How to help your local foodbank this Christmas

Record numbers of people are turning to foodbanks this year due to Covid Picture: Getty Images

Record numbers of people are turning to foodbanks this year due to Covid Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Suffolk’s foodbanks are already gearing up for what they’re predicting will be a long winter.

Foodbanks and charities are already preparing for this year's festive season Picture: Getty Images

Foodbanks and charities are already preparing for this year's festive season Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

This year has seen unprecedented numbers of people turn to foodbanks in their time of need due to the Coronavirus crisis. As Christmas nears, four charities across the county are putting in the extra man hours to ensure they can still provide for the people of Suffolk over the festive period. Find out how they’ve been doing during lockdown, how they’re preparing for the winter season, and how you can help.

Stowmarket and Area Foodbank, Stowmarket

Mike Smith has been at the helm of Stowmarket and Area Foodbank for just under a decade, with his centre having celebrated its eighth birthday earlier this month. Serving Stowmarket, the surrounding villages, and any towns up to Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, Mike has noticed an increase in those needing assistance throughout the pandemic – with numbers of families being referred to him tripling. “We normally average 15 families a week under normal circumstances, but due to Covid, we’ve gone up to 40 families a week,” he explained. “Coronavirus has transformed the foodbank - we’ve had to rely on shops and wholesalers because customers weren’t able to come in with donations due to the three months our centre was in lockdown.”

With people unable to make physical donations, kindness still prevailed, and many managed to donate money online to the foodbank, allowing Mike and his team to continue their hard work over the past few months. “All through the pandemic, we’ve been well-supported. We’re now averaging 25 families a week, so it’s dropped back down from the peak,” he added.

Stowmarket Foodbank's Caroline Davies, Hazel Smith and Stowmarket town Mayor Cllr Paul Ekpenyong Pic

Stowmarket Foodbank's Caroline Davies, Hazel Smith and Stowmarket town Mayor Cllr Paul Ekpenyong Picture: Stowmarket Foodbank - Credit: Archant

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However, with numbers expected to rise again as Christmas approaches, Mike and the team have been preparing and making the most of this year’s harvest festival, in order to ensure they’re well stocked for the coming months. “We do more food parcels across November and December than any other month – that’s normal every year, whether that’s due to homelessness, or families who have lost jobs. But with the furlough scheme ending, we’re expecting an even bigger surge towards the end of the year because of the mass of Covid-related job losses. I think we haven’t seen anything yet, and the demand for foodbanks will go way past what it was in March and April.”

In order to ensure the people of Stowmarket can still make the most of Christmas, alongside its regular food parcels, Mike’s foodbank will also be putting together its annual seasonal hampers. “We tend to deliver around 120 of these the week before Christmas. We get boxes donated to us, which are then gift-wrapped and filled by a group of volunteers, and it’s not normal food, it’s all Christmas food in there, so it’ll be Christmas cake, pudding, selection boxes, nuts, crisps, pickles and the like. We’ll then have volunteer drivers deliver the boxes to where they need to go.”

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For anyone in Stowmarket who may be seeking the help of foodbanks this Christmas – or knows someone who does – Mike says there’s a number of ways to be referred. “Throughout the year, we take referrals from organisations such as social services, the police, the NHS and Citizens Advice for our emergency food parcels. With the Christmas hampers, as it’s a special one-off, we still use our normal referral system to have people come to us, but if someone knows a family who’s in need at this time of year, they can nominate them on their behalf. Some local councillors, church leaders and businesses may have nomination forms, so they can nominate anyone they know. Sometimes it’s simply neighbours reaching out on behalf of other neighbours.”

If anyone is looking to donate food, Christmas or otherwise, to Stowmarket and Area Foodbank, there are a number of drop-off points near Mike’s foodbank. These include Hillside Community Centre, Stowmarket Tesco, Asda and any of the Co-Ops throughout Stowmarket, Needham Market, Haughley, Elmswell and Stowupland Garage.

Stowmarket Foodbank coordinator Mike Smith, Mayor's Consort Annette Ekpenyong, Stowmarket Town Mayor

Stowmarket Foodbank coordinator Mike Smith, Mayor's Consort Annette Ekpenyong, Stowmarket Town Mayor Cllr Paul Ekpenyong and Hazel Smith following a successful food drive Picture: Stowmarket Foodbank - Credit: Archant

“The things we don’t need are pasta, tins of soup or baked beans – I think every foodbank in the country has a mountain of those three things,” added Mike. To find out how to help Stowmarket and Area Foodbank, call 01449 774000.

