Investigation: Find out why food banks are so vital to so many this Christmas

December 2018: Food banks have become commonplace in many supermarkets. Joan Ransley goes behind the scenes to find our why they are so vital

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It’s a cold December afternoon and the light is fading at the Tesco store in Roundhay, Leeds when I am greeted by two volunteers wearing distinctive red tabards emblazoned with the words ‘Donate today’. They are from Leeds North West Food Bank which is supported by the Trussell Trust, a National charity whose mission is ‘To stop UK hunger’.

They hand me a leaflet with a list of food desperately needed for their food bank. It is a no-frills list of non-perishables including tinned meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, pasta, pasta sauces, long life milk, tea, coffee, fruit juices, instant mashed potato and right at the bottom “Christmas fare”.

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Inside the busy store customers bring the food needed by the food bank to another volunteer Audrey Reed, who thanks them and packs the donations into a crate.

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“People are so generous when we do these food collections. They genuinely understand the concept of helping local people and they know the food we are collecting will go to those in need in their neighbourhood. This morning a lady came up to me and gave me a trolley load of food. That is not unusual when we do these collections.”

Tony Stopforth, the store manager at Tesco, Roundhay explains: “Last year this Tesco store raised the equivalent of 4,140 meals during the national three day collection period in the run up to Christmas.

“This is the 11th year we have run a Christmas food collection and each year we learn a little bit more about what is needed by the food bank. We have built strong links with the community through our Community Champion who gets colleagues and customers involved in donating to those in need. Tesco Roudhay is one of the most popular food donation points in the city. It is heart touching to see people donating generously, for example, one person this week donated 80 advent calendars.”

There are now 19 food bank distribution centres in the Leeds network where emergency three-day food supplies are given out, across the city. A three-day emergency food supply is enough for ten meals and is adjusted according to the number of people in the household.

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The Trussell Trust, which supports the Leeds network, has been running food banks across the UK since 2004. Their figures show the need for emergency food across the county is growing. In December last year, 8,155 emergency, three-day food supplies were given out in Yorkshire, an increase of 10 per cent on December 2016, and between April and September this year, 40,666 three day emergency food supplies were given out.

The charity expects this December to be the busiest month ever for people needing emergency food aid.

The food donated by customers at Tesco is collected by the Food Bank’s VW Transporter van and taken to a warehouse in central Leeds. I make my way to the warehouse and meet Karen Burgon, project director for Leeds North and West Food Bank.

Karen says: “All the food donated is weighed, sorted and stored in this warehouse until it is required by the distribution centres. Food and other essentials is given by all sort of donors including Leeds United who have started collections at football matches; travellers who are big supporters of food banks following a recent social media campaign and, we have regular donations from one person who completes an online food shop and has it delivered here.”

There are more volunteers hard at work in the warehouse stacking shelves and organising provisions into categories such as UHT milk, tea, coffee, fruit juice, cans of beans, etc. Essential toiletries such as loo roll, toothpaste, disposable nappies, deodorants, shampoo and soap are laid out neatly on the shelves. I am heartened to see some Christmas boxes filled with Christmas crackers, individually wrapped mince pies and a few festive chocolates.

“The shelves look fully stocked because we have just had the three day Christmas collection at Tesco but at other times of the year they can look pretty empty. We often need more high protein food like canned fish and meat,” Karen tells me.

After visiting the Food Bank’s warehouse the final leg of my journey takes me to Moortown Methodist Church, one of seven food bank distribution centres in the North West of the city.

It is 9.30 am and volunteers are busy setting up tables with plates of biscuits and flowers making the room welcoming for the people coming to collect emergency food.

I met Sally Brown, a team leader for the project. Sally says: “Everyone who comes here is referred by an agency such as a GP, social worker, Citizens Advice, children’s centre or health visitor. Referral agencies issue a voucher for three day’s emergency food. When people arrive, a trained volunteer offers them a cup of tea and something to eat.

“They then sit down to discuss their crisis with them. The volunteer goes through what food they need for themselves and their family and may suggest where further help is available.

“There are all sorts of reasons why people find themselves with threadbare finances and not enough money to spend on food,” says Tricia Ryder, the food bank distribution centre manager.

“Their crisis could be triggered by a delay in receiving benefits, ill health or disability. One person had their house burned down and had no means of getting any food. Domestic violence can lead to someone leaving home suddenly without any means of support.”

Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, says: “Food banks across the country will be doing all they can this Christmas so people don’t go hungry - but to make sure we’re prepared for what could be our busiest winter yet, our network needs your support.”

Factfile - How you can help

Volunteer at one of the food bank distribution centres or warehouses

Donate food at the permanent collection points in supermarkets

Give cash which is vital for keeping the infrastructure of the charity going

Further details on how you can help your local Food Bank

Leeds North West Food Bank www.leedsnorthandwest.foodbank.org.uk

Leeds South East Food Bank www.leedssouthandeast.foodbank.org.uk

The Trussell Trust www.trusselltrust.org