FEATURE: The secret foodbank

Ruth Longfellow helps one of her clients unpack a weekly food basket

Ruth Longfellow helps one of her clients unpack a weekly food basket

0
Have your say

Matlock’s Jigsaw Foodbank are unlike most others – to give their clients some dignity they deliver, and because their clients are scared of what the neighbours might think, they have to do it in secret.

Each week, a pair of angels in a white van make umpteen deliveries to families in need - they fly under the radar, and you can’t simply apply for their service, you have to be referred by an agency.

In a region suffering from rural poverty and isolation due to the Dales’s geography, the need for foodbanks has increased alongside a massive national surge in usage.

So we wanted to see how they work in Derbyshire, and in the countryside, there is a very particular need to protect people’s dignity.

As we meet at the foodbank HQ at Church in the Peak in Matlock, they’re filling up for their second trip of the day.

“Back when it started it was only 15 households, and I could do it out of the back of my car,” foodbank leader Ruth Longfellow, 58, tells us. Now the volunteers serve 120 people including singles families and even working couples from Wirksworth to Bakewell, so a pit-stop is necessary to fit them all in the van.

It is unusual for a food bank to deliver, but it’s become an important feature as they find many people are affected by a crushing shame to need free food.

But even though the deliveries mean they don’t have to come and queue up for a parcel each week, some are still too embarrassed to receive the regular baskets at home.

“It’s to do with giving them some dignity,” says Ruth, who is doing the rounds with her fortnightly volunteer Alison Guy, 53. “That’s why we don’t advertise what we do - we could be an organic food company if you saw the van, and that’s because we have to be mindful of our clients - it’s quite a big thing to take handouts.

“Everyone is always grateful, but it’s a huge self esteem issue. We’ve had people struggle with it for weeks and then eventually tell us not to come by anymore because they’re embarrassed,” she adds.

Every client is different, some have mental health issues, some are under serious stress from things at work, others are on benefits but simply find the allowance they get doesn’t go far enough.

One of Ruth’s families, James and Hannah, have a young son and James was taken off work recently after a serious injury.

Another client, Miranda, is a single mum of five, but her job in retail on top of managing a huge family means she struggles, so her relationship with the foodbank is on a long-term basis.

The team get to know their clients over a long period, and end up offering other kinds of support as well.

Embarassment is such a big issue for the users we've been asked to keep their identities secret.

Embarassment is such a big issue for the users we've been asked to keep their identities secret.

“A lot of people want to unload, and we can be a friendly shoulder. Not in any official capacity, we can’t solve anyone’s problems, but it can take the pressure off.”

And they laugh that often you find you recognise people by they’re eating requirements.

“You know Ian?” asks Ruth. “Oh yeah - no fish no tea,” says Alison.

Of course the reasons people turn to Jigsaw are incredibly varied, but it’s no secret that issues with benefits are common.

Barbara, a 51-year-old mum of two boys lives in a rural area and depends totally on what she gets from the government.

Disabled, she suffers from memory problems having had several strokes, as well as mobility issues, fibromyalgia and nerve trouble.

“But they’ve taken most of the benefits away,” she says. “I should be on just under £100 a week but at the moment I’m getting £25 because I’m due a medical, so until I get that...”

Barbara’s medical to qualify for her disability allowance is in eight weeks time - so she’s got a long wait until the sanctions are put right.

“I was literally destitute before I heard about Jigsaw. They’re an absolute treasure - without them, sometimes we don’t have the food that we need. My eldest is out of school now and looking for work, my youngest has a part time job, but it’s not a great deal he brings in so I couldn’t take it off him. What the government can give doesn’t cover it, so we just literally plod on.”

The world of foodbanks has changed a lot recently. Churches still play a major role, but increasingly they are aided by supermarkets like Sainsbury’s. Donations still majorly come from the public, but there are increasing structures in place to support small groups. For one thing there’s Fareshare - a system of making sure food producers don’t waste fresh produce, and divvying it out to food banks around the region. It’s supported by the County Council, who have recently put in thousands to bring a new depot to North Derbyshire that will make life much easier for them.

So whether or not you like the idea of the government relying on charities to feed the hungry, the foodbanks are just happy to have a helping hand.

But do they feel it’s right the government relies on groups like Jigsaw so heavily?

“Well... Obviously in an ideal world we wouldn’t need it, but there you go,” says Alison, diplomatically.

Actually what Fareshare is good for, is the food that people don’t think to donate.

“We had a batch of melons recently, everyone got one, and when you’ve had little choice over what you can eat for so long a melon is absolute luxury.”

“People are really good at giving the staples like pasta and tins, but a big issue for us is the lack of specialist food for people who need lacto-free or gluten-free, or they’re vegetarian. When you start taking out the meat, cheese, bread – it doesn’t leave very much.”

Stigma, and misconceptions around foodbanks are still the most damaging problem they deal with. The guys have spoken about people dealing shame, which can make it hard to reach out to some clients who fear what the neighbours might think of them.

There’s also a misconception that foodbanks only operate at Christmas.

Ruth tells: “Christmas can be an awful time if you’re isolated, and we do a lot to help people have a great Christmas, but you have to remember that we do this all year round and actually the summer holidays have been the hardest time.”

“It’s when families have children at home,” adds Alison. “They’re not getting their school lunches so they need a lot more food for the week and they’re also trying to keep kids entertained at home.”

Mum of three Melanie, 33, is a prime example. Currently out of work, she has been looking after her two-year-old son and will now be looking for work again as he goes back to nursery.

She says: “I’m always struggling for food in the summer holidays. I’ve also got my daughters two nights a week which the benefits don’t account for, so the parcels help a lot. They make a big difference.”

And this could hopefully be Melanie’s last referral to the foodbank, adds Ruth: “It’s wonderful when you have people change their circumstances and they won’t be re-referring. You see how proud they are to be taking care of themselves again.”

It’s an important message, says Alison who, has worked with the foodbank fortnightly for around a year.

“People often think of our clients as scroungers, but they’re not. They are in genuine need, and whereas sometimes they may have made bad choices, many of them have just been dealt a bad hand in life.”

The service could always use more food and volunteers to help distribute the food parcels, as Alison adds: “Even though it’s something small it makes a big difference.”

You can significantly help local families in need, and food banks would love to receive any of the following:

Pasta, cereals, rice

Tins, jars, sauces

UHT milk, sugar, tea

Tinned meat and pudding

Biscuits and snacks

Gluten-free/lacto-free options