Haverhill Foodbank, Haverhill

Striving to help the people of Haverhill and those within a 10-mile radius since 2008, Haverhill Foodbank’s projects director Henry Wilson explains how his centre has had to adapt during the uncertainty that 2020 has brought.

“We’ve had to change the way we work – two people had to shield, which meant we were low on volunteer numbers. A lot of our staff are over 70, so we decided to move over to a delivery model to get the food out there. The first month of the pandemic, March into April, was off the charts busy, and in that first month alone, we saw a 50% increase in those needing our services. In March, we fed 53% more people and a whopping 179% more children than we did that month in 2019.”

Behind the scenes with the staff at Haverhill Foodbank in a previous year Picture: Haverhill Foodban

Behind the scenes with the staff at Haverhill Foodbank in a previous year Picture: Haverhill Foodbank - Credit: Archant

With such a huge spike in numbers over the spring, Henry eventually saw those start to level off - and believes this is due in part to a number of local schemes and government initiatives. “We found that when local organisations, towns and villages set up their own food provisions over lockdown, we didn’t need to do much in the outlying villages, and a lot of these were done by people who were at home during lockdown.

“Also, government initiatives such as the free school meal vouchers during Easter and summer, and the uplift in Universal Credit have both had a positive impact on helping families during lockdown. So actually, we’ve seen slightly less recently than we have done previously this year - but it’s beginning to creep up again. Certainly in October, things are beginning to increase again ahead of Christmas.”

Haverhill Foodbank is already working hard to source and sort the goods it needs for its annual Christmas food hampers, which Henry hopes will give recipients the gift of hope this season. “We’re looking to give out our Christmas hampers each year to the families that we serve, but it’s more than giving a box of food - we want to show we care. The reason we give people a box in the first place is to enter that dialogue with them, to find out what it is that people really need. We use our boxes to get to the root of the problem, and ultimately to help lift people out of poverty. Yes we can help people with debt and food parcels, but we want to show people that we care and they can talk to us.”

In line with other with foodbanks, Haverhill’s Christmas hampers will contain an assortment of seasonal treats, and while the centre currently doesn’t need much in the way of food donations, they are looking for any volunteers who may be able to help with packing.

Food boxes being packed at Haverhill Foodbank last year Picture: Haverhill Foodbank

Food boxes being packed at Haverhill Foodbank last year Picture: Haverhill Foodbank - Credit: Archant

“We’re not hugely in need of anything physical right now – we just need volunteers to help put the hampers together. If people want to give financially, to help in terms of client aid, then we can help those who need it after Christmas. For us, it’s not just Christmas that matters, but also the new year and beyond. We’ve got to be there for people in January and February.”

To find out more about how to get involved with Haverhill Foodbank, call 01440 712950.

Christmas Present Trust, Hadleigh

Since 2015, Suffolk residents Simon and Sarah Thompson have worked tirelessly to ensure the people of Hadleigh are able to enjoy a hot Christmas dinner and receive a present on the day. However, with lockdown restrictions meaning people will be unable to gather this year, the husband and wife duo are having to plan ahead to make sure those dinners can still be delivered to those who need them.

The team at the Christmas Present Trust making a turkey dinner Picture: Christmas Present Trust

The team at the Christmas Present Trust making a turkey dinner Picture: Christmas Present Trust - Credit: Archant

“There’s this pressure on Christmas for people to be with their friends and family, and a lot of people can’t for whatever reason, so we decided to set up the Christmas Present Trust to help with that,” explained Simon. “We tend to attract a lot of older people who’ve perhaps lost a partner, or they don’t live near their family or aren’t able to go to them. We also get a lot of younger families join us too, I think the youngest we’ve had has been five months old, so we really do cater to a whole raft of people.”

Under normal circumstances, Simon, Sarah and their team of volunteers would raise money thorughout the year and then put on a Christmas dinner at the town’s Ansell Centre – but for 2020, the team have had to diversify.

“What we’re going to do this year is what we call Flying Turkey. Essentially, we’re going to cook the meals and sort out a present, and get volunteer drivers to take them round to anyone who might would’ve sat down with us had lockdown not happened.”

The turkey in this year’s dinner will be provided by one of Hadleigh’s butchers, and is prepared by local chef Mark David. “He makes sure it’s boned and rolled so it’s much easier for me. Then I’ll cook all of the trimmings and get the gravy sorted, along with Christmas pudding or some sort of alternative. We’re also happy to cook any dietary requirements such as vegan, vegetarian and coeliac.”

