Charity fighting hunger in the heart of Plymouth in 2012
IT'S noon on a chilly Wednesday at the Crown Centre in Stonehouse. In a cramped back room the shelves heave with dried and tinned goods and volunteers are flattening out plastic bags so they can be quickly filled. There's an hour-and-a-half until the doors open.
After launching in 2008 and serving nobody in their first week and only eight people in the second, the project is on course to have fed over 5,500 this year. Around 200 schools, businesses, churches, clubs, societies and individuals have collected and donated food, which can be accessed via vouchers distributed to those in crisis by more than 180 different professionals and agencies around the city.
Donated food is checked for dates and dents, weighed and placed on the shelves. When the Foodbank opens three times a week people hand over their red vouchers and sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit while the parcel is made up. Aside from the relief provided by the food, the listening ears and helpful advice of staff and volunteers provide additional sustenance to those at a low ebb.
A food parcel for one person consists of cereal, sugar, pasta, tea or coffee, biscuits, juice, milk and a tin of soup, beans, tomatoes, vegetables, meat, fish, fruit and rice pudding. If fresh goods have been donated they are also added, which included pasties and apples today.
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The Foodbank can, in extenuating circumstances, issue vouchers themselves, but centre manager Maria Mills explained that they try not to. "A big part of what we do here is to say 'what are you doing to get out of this situation?' We want them to be accessing the services that can help them. So we ask them to go to the agencies. Get the help, get the voucher."
She said it is helpful having other activities going on at the Crown Centre so that people arriving for food are not self conscious and embarrassed. "There's the job club, computer lessons, cookery lessons and many other things," said Marie, "it isn't obvious that you're here for the foodbank. It is hard to walk through that door. People tell us they've been walking around for an hour plucking up the courage to come in. A phrase we hear a lot is 'I never thought I'd be here'."
Will Notley, 26, has been volunteering at the Foodbank for nearly two years. He said: "You see a real mixture of people coming through, not just singles but entire families. The number has definitely increased in the time I've been here. It could be the worsening economic situation or could also be because we're becoming more well known."
Will said the centre also gives out cutlery and crockery if needed. "People with no fixed abode might need a tin opener, a bowl, a spoon. Some have absolutely nothing – not even access to a kettle. We do the best we can for them, giving them things that can be eaten cold and don't require cooking."
I meet a 31-year-old who has spent 14 years of his life in prison for various offences. He said he was trying to get back on track and enrol on a college course, but that there had been a delay with his benefits and he had not eaten in a few days. He said: "This place is a lifeline. There's no judgment, they listen to you and give you good advice. If I wasn't getting this food today I know I might have done something desperate."
Eunice Halliday, the project co-ordinator, said feeding people often enabled them to deal with the other problems they are facing. She said: "It takes that weight off them so they can then tackle the other issues." Maria added: "We had one man who had been given a van by his father and set himself up as a landscape gardener. So he signed off his benefits and was looking forward to earning. But then the van needed an MOT before he could start, and he couldn't afford to both feed his family and get the certificate. He was stuck, but he came to us and we could give him the food."
Asked what they thought were the most common misconceptions people have about Foodbanks, Eunice said: "That it's for scroungers and those not willing to work. We help people from right across the board." Maria added: "Some people think it's all homeless people and drug addicts. And that we're a soft touch. We're not."
High-profile support from businesses and clubs including Plymouth Argyle, Tesco, Sainsbury's and the River Cottage Canteen & Deli, is helping the project cope with increasing demand, but Eunice said there were "already holes appearing on the shelves."
During Christmas week, a special bag of festive treats will be given out in addition to the normal parcels, following donations from groups such as the Rotary Club.
If you want to donate to the Foodbank, juice and long-life milk are a good place to start, as they're quick to run out.
They also need drivers to pick up food that has been collected from around Plymouth and bring it to the centre.
You can contact Plymouth Foodbank on 01752 254981