Word from the Frontline: Newcastle West End Foodbank
Newcastle West End Foodbank opened in March 2013 to serve one of the most economically deprived areas of the North East. It has since grown to become one of the most used foodbanks in the UK, distributing food parcels to feed 30,000 people each year and operating in three locations. Before the lockdown this was a thriving community hub, offering a social service that went far beyond food parcels. The pandemic forced them to focus on the most essential task of providing emergency food to meet a 202% increase in demand within April 2020. Caroline Wood talks to the volunteers about how the ‘front line’ has changed.
A changed service
Unusually for a foodbank, Newcastle West End ran a café, offering clients hot drinks, cakes and even cooked lunches. “It was a lovely community space, and mums would even bring their children during the holidays”. According to Helen, a volunteer who gave pastoral support, the cafe provided a valuable service by helping clients to form a peer support system, share knowledge and access other services. But the tiny kitchen simply couldn’t adapt to social distancing guidelines, and it has been closed since the lockdown started.
Even though the food bank remains open, the atmosphere is very different as the face-to-face pastoral work has had to stop. Helen, who now manages the queue and distributes hand sanitiser, has found it difficult that clients must wait outside, standing at lines painted 2 metres apart. “Many new users are often ashamed to come to a food bank and waiting outside can make them extremely uncomfortable,” she says. “The smile you give to welcome someone is so important, but now we are all wearing face masks and no one can see them.” Nevertheless, the Food Bank is still reaching out to vulnerable clients, particularly those with poor mental health. “With the majority of our referral agencies home working, it has become more difficult to maintain contact with clients so we started a welfare ring back service to contact anyone who we felt needed a little bit of help or motivation or just a chat” says Carole Rowland, who looks after the welfare of the food bank’s volunteers and clients.
Ruth Sheldon was redeployed by the Council to work four days a week for the food bank, helping to coordinate new referrals, volunteer applications and a new home delivery service for those self-isolating at home. “I liaise between the food bank and the Council staff who have been redeployed to make deliveries, including staff from the transport and construction departments” she says. Besides staff, the Council also gave financial support and set up telephone lifeline number for all coronavirus-related issues. “Normally there is only one person in the food bank’s office, so they couldn’t physically manage the amount of phone calls and new referrals” Ruth says.
Despite never having worked for a Food Bank before, Ruth has found her skill set to be invaluable, particularly her experience of community outreach. “For instance, we’ve been working with family hubs and refugee organisations to make sure we reach all vulnerable people” she says. Partnering with others may be crucial to continue delivering food if the drivers are called back to work even as people continue to self-isolate. “Even if we have to stop the delivery service, we won’t leave vulnerable people helpless; it’s likely we will work with social services and other organisations to distribute food parcels” Ruth says.
Away from the front line, the impacts of the pandemic are still felt by volunteers forced to self-isolate due to their age and/or pre-existing medical conditions. “Covid-19 decimated our volunteer force: from a total of 109, we were reduced to 27 due to the need for many to self-isolate due to age and health reasons” says Carole. Volunteer Laurie also had to leave because due to pre-existing medical condition. Fortunately, he has found a novel way to continue to safely support the food bank. “Last year we started a garden to provide food for the kitchen and wellbeing activities for the clients” he says. “So, I’ve been keeping busy by growing seedlings that the other volunteers can plant there”.
More information: https://newcastlewestend.foodbank.org.uk/
Interview by: Caroline Wood