“Do you have, er…” the man made a swiping motion by his cheek.
“Razors?” Iain asked.
“Yes, razor. My friend…” he gestured to the slightly stooped, dishevelled man he had accompanied to the Foodbank. The older man’s jaw was rough with grey and white bristles. It was clear he hadn’t had access to a razor for a while, and he smiled apologetically as we turned to look at him.
“I’m sorry,” Iain answered, “We don’t have any razors.”
“I’ll look out the back,” I told him. Sometimes people donate extras like shampoo that we make available to anyone who needs them, and we’d just received a new delivery which hadn’t been unpacked yet.
“My friend, you know,” the man continued, “he and his wife and two children they live in a little…” he searched for the word again, “A little dog shed. In the winter. His children, they were in the hospital this week; they got colds.”
Giving the two men a cup of coffee and some biscuits, Iain sat down to talk to them while I went to fill their bags with three days’ worth of basic non-perishable food items.
This was just one of the fifteen families we served in a two-hour shift at my church’s Foodbank on Saturday. Some people who come to us needing emergency food parcels are there because they have been made redundant and are facing a delay in receiving their benefits, some because they have had an unexpected bill and their tightly-stretched budgets simply can’t cover it and food, and others – as I assume is the case for this gentleman and his family – because they are asylum-seekers, and hence not entitled to any state assistance at all.
They are referred to us by Job Centres, doctors’ surgeries, Children’s Centres, schools, Asylum Centres, women’s shelters and many more agencies who are not equipped to give the helping hand that will get these vulnerable people through a crisis. In partnership with us, these agencies give out vouchers noting how many adults and children are in the family, and direct them to visit us on the next Wednesday or Saturday (currently the only days we are open).
We give them tinned meat, fish, soup, beans, vegetables and fruit, along with pasta, rice, sauces, cereals, fruit juice, milk, tea bags or coffee and a few extras like biscuits, puddings, jam and, if we have them, treats such as crisps or chocolate.
The idea, dreamed up by Christian charity The Trussell Trust, is that we give three days’ worth of food, and people can come back once or twice more – if the agency thinks their need is sufficient to issue them with another voucher – after which time the agency should have helped them to get back on their feet by other means.
There are now around 3000 Foodbanks across the country, each feeding scores of people each month, and the Trussell Trust has seen an acceleration in the rate of openings as churches and other groups become aware of the vast needs on their doorsteps and want to do something to help.
The food we give out is almost entirely donated items gathered at our monthly collections outside Sainsburys and Waitrose, where shoppers are given a list of our needs and asked to consider adding one or two to their shopping that day. Shoppers are always very generous and it is not unusual for them to add a whole basket, or even a whole trolley’s worth of items to their regular shop. From time to time though, local businesses will hold a collection in their offices, nearby churches will gather items, and even individuals will come in with a bag or two of groceries that they have bought in addition to their normal shopping.
It goes out almost as fast as it comes in. A Sainsburys collection will typically yield over a tonne of food, and for a week or so the shelves will overflow. By the time my team’s turn to serve rolls around, though – it always seems to coincide with the collection day – many of the shelves are empty again. This week we had no coffee, no tinned puddings/desserts and, until we had unpacked the new stock, delivered unexpectedly by a local church, no jam.
The Foodbank is staffed entirely by volunteers, most of whom go to my church, though we have a few people who volunteer from the local area. We open from 11:30-1:30 every Wednesday and Saturday, and volunteers also deal with all the administration and run and man the supermarket collections.
We would love to do more. The leaders are hoping to be able to set up a couple of computers to enable people to access the internet to search and apply for jobs, find information about benefits and training courses and all the other things which are increasingly difficult if you can’t afford a computer. They are talking to some local businesses about getting people in to help the clients write CVs, work out budgets, and perhaps even prepare for job interviews.
We’ve got so much – so many gifts and talents, and access to so many resources and facilities – it is heart-breaking that we can do so little, and perhaps even more heartbreaking to see how grateful people are for the little we can do.
I don’t know what your politics are – maybe you think the Government ought to step in and provide basic food, shelter and clothing for everyone regardless of circumstance. Maybe you think the Government already does too much and people need to be better prepared for unforeseen crises. If I’ve learned anything from Foodbank it’s that life is too complicated for blanket statements. No two families coming to us are the same. Few, if any, would prefer to rely on the generosity of strangers than to be able to provide for their families by the work of their hands. No one wants the broken lives, broken relationships, broken health and broken hope that bring them to our doors, and none of those things have easy solutions. No one can click their fingers – or even pass a law – to solve at a stroke the massive complexities of living in a fallen world.
When good people give of their time, energy and resources to make a tiny difference in one small corner, though, that helps.
When God’s people add to their service the offer of prayer, that helps too. God owns ‘the cattle on a thousand hillsides’ and loves to be generous to those who call on him in faith. He can guide the decisions of officials, open barriers which seemed rusted shut, and change hearts and lives. One reason Christians are playing – and have historically played – such a prominent role in meeting society’s needs is that we believe we have access to resources the human eye cannot see.
We’re not the only good people in the world – and we’re not always particularly good – but I’m proud that in this one small area at least we are responding to the call and making a difference.
We didn’t have any shampoo for our client and his family on Saturday. It was hard having to send him and others away with less than they had hoped for, less than they needed. He went back to his dog shed, his wife, his sick children where he will continue to struggle long after I have forgotten his stubbly face and broken English. All I can do is pray, for him, for his family, for the other clients we served in such a small way, that they would experience God standing beside them in the depths of their despair, and that he would help them find the way out.