The team at the Christmas Present Trust making a turkey dinner Picture: Christmas Present Trust

The team at the Christmas Present Trust making a turkey dinner Picture: Christmas Present Trust - Credit: Archant

To ensure the whole operation is fully Covid-compliant, Simon and his wife will be cooking the meals themselves from within their bubble. “We’ll be wearing gloves and dishing up the meals in containers. Once ready, our drivers will pick up the bags and do a doorstep drop. Our guests will know what’s coming, and we hope they’ll be satisfied with the good, hot food that’s been cooked in a safe environment.

“We’re encouraging the drivers, if they want to, to give a little bit of Christmas cheer from a safe distance when they do the drop-offs. If they want to sing a carol or wish them a Happy Christmas, that’s fine. It’s the best we can do without having an actual get together.”

Taking any orders in advance, Simon says he is anticipating anywhere between 40 and 50 meals this year. “Normally we’d cook a lot more than that, because we also dish up for the volunteers. Even if we only get 20 people sign up for dinner, it’s worth it as we’re providing something on Christmas Day that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”

The Christmas Present Trust isn’t in need of food donations, as the team sources all of its own ingredients so they know exactly they need, but presents to accompany the meals are always welcome. “I’d suggest food donations go to the foodbanks – but we can certainly take small presents. We basically look for gifts that are fairly generic and unisex, as it’s about giving a little something on Christmas Day. If there’s children that we need to buy for, we’ll make sure we give them a little toy.”

For anyone who would like to lend their hands (or wheels), Simon is looking for volunteers for either Christmas Eve prep or driving duties on Christmas Day. “We’ve got limited space for people the night before to do food prep and present wrapping, but we also have to be mindful due to Covid. We’ve already had around 25 people volunteers to drive on Christmas Day which is great, but we still need more. If we have 40 people who want a meal and we have 40 drivers, then it’s 10-minute job on the day, otherwise we’ll ask people to do one or two meals.

If you’re looking to take part in the Christmas Present Trust this year, you can either nominate yourself or someone who think you may need it. “We don’t ask questions. If for whatever reason you’re going to be without family and friends on Christmas Day and would like a meal, just get in touch. Or alternatively you can nominate someone you think might benefit from it.”

To find out more about the Christmas Present Trust, ring Simon on 07778 860267.

FIND Ipswich, Ipswich

Maureen Reynel has been supporting those living in Ipswich and its surrounding towns for 30 years now – and like Mike Smith, is noticing how many more people need her service as the festive period approaches. “Numbers have obviously risen, and are rising again now - I think there’s going to be more people in dire straits this year.”

FIND Ipswich – which provides food parcels for those living in Ipswich, Bergholt, Sudbury and Shotley – saw many of its volunteers and drivers go into self-isolation during the peak of the pandemic back in spring. “During lockdown, I lost 30 of my regular volunteers because of their age and vulnerability, so I was dependent on people who were furloughed to help out, but the numbers rose so drastically. It plateaued after a few months to just over a hundred parcels or so a week, but it’s going up again. The before week last it was 140.”

With numbers on the up, Maureen and her team are in the midst of preparing their annual festive food parcels and gift boxes. “What we do every year is make up food hampers with personalised gifts, and our intention this year is to still make up 1,000 boxes. With the gifts, lots of churches and schools won’t be able to donate due to Covid, so we’re asking for gift vouchers for specific shops, and those will go out with the food boxes. We’ve got two toys shops, Smyths and The Entertainer, and we’re also asking for Primark, Argos, Boots, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Co-Op vouchers.”

In terms of food, FIND Ipswich is in need of large tubs of sweets, chocolates and biscuits for its Christmas hampers. “When it gets closer to Christmas, if there’s any fresh food providers out there, I always need good quality fresh fruit and vegetables as well for the boxes. What we don’t need is pasta, soup, baked beans or porridge.”

Donations to FIND Ipswich can be made directly to its foodbank, or to a number of its collection points across town. These include Ipswich’s Co-Ops, two Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

“I just have to trust that we will have more people come on board to volunteer – there are some days when I have 10 cars going out, and some days when I have four or five. But people know FIND, and the work we’ve done for many years, I just have to trust and have faith that the people will be out there to help get the goods out.”

To find out how to help FIND Ipswich, call 01473 833351.

Suggested foodbank donations this Christmas

- Biscuits

- Crisps

- Nuts

- Toiletries such as soap, body wash, deodorant

- Tea and coffee

- Sugar

- Squash

- Long life UHT milk

- Cereal

- Long life fruit juice

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