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Food banks: 'Our services are more than just food parcels'

Sheffield food banks tell us how they’ve responded to the impact of coronavirus and what they think is needed to support people facing economic hardship in our city.

S6 food bank volunteer 2

A volunteer at S6 Food Bank.

Lockdown presented many challenges for Sheffield’s food banks, with physical distancing, volunteers unable to work in the same way, and people unable to drop in and access services as before.

Although restrictions have now eased, the challenges of Covid-19 will be with us for some time. Demand for food banks continues to be high and could increase when the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end and more people lose their jobs. Many families need support – and that support is not just about food.

We spoke to S2, S6 and S20 food banks to find out more about how they've responded to the impacts of the pandemic, and the support they’re providing to help local people.

S2 food bank 1

A collection at S2 Food Bank.

Julie Roberts, S2 Food Bank

We were seeing four times the number of people come through the door in one day than we usually saw in a week before lockdown.

This meant we were handing out around three tonnes of food. Finding reliable suppliers of food was difficult at the beginning as our supermarket suppliers were putting restrictions on what we could buy. We had to revise our systems, as it takes a lot of organising to hand out enough food for nearly 400 people in one day. Our volunteers have been fantastic and our clients have been patient and understanding.

We think that things are going to be difficult for some time and we’re prepared for this.

In September, we’ll be moving back to something similar to our old model [...] opening on Wednesdays and Fridays and giving clients some choice in what they have in their food parcels.

I don't think that any of us can predict what will happen when the full force of redundancies hits, but we are ready to help out when it does. We signpost people to other organisations to get the help they need, as being in debt is always the biggest issue.

If you would like to support us, organise a local food collection.

It’s recommended that food is dropped off at St Swithun's Church, Cary Road, on Tuesdays. A list of the food that we give clients can be found on our website and this is the place to go to find out more about how to donate.

S6 food bank volunteer

A volunteer at S6 Food Bank.

Chris Hardy, S6 Food Bank

The day I remember most was 16 March. On that day I remember being woken up by a call at 6:15am

I walked into the food bank at 7:30am and the food bank I knew and loved for the last eight years had changed overnight.

We quickly opened new sites and extended our area to make sure people could get food within walking distance of where they lived.

Our numbers spiralled quickly to an average of 350 vouchers, feeding 750 people per week and giving away eight tonnes of food each week.

When we went into full lockdown a lot of our volunteers had to self isolate or look after family. This was our biggest loss, as there’s something special in seeing a volunteer talk to someone who’s feeling low and after a chat [seeing them leave] with a spring in their step. The atmosphere the volunteers created was a really safe, warm place. I miss them all and can’t wait to see them all again.

The support from the public, supermarkets and businesses has been staggering.

We couldn’t have survived without all these groups coming together to support us. It’s been humbling, as many people have been struggling themselves and they’ve chosen to give food or money to people they may never meet. It brings me to tears.

We’ve put in place a dedicated phone/email [support service] to make sure that people get the help they need. It’s been challenging but it’s now helping people more than that initial food parcel.

We predict we’ll be giving out ten tonnes of food per week by December.

Our heartbeat as a food bank is always local people supporting local people. In the future, we will need extra help, especially financially and with food donations to keep us going.

If you would like to donate food or your time, get in touch by emailing info@sheffields6.foodbank.org.uk.

Information Station at S20 Food Bank

Information Station at S20 Food Bank.

Ryan Wileman, S20 Food Bank & Salvation Army

Demand was increasing at a time when our capacity was reducing substantially.

Lockdown caused many challenges for us. We used to run a face-to-face drop in session where people would come and collect their food parcels and access advice services such as Citizens Advice Sheffield and Crystal Peaks Housing Office.

Going into lockdown meant that we were no longer able to run this service. The introduction of purchasing restrictions in supermarkets also meant that we were unable to access as much food as we needed.

However, we’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of Sheffield. We’ve received many offers of help and time from people to help us continue our service. We’ve also been very grateful for the support and community within the Sheffield Food Bank Network.

It’s good to share stories and challenges with people in the same boat as you and we’ve found this invaluable.

We couldn’t have done it without the support of so many different people and groups. We now have many new volunteers and donors who’ve helped us. You can find out more about our services, if you'd like to get involved.

The loss of the face-to-face advice service provided by our colleagues in the local support services has been a big one. Many of the people we work with have found it hard to resolve the issues causing their food insecurity due to not being able to meet face-to-face with an adviser – although we’ve found many people value the phone call they receive to arrange their food parcel.

One thing we need to change is the way food bank users are perceived by many in society.

It’s not uncommon for people to pass judgement on whether someone is ‘deserving’ of a food parcel. As a community, we need to realise that this could happen to any of us and sometimes people are forced to reach out for help due to circumstances beyond their control.

What more needs to be done going forward? It’s really easy to look at practical solutions like resourcing food banks better. But that’s missing the point; food banks shouldn’t exist.

We should be looking at how to close food banks down, not make them more sustainable. What we need to be looking at are local and national strategies which mean that everyone has enough money to buy their own food.

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