our government in their dealings with those in crisis
  • To be able to scale down our operations or to close altogether as we are no longer needed

These wishes are achievable, it only needs commitment and compassion from those responsible for government policy and the same compassion and commitment from those responsible for implementing the policy.

As we enter 2019, I would like to express my appreciation of our partner agencies and the great work they do in supporting the most vulnerable in our community. May your funding be regular and guaranteed and may you continue to make a difference in the lives of so many.

And finally, (for now) a word or two of thanks to the team of volunteers who ensure that the food bank is able to maintain its work. Thank you, we could not do what we do without you. You are all helping to make a difference, rest assured, you are all valued and appreciated.

 

Keith Turner