West Berks Foodbank’s achievements and challenges – March 2022

West Berkshire Foodbank Fran

The funding of West Berkshire Foodbank was discussed at West Berkshire Council’s budget meeting in March 2022, with a suggestion from the Green councillors that additional funding be supplied. This suggestion was rejected and the following text is the response by email from WB Foodbank Manager Fran Chamings to some of the WBC councillors who had participated in the debate.

Fran summarises the increasing number of ways in which WB Foodbank is helping an increasing number of people in the district and the specific problems that are likely to make its work even more necessary in the future. We have just added the headings and made a few edits to the text.

Rough sleeping

The amazing success of the WBC Rough Sleeper Initiative Team is absolutely something to be celebrated and all those who have had a hand in the transition of these sometimes extremely complex individuals should be proud of a virtually zero number of rough sleepers. Throughout the pandemic we were sending weekly food parcels to all those housed at the hotels under the Rough Sleeper initiative.

Since the pandemic we have supplied 7.1 tonnes of food and toiletries to the WBC RSI, over 3 tonnes of food to Loose Ends and 1.7 tonnes of food and essential supplies to the Housing First Initiative. Every person re-housed by Nick Capara/Claire Alexander’s RSI team and referred to us receives a starter home kit for which we send out everything to set up a kitchen food cupboard in their new home. A standard seven-day food parcel includes items such as cooking oil, flour, condiments, ketchups and jams, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, squash, herbs, spices, garlic, tomato puree, oxo cubes, baking powder as well as shampoo, shower gel, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, cleaning products, bleach, cleaning cloths, bin bags and tin foil.

West Berks Foodbank has done all it can to support the rough sleepers, homeless and sofa surfers. The ‘key partners’ mentioned are only supporting the smallest cohort of vulnerable people in our community, and we have shared over 12 tonnes of food/essential items to these people. During the same period West Berks Foodbank has supplied an additional 320 tonnes of food/supplies to thousands of other vulnerable households in West Berkshire.

Supporting children

Working families, singles parents, our elderly, refugees, as well as the sick and infirm all incredibly vulnerable and all deserving of our support. Last financial year West Berks Foodbank’s Child Holiday Provision delivery alone was over 40,000 meals. These are families in food poverty in school holidays referred to us by the school family support worker. (Unfortunately the extension of the Free School Meal vouchers did not cover all the school holidays throughout the year.)

Since the pandemic, the demand on West Berks Foodbank has more than trebled and we have supplied seven-day food parcels to 18,115 people, 7,582 of those children under 16 years. This is in addition to the support given to our key partners Home-Start, Sovereign Housing, Young People and Children First, Vivid Homes, A2 Dominion Bramlings House, and Two Saints, as well as our other colleagues in the homeless sector. We have a good working relationship with the schools in our district and we became inundated with requests for support from family support workers. We were under additional financial pressure due to not all school holidays being supported with free school meals from the council.

Signposting

We also signposted and helped a large number of our clients apply to the £694,000-worth of Household Support Funding that was mentioned during the budget debate. Over 1,400 applications were approved but these took over 10 days to apply for and approve and sometimes even longer to be paid out. Therefore, WB Foodbank fed a lot of those applicants whilst they had no food for those 10 days.

Universal Credit applications are still taking in excess of five weeks to come through and there there is a delay with accessing pensions for the recently retired with a backlog at the DWP.  I have spoken with clients waiting in excess of 25 weeks for PIP assessments.

Funding

Councillor McKinnon mentioned that we had not applied for funding from WBC and we have no activity on the Good Exchange. The reason for this is that during the first wave of Covid the first funding opportunity from WBC was dependent on the charity having less than six months working capital in our bank account. This meant that all the primary food providers called to meet WBC  (Newbury Community Resource Centre, Newbury Soup Kitchen, Loose Ends, The Fairclose Centre and WBFB) were unable to claim any support. This was confirmed in a conversation with Susan Powell at the Community Hub. I asked if there was any funding that we could approach the council for regarding supporting school children. She asked if we had money in our bank account. I answered yes we did, and Susan said that if so  we would not be offered financial support.

