Sam Fender at Newcastle West End Foodbank. Credit: Exposure Photo Agency
When Sam Fender visited the UK’s busiest foodbank, it didn’t take long for him to roll up his sleeves and get involved.
“Be careful there,” says foodbank volunteer Pat Bolland, “those lids will cut you.”
“Don’t get blood in our dinners!” warns her colleague, Pat Kane.
Towering over both Pats and doing his best to help out at Newcastle West End Food Bank is one of the UK’s most exciting artists, local boy done good Sam Fender. This morning, Sam announced his biggest headline gig to date – a 40,000-capacity concert at Finsbury Park in London next summer in support of his number one album Seventeen Going Under. He followed up by doing an interview with the New York Times.
But he is also man with a keenly felt social conscience. Last year, he joined forces with The Big Issue to release a Christmas single, Winter Song, raising awareness about homelessness. At the same time, he sold a special edition of the The Big Issue through his own website, direct to his fans, with proceeds going to our vendors.
This year, he’s putting his fingers on the line by accepting our invitation to provide a morale boost for the hard workers in the bustling foodbank.
“It’s a dangerous job you do here,” he smiles, while attempting to fold down the top of a truculent foil container.
Newcastle West End Foodbank provides around 1,600 food parcels per week. In the year to March 2021, they fed 53,000 people. December finds them even busier than normal. And so, they’ve put Sam to work.
Earlier today, Pat B, Pat K and the rest of the team in the kitchen cooked up 100 delicious-looking, fresh turkey, halal and vegetarian dinners. They’re now at the final step – packing them all up so they can be distributed alongside the regular foodbank parcels, to give a decent meal to people facing poverty and food insecurity.
Sam may be struggling to keep up with their experienced production line but he’s making a manful effort, while sharing his own experience of living on the breadline.
“My mam got ill when I were a kid, with fybromylagia and mental health issues,” he tells his fellow volunteers. “I remember when it went wrong, DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] were putting out court orders for her to prove she wasn’t able to work, even though it made her worse. Even though this is a woman who’d worked for 40 years of our life as a nurse.
“I saw how little help there is when you get to that place. Me and my mum would probably have used a foodbank if it wasn’t for the people we had around to help us.”
“It’s hard out there for a lot of folks, as you know,” the foodbank’s chief executive John McCorry tells Sam. “Thankfully, the level of donations from the public is amazing. It’s so heartwarming, because the other side is when you see people who are struggling, it is sad. It’s really sad to see that.”
Just as the kitchen crew are working away in the main room, a woman arrives at the front door. She’s not eaten in days. One of the team hurries to supply her with an emergency parcel. “I worry about those people,” says foodbank administrator Laura Willis, “but I worry even more about the people who don’t come in to see us.”
The dinner boxes stacked, stickered and ready to go, what mark would the regular volunteers give Sam for his efforts? “I think nine out of 10,” says Pat K. “He didn’t even cut himself.”
“It’s incredible, the work that everybody’s doing here,” says Sam. “And it’s a necessity for our community, I think. It’s mind-blowing how many people work here. I didn’t realise there were over 70 staff and volunteers. It restores your faith in humanity, during what has been a very, very hard couple of years for a lot of people. To see that, has made us proud to be a Geordie again.”
The last time Sam Fender spoke to The Big Issue, he was interviewed by one of our vendors. Moved by Earl John Charlton’s story and charmed by his humour, Sam asked if they could stay in touch.
The pair are now fast friends who see each other “nearly every other day” as the chart-topping star passes Earl’s new workplace in the charity North East Homeless on his way into his studio. Sam calls Earl “a diamond, a true hero, a man of the people” whose empathy helped him through the problems he’s experienced with his voice over the last year.
As he stands on the cusp of his music going properly supernova, with arena shows ahead and international interest growing, Sam is determined to remain connected to his hometown.
“So much has happened in the last six months, man,” he says. “A lot of it amazing. The response to the album has been incredible. I’m so proud. But my job, with it being in the public eye, a lot of it can feel vacuous. When I do this, it doesn’t feel vacuous.
“Community’s important to me. Community’s what kept me and my mam afloat, at times. So it’s a privilege to come down here today, if it’s going to help. I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. But even if it’s helped with promotion of what they do here, or to sell a few Big Issues, that’s great.”
Read more about how you can donate to a foodbank near you here. Book tickets to see Sam Fender live here.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.
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