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Living on a emergency food parcel from Slough Foodbank

‘It’s getting very claustrophobic in here’, Slough Foodbank manager Sue Sibany King tells me from her donation-filled office.

The festive season has seen a healthy supply of perishable food being brought to the foodbank, causing stockpiles to overflow from the storage warehouse.

“I think a lot of people start to think about volunteering at Christmas, about the homeless people getting off the streets, being fed, it’s just a more charitable time in general.”

Christmas can be a challenging time for people who are struggling financially, so volunteers have been providing additional Christmas goodies in food parcels to give a helping hand.

Slough Foodbank, a part of the Trussell Trust network, was started in 2010 and has seen a significant rise in usage since 2013.

The current uptake is currently at about 100 referrals a week, having increased steadily over the winter, something which Sue attributes partly to higher heating expenses and the cold making people use energy more.

Recipients usually receive emergency three-day food parcels, which can be for single people or families.

In order to better understand the process, I was given a referral voucher by Sue, which I took a few days later to one of the foodbank’s distribution points in Cippenham.

Before I got in touch with the foodbank, I assumed that as a vegan it would not be able to cater for me. But I was given ample supplies for healthy and balanced meals including pre-cooked lentils, chickpeas, tinned meals, fruit and vegetables, soy milk, shredded wheat, peanut butter, rice, pasta and more.

It is worth noting that while the foodbank can put together vegetarian packs, the amount they could put together for vegans would largely depend on what they have available.

The supplies I was given was to me, a testimony to how well stocked the foodbank is.

Foodbank users talk through their requirements with volunteers and will have a limited number of choices, for example tea or coffee or jam, marmalade, honey or spread.

While Slough Foodbank has halal options, volunteers are unaware of anywhere that sells tinned, non-perishable halal meat – so those requiring halal food can get a fish-based pescatarian package.

Adjustments can also be made for people on the streets, with food parcels only containing items that can be opened by hand and easily eaten out of a packet. Kettle packs are also available for people who might not have access to an oven.

While a bit of fresh garlic, onion and ginger would have livened things up a bit, I managed to rustle up a hearty chickpea and vegetable curry, using tinned vegetable balti, peas and carrots in a can, coconut milk, tinned tomatoes and a hint of chili powder – assuming a foodbank user could have some knocking around.

My attempt at making lentil meatballs quickly fell apart when the balls broke up in the pot of tinned tomatoes but I still managed to make a satisfying meat-free bolognese.

As I try to do normally, I made big portions for dinner, leaving leftovers for lunch, but the inability to simply go out and buy a sandwich made me think about how people living on food parcels would have to be more mindful about how they use their food.

While I certainly had enough to live on, I did not think it was fair to say that people take these parcels as any kind of voluntary lifestyle choice.

“Across all seven years, around 50 per cent of our people come because of benefit problems, either issues, delays or changes,” said Sue.

She added that many people who use the foodbank are working and are recipients of in-work benefits, something which is often forgotten about in the face of stereotypes of scroungers.

“People think it’s just the benefit culture,” added Sue, who says many users are on zero hour contracts and therefore could experience an unexpected drop in income.

She mentioned one client with mental health issues who did not realise the company he was working for had changed hands, meaning he continued to go to work but was not being paid by the new management.

“Things like that are going on all the time,” said Sue, making the point that it can be easier to fall through the cracks than one might think.

The foodbank operates on a referral basis, which means foodbank clients receive referral vouchers from parties including local authority departments, some health professionals, housing associations and more.

Trussell Trust guidelines are that recipients are meant to have three vouchers per year, which Sue says is the understanding of most people who use or are connected with the service.

However she says that if people are still in need the foodbank will help.

Those who come more often will be asked by foodbank volunteers and staff what their issues are and what support they are receiving to make sure they are getting the help they are entitled to.

Baylis Media Ltd donated £100 to the foodbank to cover any costs of the food parcel used.

Sue says the parcels are valued at about £20 depending on brands used.

The foodbank is undertaking a warehouse restructure in January and will not need any new donations during this time.

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