Greenham Trust is a wonderful supporter of West Berks Foodbank and has always gifted us our warehouse accommodation. We have never had to pay rent on our units at Greenham Business Park. The Trustees of the Foodbank therefore have always made a conscious effort to only ever apply for small targeted amounts for specific initiatives on The Good Exchange. Now, however, the operating model has changed at Greenham Trust and we were advised recently that we could no longer be gifted our building and would now need to pay rent.

I became the first paid member of staff (on a salary of £27,300) a week before the first lockdown as the Trustees realised there were challenging times ahead. In March 2022 we employed a part time member of staff on a salary of £13,520 due to the three-fold increase in demand on our services. We therefore will now be applying to the Good Exchange for operational funding.

Distribution centres

Pre-Covid we had five distribution centres throughout West Berks (Lambourn, Thatcham, Burghfield, Newbury and Hungerford). Clients would come in and sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit whilst we packed their food parcels for them. This allowed us to discuss their circumstances. Trained volunteers would listen and signpost clients where appropriate. We are able to spot safeguarding concerns and make appropriate referrals.

Since lockdown, we have also been delivering seven-day food parcels to those in food crisis throughout our district. We have realised that this delivery service for many is a godsend for those who don’t drive and don’t live near a distribution centre or those with mental and physical health conditions that don’t allow them to visit in person. With this in mind, the foodbank will operate a hybrid model of community collection points with a community café feel and home deliveries. We have over 140 volunteers allowing us to operate five days a week and most clients have access to food within 24 hours.

A range of partners and support

At the budget meeting Councillor Hilary Cole commented “we support the most vulnerable in our community by working with our key partners Newbury Soup Kitchen, West Berkshire Homeless and Loose Ends.” I personally know all three charities exceptionally well. I volunteered with Meryl at NSK, was a Trustee at WBH and have visited LE numerous times. West Berks Foodbank accepts weekly referrals from NSK and WBH as well as sending a bulk order to Loose Ends every Monday.

Relieving Hunger, Reviving Dignity and Restoring Hope is at the core of everything we do. Every client is spoken with and offered support. Every ambient food parcel is supplemented with purchased fresh fruit and vegetables. We provide eggs for our clients with halal diets and specific foods for our refugee families as they don’t eat processed food. We supply baby formula as the milk tokens invariably don’t cover the cost of the tin and the cost of formula can be in excess of £14 per tin. We have purchased and then loaned out dehumidifiers to clients that are unable to dry their children’s school uniform because they can’t afford to turn on the heating. We even offer one-off top-ups to pre-paid smart meters so clients can actually cook the food we give them.

A storm coming

There is a storm coming as the nation faces a cost-of-living crisis and recovers from the devastating effects of the pandemic. Recent research shows people who cannot afford the essentials are being pushed deeper into poverty by a rising tide of government debt. This debt can take many forms, including paying back advance payments given to people on Universal Credit to cover the five-week wait for their first benefit payment, paying back council tax debt to local authorities, repaying benefit overpayments, and more. Sometimes some of these are referred to as deductions from benefits, but here we are primarily calling them debt. Nearly half of people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network are in debt to the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions – the department responsible for social security).

Councillor Steve Masters has checked in with the Foodbank a number of times, asking about current trends or issues – how the withdrawal of the £20 uplift was impacting clients for instance. Eight Bells, a charity he is passionate about (and founded), is a referral agency to the Foodbank, so I believe he sees some of the clients we are supporting.

During a conversation recently, I had mentioned that demand is outstripping supply regarding donations. Virtually all of our food is donated by our amazing community. Unfortunately as disposable income shrinks for many, this has impacted our donors, and for the past three months we sent out more food than we have received in.

Last month was our worst at over three tonnes short, therefore we are now starting to buy in food. So purchasing food, paying rent with an additional salary, as well as the rise in petrol prices (approx six drivers each day Monday to Friday), our financial stability is no longer a given.

To find our more

For more information about West Berks Foodbank, including how you can help, please visit the website.

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