Observer Christmas Appeal: Behind the scenes at the foodbank

Bexhill Foodbank. SUS-151027-152416001
Bexhill Foodbank. SUS-151027-152416001

As part of a series of features highlighting the work of the local foodbanks, reporter Laura Cooke spent an afternoon helping out at Bexhill Foodbank.

“Stacking a few tins on shelves, filling in some forms and packing bags - on the face of it, a couple of hours volunteering at a foodbank doesn’t sound like too strenuous a task.

Laura Cooke at Bexhill Foodbank. SUS-151011-153854001

Laura Cooke at Bexhill Foodbank. SUS-151011-153854001

But for those two hours a small whirlwind of volunteers are working flat-out to help feed those in need in Bexhill, Hastings, Battle and Rye.

And this dedicated band of workers are finding themselves increasingly stretched as demand for this vital service continues to grow.

Today I’m joining some of the 40 volunteers working at the Bexhill Foodbank at its Station Road base.

First I’m dispatched over the road to Sainsbury’s to pick up produce donated by generous shoppers.

As the trolley rattles its way back over what is probably the most potholed pavement in Bexhill, volunteer Wendy Winchester tells me sometimes they pick up three trolley loads of food a week from that supermarket alone.

“It never ceases to amaze me, the generosity of people,” she says.

The haul is taken back to the warehouse where it is weighed, unpacked and shelved.

Whereas the foodbank’s front office is charmingly higgledy-piggledy, with its donated furniture, job lot of chairs bought from an Eastbourne hotel and huge pile of empty boxes, in contrast the warehouse is ruthlessly efficient.

Everything is categorised by dates, food types and dietary requirements.

Warehouse manager Pauline Goubert, who has been here since the Bexhill Foodbank was founded three years ago, tells me the items donated vary, with the foodbank often having to make up any shortfall out of its own funds.

She said: “There are certain things we always end up buying, like milk, sugar and quite often squash,

“Every client has these and they are things that do not regularly get donated.”

Any food with a short sell by date, or which doesn’t appear on the foodbank list, is put in the ‘anomalies box’ and put out front for clients to take as extras if they wish.

While filling up the box, I spied what appeared to be half a dozen jars of mincemeat - very generous, but perhaps not the most practical of foodstuffs when the cupboard is bare. Likewise the jar of mint sauce.

Then I‘m moved to front of house, where volunteers meet the service users.

Over tea and biscuits, they go through a number of questions with the client, covering everything from allergies, dietary requirements and to check what implements they have to cook the items in the food parcel. Tin openers are even offered if required.

One gentleman who drops in has been left without any money for three weeks because of a delay in switching him over from one type of benefit to another.

Barbara Messenger, who has been with the foodbank from the start, tells me his tale is far from unique.

324 of the 1297 people helped by the branch this year were there because of delays to their benefits. A further 251 were left hungry following a gap between benefit changes.

There is often a queue of people waiting on the doorstep for the foodbank to open, with as many as 18 people waiting to be seen at any one time.

Many are families, but young single men are increasingly turning to the foodbank.

Barbara said: “I think in many ways they are at the bottom of the pile for any help.

“If you are male and young you will find it very difficult to get any support.”

But clients come in all shapes and sizes and as volunteer Edward Bryant points out: “It’s like mental illness. It could happen to you any time.

“You do not know what life could bring you.”

Volunteers can also refer clients to other agencies for further help, such as the Home Heat Helpline and the Hastings Advice and Representation Centre, where appropriate.

Finally a lady comes in with her two teenage children and I am hurriedly taken into the back room and given a list to work from to fill carrier bags of food to feed three hungry adults for three days.

The room is a hive of activity, with two volunteers pulling items off the shelves at a furious pace.

What struck me was the sheer volume of food placed in those bags - and with an average of 75 mouths to feed a week, it is easy to see how Bexhill Foodbank suddenly finds itself bereft of certain items.

And in the winter months, when donations fall and demand rises, it is more important than ever there are people to help keep those shelves well stocked.”

lBexhill Foodbank is always on the look out for volunteers at its branches in Bexhill, Battle or Rye - email info@bexhill.foodbank.org.uk or call the Bexhill office on 736515 (Tuesday 1-3pm and Thursday 10am-noon).