Bedfordshire food groups 'proud we have helped people'

By Alex Pope
BBC News, East

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image copyrightSri Guru Ravidass Sabha
image captionHot meals are served to NHS staff at Bedford Hospital by the Sri Guru Ravidass Sabha faith group

As lockdown easing continues and the UK looks towards returning to a more normal life in the summer, many families forced into poverty by the pandemic are still in need of help and support.

In Bedford, charities have been working together to help feed as many people as possible. What has the past year been like for them, caring for people during unprecedented circumstances?

'A steep learning curve'

image captionFood4 is run by the local YMCA and is based in Bedford's Church Arcade

Through all the lockdowns, Food4, run by YMCA Bedfordshire, said the demand for food never ceased.

In 2019 it helped 1,915 households, but that number jumped to 9,083 last year.

The charity hands out fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods and larder items donated by supermarkets, which were otherwise destined for landfill.

It handled about 16 tonnes of food in 2019, but last year it increased to 112 tonnes.

Rebecca Ireland, its business operations manager, said: "Last year was a steep learning curve for us all; a nearly fivefold increase in our outputs combined with a premises move and all that Covid has brought in terms of staff shielding, isolation and infection control measures.

"But we have had some heart-warming, tear-jerking feedback and thanks from our clients, which has made all our efforts worthwhile."

image copyrightFood
image captionRebecca Ireland accepting a donation of potatoes from a housing charity

She said the food handed out was a "weight lift" for families as they were no longer "going without basic items".

It learned lessons from a busy year and introduced a ticketing system, so timeslots were handed out to avoid long queues.

"We're now in a position to serve the volume of people we're currently seeing, and the team has bonded together really well," said Ms Ireland.

"We have formed strong relationships with other food and support charities, from Bedford Foodbank to PBIC, Faces and Age UK Bedfordshire, and with statutory authorities such as the Borough council hub and Public Health, so we are uniquely placed to refer our clients to other support they may need."

'Generosity at all-time high'

image captionSarah Broughton, project manager at Bedford Foodbank, said she was very grateful for the support the charity received

The way charities are "working together" has been "amazing", said Sarah Broughton, the project manager of Bedford Foodbank.

"This past year we've been busy but there's no surprise there. We have huge amounts of people who we would never expect to see at a food bank.

"They've been left shocked they've had to rely on benefits when they've never had to before.

"Some who've lost jobs and been furloughed just haven't been able to pay the bills, and they're so shocked at how little money they have to survive.

"Some people on universal credit have asked, 'Is this what I'm getting a week,' to find it's what they're getting a month."

image captionEvery item is checked before being stored at Bedford Foodbank's premises on Manton Industrial Estate

Throughout the whole year, donations were "absolutely outstanding", she said.

"People's generosity has been at an all-time high. Demand has gone up but so has our support.

"When we put items that we need on our website, we know in a few days that that need will be met."

'People know who we are now'

image copyright Sri Guru Ravidass Sabha
image captionJaswinder Kumar has hand-delivered food to NHS workers since March 2020

For Jaswinder Kumar, president of the Sri Guru Ravidass Sabha in Bedford, serving people across the county is its goal.

"It is very important to help other people, this is our faith," he said.

From March to July 2020, the religious group made more than 18,000 vegetarian meals for key workers. In October half-term, inspired by Marcus Rashford, it handed out more than 360 packed lunches and meals to children.

Although it has had to scale back operations, it has started making food for hospital staff alongside those "struggling to cook hot meals due to Covid-19". It has also given snacks to staff at vaccination centres.

"We are proud we have helped people across Bedfordshire, it has kept us busy," said Mr Kumar.

"Not many people knew of us before the pandemic, but they now know about us.

"If things ever get back to normal, we will continue."

image copyrightSGRSBedford
image captionSnacks are given to staff working at the Manton Lane vaccination centre in Bedford

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