Opinion

Food bank volunteers at breaking point as demand rises: 'We must absorb the sadness and soldier on'

As winter settles in, there are many things we’re worried about at the food bank. How our volunteers will cope is one of them.

Earlsfield Foodbank

Earlsfield Foodbank

As winter settles in, there are many things we’re worried about at the food bank. How will we cope with the rise in numbers, already at last winter’s peak? How are our guests going to manage, with so many already at rock bottom, having already gone through at least one cruel winter of suffering and deprivation? How can we supply the increasing demand when donation levels are down and prices are rising?

And one increasingly urgent concern, how will our volunteers cope with the emotion strain? Food bank work has never been easy. It’s physical – lugging boxes, taking in deliveries, hauling bags in and out of collection points, setting up tables. But it’s the emotional pressure that sometimes feels unsustainable.

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At the recent Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN ) conference, this concern came up again and again. Many food bank managers talked of how they were at breaking point, and how they weren’t sure how they could cope with the relentless exhaustion and pressure of, what’s certain to be, the toughest winter so far. At our food bank, we’ve set up monthly counselling sessions. Other food banks have similar initiatives, some even setting up helplines for volunteers.

Every week we deal with people at their lowest ebb; we hear stories of the most extreme suffering. The sadness and pain is, at times, unbearable. And many situations are unexpected and impossible to prepare for. A couple of years ago, a regular guest came to the food bank, covered in blood. She was clearly in shock. An argument with her ex-partner had escalated, following an argument about money. Fearful for her own safety, she had attacked him with a glass. She left him on the floor in his flat, bleeding, and then came to the food bank (in her words, her safe space). The police and ambulance were called, they attended the injured man in his flat, took him to hospital, and arrested our guest at the food bank. Many volunteers still talk about that day.

In the past, we would deal with crisis situations once every couple of months or so. But now, it’s a regular occurrence. In the midst of the clatter and bustle of the food bank, a volunteer will come up and quietly say that a guest has said they’re considering taking their own life. Thanks to training, we have guidance in place to deal with this. There’s a quiet area at the back of the church, where a guest can be taken to ring the crisis helpline. But it’s never easy and you are constantly fearful that these efforts won’t be enough.

These life-or-death situations are not limited to the Thursday session. On more than one occasion, a guest has rung up, outside of hours, to say goodbye. They felt they couldn’t go on anymore and they were about to end their life. Each time we’ve called emergency services and thankfully the worst outcome was averted.

There are other encounters which hit hard. I am still haunted by a conversation with a young man, 18 years old, who had just been released from a Young Offender Institution. He had no one. He had called his estranged mother, who couldn’t help. He was lost and frightened and hadn’t eaten for two days. We could give a food parcel, and refer to other services, but the lingering feeling remains that this wasn’t enough. We never saw him again.

Last week, a new guest – a well-spoken, middle-aged home owner who’s life had been turned upside down by degenerative illness and sudden income loss – wept uncontrollably through the registration process: “I’m sorry but can’t believe I’m at this point.”

Then there’s the guilt. Should we, food bank workers, be complaining about this? After all, we’re not the ones going through this. We may listen to the stories, we may absorb the sadness and pain, but we’re not having to live it.

Perhaps the most overwhelming emotion for volunteers, alongside the fear, worry and relentless exhaustion, is one of despair. Many of us have been doing this for years and the only change we see is the rise in numbers. We’re tired. Through the impressive campaigning efforts of IFAN, we’ve been shouting to those at the top that this is an acute crisis requiring urgent action. But there has been no real policy change from the government.

Maybe we should down tools? Let the ceiling cave in rather than papering over the cracks. Would this force change?

But, of course, we won’t stop our work, we can’t. Whilst offering a food parcel can only alleviate the barest symptoms of poverty, it’s better than doing nothing at all. We will absorb the sadness, put up with the tiredness, and soldier on.

Charlotte White is a manager at Earlsfield Foodbank. Earlsfield is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurity.

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