Coronavirus: Northampton food bank sees demand rocket

By Craig Lewis and Orla Moore
BBC News

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image captionUniversity student Francis Gichuru also volunteers. "I like helping other people," he says

Tens of thousands of people rely on food banks each week for basic provisions, but lockdown forced many to close just as they were needed most. One centre in Northampton remained open against the odds. BBC News spoke to its users and volunteers.

It's just gone 10:00 BST and outside one of the units at Weston Favell Shopping Centre, a queue is starting to form.

In its previous life as a Next store, that was nothing unusual, but now people are lining up not for fashion bargains but that most basic of essentials: food.

Twice a week, an army of masked volunteers meet here, sorting, packing and handing out tins, packets, bags and cartons to grateful recipients.

Lockdown saw demand at Weston Favell Centre Foodbank treble, prompting its move from a nearby church to this vacant retail unit on Northampton's eastern edge.

Food bank user Susan Austin described the service as a "Godsend".

"I'm on Universal Credit and I can't go to work, so this is really important to me. I'd be in the mortuary without it," she said.

"I don't get paid until the first of the month, which seems years away.

"I'm here because I simply have no food."

'You'd be amazed how versatile a tin of tomatoes can be'

image captionKiera: "Everything I get from here, I use"

During lockdown, mother-of-two Kiera found herself on a low income, looking after her disabled partner and struggling to make ends meet.

"This is vital to me; a lifesaver," she said.

"I'm on Universal Credit. Everything I get from here, I use. It all makes a big difference when you've not got the money to spend.

"I couldn't afford school uniforms last year and the food bank staff took me to Tesco and helped me."

"You get lots of soup - I love soup. It's healthy as well. You get the odd packet meal; quick and easy. With a bit of research, you'd be amazed how versatile a tin of tomatoes can be."

Kiera is not alone.

image captionFood bank user Michael Harrison is supporting his wife and son

Michael Harrison has been visiting the food bank with his son Kenneth for a month now.

"When you're out of work, the low income just about covers the bills," he said.

"Trying to find work when you haven't been out of the house is hard. But this makes a lot of difference.

"It takes the stress out of putting food on the table. I can just buy meat myself. The alternative is hunger."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in emergency parcels through April

Last month, the UK's biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, reported an 89% increase in emergency food parcels for the month of April.

Food banks in the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) reported a 175% increase in need during the same period.

'This used to be a crisis service'

image caption"We are in a different world": food bank manager Anne Woodley

But this lifeline is just emerging from a crisis of its own. Lockdown saw demand rocket but supplies collapse.

"At first, it was hard to get the donations in as we couldn't get to the supermarkets - we felt like criminals," said food bank manager Anne Woodley.

"Until they waived the restrictions it was really difficult.

"Prior to that, it was a crisis service: three days' food, just tins. We have now moved into a different world where people are living off food banks."

Food Bank stock
BBC
Food banks in the UK

  • More than 2,000The number of Food Banks in the UK

  • 23%Rise in food parcel distribution from April-September 2019

  • 4 millionHours worked by food bank volunteers in 2017 - worth £30m

  • 1.5 millionThree day emergency food parcels supplied in 2018/19

Source: House of Commons Library

Initially, exhausted volunteers mustered the energy to organise emergency Friday deliveries to vulnerable people shielding.

"I remember one week where we ran out of food at the end of a Wednesday session. We just about had enough food for that day, and then thought 'what are we going to do for Friday?'"

The food bank went from handing out 120 parcels at the height of the crisis to a more manageable 80 a week, Mrs Woodley said.

Back in January, it was 40 a week.

'I volunteered to do something good'

image captionEvie Stephens: "For some people it's a real lifeline"

Volunteer Evie Stephens worked for a charity until she was placed on furlough three months ago.

"I decided to fill my time with something good for the community," she said.

"It's been lovely to see the impact on our clients. For some people it's a real lifeline, but the food is just one part of what we give - you see at first-hand the difference it makes.

"It was a bit strange at first, walking around with mask and gloves on, but we are doing the best we can to make everyone safe."

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'Sometimes it's food you think of last'

image captionTracey Fogg: "We had to adapt pretty quickly"

"We never know what donations are coming in so we structure the week," said warehouse co-ordinator Tracey Fogg.

"If someone finds themselves in difficulties, such as paying bills, sometimes it's food you think of last.

"Initially when lockdown happened it was chaotic. We were inundated with donations and needed to store it all, but on the other side of the coin clients came in because they panicked. The supermarkets were struggling to provide bulk stock and we were relying on the generosity of the public.

"We had to adapt pretty quickly."

Colleague Jayne Redding, a former street church volunteer, said clients came from all walks of life, with many suddenly affected by the Covid-19 downturn.

"We get single people, huge families, people with ageing parents who are shielding and those who are laid off because of Covid," she said.

"Sometimes they're embarrassed and worried, but we signpost them to the right place.

"I'm quite an emotional person and it can make me sad, but we can plug this one gap for them. It can be uplifting."

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