Hannah, our Content & Communications Manager, discusses her volunteer day ‘picking and packing’ Christmas hampers at a local foodbank.

In the UK there are 13 million people living in poverty. More than half live in a working household, and almost a sixth are children.

We are fortunate to live in a country where none of us thinks this is OK – but there is no silver bullet and so we are also fortunate to live in a country where there are so many different organisations and willing individuals who give generously of their time and money to provide different elements of the ‘safety net’ that catches those people who find themselves “on the edge of disaster, following a sudden crisis, such as redundancy, delayed benefit payments, illness”.  Alongside the welfare system there is additional help at hand for people who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn.

The Trussell Trust is one such organisation; a Christian charity committed to launching life changing, sustainable communities, it has developed a 400-strong network of foodbanks in the heart of local communities across the country. In 2016/2017 the trust gave 1,182,954 three-day emergency food parcels to people in crisis. In Cambridge alone, the foodbank issued food for 4,952 people during 2016.

In the run up to Christmas there seems to have been, in this area at least, an overwhelming level of support for the vital role that foodbanks play in providing this ‘safety net’. Individuals have become more familiar with the idea of a reverse advent calendar (donating one item per day in the run up to Christmas, rather than ‘receiving’ one chocolate or gift each day as you would with a traditional advent calendar), local businesses have chosen to corporately collect items from staff to combine into larger donations, supermarkets have facilitated donations, and schools, churches, youth groups and other clubs and societies have generously donated via Harvest appeals and other drives.

So, despite having seen “a staggering 82 percent rise in demand over the past year”, the Godmanchester foodbank (where I spent a day this week ‘picking and packing’ Christmas hampers) thankfully saw an increase in donations from members of the community in the run up to Christmas. In fact, the volunteer team of foodbank organisers was thrilled to see a surplus of supplies for this year’s Christmas hampers, which will mean there is more stock available to be used into January and February, when the foodbank tends to receive fewer donations. It was uplifting to see that, alongside some of the more staple items – pasta and rice, tinned goods and long-life milk – there had also been plenty of donations of more ‘Christmassy’ items, from Christmas cake, Christmas puddings and luxury chocolates, to biscuit selection boxes, stollen bites and lebkuchen.

The role of ‘picker and packer’ is to fill the boxes that will be distributed to people in need within the local area from the piles of food that are spread out around the church hall. The challenge, in my mind, was to try and fairly apportion the donated food according to people’s needs – you don’t want to risk over-filling the boxes at the beginning of the day as this may mean insufficient supplies for the boxes that are filled last.

The organisers have an idea of whether a parcel will be for a small household (one to three people) or a family (four plus), and create a list of how many of each type of item should go into the parcel depending on the size (‘small’ or ‘family’). The difference is likely to be between one box of cereal or two, or between three cans of soup or five, or indeed between one box of biscuits alone or one box of biscuits plus three ‘miscellaneous’ sweeties or chocolates.

Thinking of my own childhood, with my older sister, where every ‘decision’ provided an opportunity for us to bicker – about who would be allowed to sit in the front seat of the car, who would pick what to watch on TV, or who would get first choice of sweeties or biscuits – I really wanted to pick the optional items in a way that would seem ‘fair’ to whoever the recipients were. I also remember what a fussy eater my sister was – she would, for quite a few years, only eat rice with chicken in a white sauce! I was anxious to choose from the ‘meat tins’ three tins that had a wide enough range to suit not only any fussy eaters like my sister, but also the more adventurous family members like my Dad and me, who might enjoy some spice!

It may seem trivial to worry in such a way about choosing three tins from the potential options of chilli con carne, hot dogs, chicken tikka masala, beef stew and chicken in white sauce when the alternative might be that people don’t have enough food. But I think, especially at Christmas, the idea that people might not be able to have something to eat that they enjoy, seems too sad. Perhaps it is a sign of privilege when children have the freedom to be fussy eaters; I don’t remember my parents struggling to feed us meals we liked, or to give us special treats at Christmas, even though I know now that things weren’t always easy. I really hope that the generosity of everyone who donated to the foodbank, along with the careful picking and packing by everyone I spent the day with this week, will go some way to helping the families in receipt of the hampers to be able to enjoy eating together over Christmas just that little bit more.

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