Like many students, going to University was the first time I really came face to face with homelessness and poverty. It’s difficult to know how to react when we encounter people begging for spare change. Thinking of our warm bed and regular meals makes us want to help, but many organisations advise against simply giving out money: after all, we have no guarantee it will really be used for the food, warmth and shelter that this person needs.
So what can you do? The best thing is to support the charities and local organisations that help the most desperate people in the Sheffield community. These include the volunteer-run Foodbanks, many of which are coordinated by the Trussel Trust. Those who have come upon hard times – due to benefit cuts, unemployment, illness, etc. – and literally do not know where their next meal is coming from – can be referred to a Foodbank by social and health workers. At the Foodbank they can exchange their token for a parcel of essential items to keep them fed over the next few days. Food items are donated by members of the public and collected at various places, including schools, supermarkets, churches and workplaces (you can find one at the Tesco on West St). This means you can easily contribute while you do your weekly shop: simply put a few extra items in your basket and put them in the Foodbank collection point on your way out.
This month I visited the Foodbank in Burngreave to see for myself how the scheme provides a vital lifeline in society. Although people come here due to desperate circumstances, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. Lead administrator Rachel Snow explained how a group of volunteers from The Rock Christian Centre set up the Foodbank when they realised that many local families were struggling to feed themselves. “People come to us for various reasons – failed asylum seekers, people struggling to find work or suffering with sickness, emergencies that crop up” said Rachel. “Burngreave is also a very multicultural area, so we often see cases with very large families with up to 8 or 10 children”.
In the storeroom, the shelves groaned under the weight of baked beans, dried pasta and cereals, but the appearance of plenty was only illusionary: like a blood bank, foodbanks need to be kept well stocked to keep up with the constant demand. Although some is donated by local businesses – including bread from a bakers – most of it comes from public collection points. Besides key staples such as tinned fruit/veg, longlife milk, soups, the Burngreave Foodbank also gives out toiletries, sanitary supplies and baby products. Whilst there is a standard list of items for each emergency pack, the volunteers make sure that the food they give is appropriate to each person’s circumstances: “People who are sleeping on the streets or in tents for instance, won’t have access to an oven and so can’t use things like dried pasta” said Rachel.
But it goes beyond the food. Many of the people who come here stay to linger over a cup of tea and coffee, appreciating the chance to share their problems and be listened to without judgement. Indeed, what strikes me most about the Burngreave Foodbank is how it deals with poverty in a truly personal way. “We want this to be a place where people feel cared for, rather than just a number in the benefits system” said Rachel. “We always try to find time to sit and chat with them, so that we can signpost them to other organisations that could help them”.
In an ideal world, Foodbanks wouldn’t need to exist, but the need for them shows no sign of abating. “Given the current economic climate, I can’t see things improving” Rachel. “We usually see between 35 and 40 people each week – but what you have to remember is that this represents 35-40 whole families, not just individuals”. As such, Foodbanks need our continued support – and you can do this both through donating food items and volunteering your time. “It is a challenge trying to find enough volunteers” said Rachel. “If we had more people, we would have more time to sit with and chat to the people who come here for help”.
“When we were collecting items in Tesco once, a man just came up to me out of the blue and said ‘You’ve really saved my life you know’” Rachel added. So the next time you are moved by the plight of the homeless and poverty stricken in Sheffield, remember the Foodbanks; by helping them, you can be sure of making a difference.
For more information on the Foodbank network click here. Before donating to a Foodbank, please check the list on the website to make sure the items are appropriate. Certain items – e.g. fresh fruit/vegetables, frozen or refrigerated foods – are not suitable.
For more information about supporting the Burngreave Foodbank, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org