How one Norwich foodbank coped during lockdown
- Credit: Archant
Foodbanks are always there in times of need - but who is there for the foodbanks when they need help?
There has been the steady stream of forever grateful clients who have been helped out on more than one occasion, the one-off urgent calls for help, and then a sudden surge of families and individuals, who just three months earlier never dreamt it would happen to them.
But of all the cases that Hannah Worsley has dealt with as project manager for Norwich Foodbank during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, one more than any other sticks in her mind.
“There was one lady I will never forget,” recalls Hannah. “I had to deliver a food parcel to her at the hotel she was staying at with her young children, and she was so afraid of giving me her room number. I understood – as a victim of domestic abuse, she’d been told not to reveal her location to anyone.
“She was so stressed, I had to reassure her that I was coming to help. When I got there, I realised just how sad the situation was. They had absolutely nothing. We were delivering to domestic abuse victims with children in emergency accommodation and they didn’t even have a plate to put the food on or the cutlery to eat it with.
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“We also gave her some gifts left over from Christmas donations for her children, and I can’t begin to tell you how grateful she was.”
Hannah joined Norwich Foodbank in Ivy Road six years ago, which has been helping families in need for a decade and forms part of the Trussell Trust network. She spent the previous eight years working in an addiction rehabilitation centre.
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Despite her considerable experience dealing with incredibly tough issues, nothing could quite prepare her for the day lockdown was announced on March 23.
Without previous precedent to rely on, the fact that the foodbank with its 10 distribution centres has been able to respond to the tidal wave of people in sudden need is in no small part down to the charity’s trustees, staff and volunteers and quick thinking with the odds stacked against them.
During the first week of lockdown, Hannah lost 70 volunteers – around half her team.
“I remember watching the TV bulletins with Boris, looking at my husband when he announced the country was going into lockdown, and saying, ‘Oh my goodness!’
“I suddenly had volunteers ringing me saying they could no longer help out, understandably, due to shielding, childcare issues and concerns about their vulnerable families being exposed to risk. We could not buy hand sanitiser anywhere and clients were ringing to say that they could not come out anymore to collect their food, but were still very much in need of our help.
“That first Thursday, Friday and weekend into lockdown were ridiculously busy. All I can say is that those early days were just awful – it was the lowest point.”
Despite the daunting task ahead, Hannah immediately tried to collect her thoughts. She was fully aware that it would be impossible to run 10 centres with the number of volunteers left and it was not a simple case of taking on new ones – they needed training, and time was not on her side.
A radical plan of action was needed and she took the decision to close the foodbanks to public collections and switch to a delivery-based model - all within the space of a week.
“Some foodbanks do a bit of both, but before then we had never delivered,” explains Hannah. “My volunteers needed to be kept safe while still serving clients - each was as important as the other.
“I had one sleepless night working out in my head how we could suddenly co-ordinate all deliveries. I couldn’t see the wood from the trees and there was a fleeting moment when I thought this is just not going to come together but, thanks to the amazing support of the Trustee board, my warehouse manager and fantastic volunteers, I never thought of giving up.”
Concerned about the risk of falling ill herself, Hannah also began to pass on her knowledge to her team so that the cogs would keep turning in the event of her absence.
“Nobody should ever be indispensable - things can’t just close down simply because one person isn’t there. At that time, I was the only one who understood every element of the new way of working, so that immediately had to change. Now everyone knows what needs to happen to allow our work to be done each day.”
Hannah admits that initially there was a lot of confusion when operations moved to deliveries only.
“People thought that because our centres were closed that we weren’t offering help anymore. There were so many phone calls and I’ll never forget the relief in their voices when they realised we were able to help.
“We were taking lots of calls from people who, three months earlier, had no idea whatsoever that they would ever have to use a foodbank.”
Hannah says her dedicated and passionate team of volunteers have never been more motivated to help. Spurred on by the knowledge that they were now needed more than ever, they adapted to the new system instantly and the operation now runs like a well-oiled machine.
Volunteers take calls from home and the mornings are spent getting parcels ready in the warehouse. Route planning and putting orders together takes place early afternoon before drivers are sent out with deliveries. Meanwhile, the calls continue to flood in.
On a positive note, deliveries have enabled the team to get to know their clients well on a personal level; they know their stories and feel more connected than ever to the people they are helping.
Norwich Foodbank has made almost 3,000 deliveries to families in food crisis during lockdown. Demand for its services rose by 38 per cent for the 12 months to the end of June 2020, year on year, and is set to continue increasing meaning donations will be needed more than ever.
Hannah has been taken aback by the wider community’s response and rallying spirit. “Lots of people have been extremely generous. Many more have been giving for the first time. We just hope it continues.”
She points to the school holidays as an immediate concern despite the Government’s extended meal voucher scheme and the uncertain future created by the pandemic’s adverse economic impact and the possibility of a second wave.
“I think demand is going to keep growing steadily, and winter and Christmas particularly are always a problem. I can honestly see demand doubling during this period from last year.
“I would like to think we can cope because we have to – there is no other option. We have some amazing people helping us and being part of the Trussell Trust is great, but none of us knows what’s actually going to happen.
“I would also like to say a really big thankyou to the East of England Co-op for their continued financial support and caring about what we actually need. The recent Foodbank Summit they organised allowed us to share challenges, good practice and the knowledge that we’re not alone.”
As her foodbank prepares for the many more challenges ahead, Hannah remains concerned that some people may be slipping through the net purely because they are reluctant to seek help.
“There’s always the fear that people are too proud to ask for help and go without because there’s still a huge stigma about having to go to a foodbank. It’s always uppermost in my mind, but short of knocking on every door, you have to hope that they will get in touch.”
One thing that she is certain about though is that foodbanks will be increasingly needed and believes that their role in society will widen.
“I think that sadly it’s a given that foodbanks will be needed more and more. But I don’t think that we will just be a foodbank anymore – we will become community hubs offering many forms of help to the most vulnerable in our society. We will need to be there for whatever they need.”
If you would like to make a donation to Norwich Foodbank, items currently needed include tinned potatoes, instant mash, long life puddings and cereal bars (not cereal). For further information, go to www.norwichfoodbank.co.uk