“I won’t take what I don’t eat,” says Dave, seemingly putting back as much as had been loaded into three carrier bags for him to take away from the Eastbourne food bank.
A former soldier Dave has hit hard times; he’s unemployed and lost his partner. He has had alcohol problems since leaving the army 10 years ago. This is the second time he has been to the food bank to receive his three days of food supplies. “I’ll only take what I’m going to use, I feel guilty handing it back,” said a slightly embarrassed Dave.
On another chair in the reception area is Maki, who has come for the first time, accompanied by one of his three children. He has had his benefits stopped. “The benefits office sent me here with a voucher,” said Maki, who was previously a driver before the injury made driving impossible. He is waiting for an operation in hospital. “The food I get here will keep us going till Friday, said Maki.
Maki and Dave are just two of the 10,800 people who have visited the Eastbourne food bank since it opened in June 2011. Demand seems to be growing with 730 people coming for food last month – 439 adults, 259 children.
Prior to becoming project director Howard Wardle was a trustee on a debt counselling project. He is also a local pastor. “People were getting into debt but couldn’t buy food – the Church couldn’t just buy food, it was untenable, so we put feelers out as to whether people thought a foodbank would be useful in Eastbourne.”
There was a positive response.
He explains how first the food bank operated from a portakabin, and then the local United Reformed Church offered some premises.
Initially, he thought the building too big but now it is packed out with different foods, particularly soup, pasta and beans.
Part of the Trussell Trust network, Eastbourne was the first town to open a foodbank in the South east. At the time it became the 99th to open, now there are over 325 foodbanks across the country with three new ones opening each week. The number of people being served by food banks has risen from 2,814 in 2005/6, when the Trussell Trust began, to 346,992 for 2012/13.
The Eastbourne food bank opens from Tuesday to Friday every week between 10 and 12 midday. Some 75 different volunteers, mainly from local churches and supportive organisations, come into help out.
On Tuesday each week the food comes in. Two people are on the van going round the town collecting the food. The food is weighed in and recorded when it comes in. 12 people pack up the bags and boxes for those coming in for the food.
The recipient in Eastbourne first enters the reception area, where there are comfortable armchairs and a group of befriending volunteers. There is a rota of three or four people on the welcoming part of the food bank every day. “They are trained how to empathise with people and make them feel at ease,” said Mr Wardle, who explained: “People often come to us quite frightened and confused. Sometimes all people want to do is talk about what is going on.”
In the back room are the stocks of food all carefully categorised on shelves. On the floor today are a load of bags of food, delivered from Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church.
Upstairs is the office which compiles statistics, deals with vouchers and keeps a record of what is going on. Jan comes in one day a week to send out thanks to those who have supported the work.
The idea is to provide three days of food. The packages are made up of cereal, juice, milk/powder, tea or coffee, pasta, pasta sauce, soup, beans, tomatoes, vegetables, meat, fruit, rice pudding, sugar, sponge pudding biscuits, fish and instant mash. There may also be extras such as snacks, sauces and chocolate.
People don’t just arrive randomly at the food bank but have to be referred with a voucher. Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, Citizens Advice Bureau and many other agencies identify people in crisis and issue them with a voucher. Over 100 agencies in Eastbourne hold food vouchers.
There is a limit of four vouchers but the food bank organisers continue to provide food if they see a need. “A lot of people come two or three times and we never see them again,” said Mr Wardle, who explains that the food bank also employs an advocate, Rupert Calkett to help those who don’t seem to be moving on with their lives. He can put them in touch with other services.
The food bank looks out for anyone coming in who maybe playing the system but Mr Wardle estimates that there have been less than five such individuals over the two years.
The foodbank operates 13 collection bins around the town that are emptied three times a week. These are situated in places like supermarkets, churches and colleges. There are lists of what the foodbank needs. “The principle of the foodbank is the community helping the community,” said Mr Wardle, who tells how they distributed 5.5 tonnes of food in June alone.
The top reason that people come to the foodbank is delays in benefits. This accounted for 263 cases in June. The next cause is no income, then benefit changes and finally debt.“In Eastbourne you can wait up to 20 weeks to change benefits or get onto benefits. That’s a long time. The food we supply for three days doesn’t touch the edges,” said Mr Wardle, who recalls seeing a lot of people coming to the foodbank who are simply stressed out feeling crushed by the system.
It’s a very difficult environment, with little work around. “99.9 per cent of those coming here want work but it is not there,” said Mr Wardle, who endures the frustration of having people who have been helped by the foodbank wanting to come back themselves to volunteer only to then endanger their own benefits. ”People looking for work can be deemed to not be looking hard enough and sanctioned,” said Mr Wardle. Volunteering to help can come into this category – what price the Big Society?
People can be quick to judge but the saying there but for the grace of God go I is a phrase never far from the surface at the foodbank. Mr Wardle recalls one couple that looked far too prosperous for the foodbank. “He was a sales manager who had not been paid for a few months. They got behind with the mortgage. They sort advice and were told to hand the keys in and walk away from the house. The council then said they had made themselves voluntarily homeless. The next day the company the man worked for shut down. They were left sleeping on friend’s couches. He then got a break, getting a job with Comet but then they went bust.” The case shows how easy it is to fall into poverty.
Another woman was self-employed. The business went bust, so she and her partner were taking it in turns to eat: two days eating, two days not. She came and took home some food parcels. With support she then got a job.
Erroll Smith came to the foodbank for support. He later came back as a volunteer. “It made me feel part of the world, it’s a two way process. I first came a year ago. It really helped, things got sorted, and benefits got sorted. It was a case of what can I give to the foodbank.”
Mr Wardle would like to put himself out of work but does not see food banks going away any time soon. “3,500 children go to bed hungry every night in Eastbourne,” said Mr Wardle, who sees more problems when the universal credit is rolled out, with people receiving one payment to deal with all their needs. “There will be chaos with people getting in a mess,” said Mr Wardle who sees more clients coming the way of the foodbank as a result. It is a scandal that in the fifth largest economy in the world, increasing numbers of people are using food banks. What does seem for sure is that foodbanks are a phenomena that is truly here to stay.