Sheffield foodbanks which provide a lifeline to an increasing number of people face a key moment in their existence as they edge closer to becoming a secondary welfare state.
That was the message given to Bishop of Sheffield Steven Croft when he visited S2 Foodbank, based at St Swithun’s Church in Woodthorpe.
The Bishop spoke to volunteers and foodbank co-ordinators from Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham and got a picture both of generous community spirit and an uncertain and worrying future.
The visit followed the publication of a survey of foodbanks by the Diocese of Sheffield, which found more than 60 organisations helping needy families across South Yorkshire.
Speaking during his visit, The Rt Rev Croft said: “I remain moved by people’s generosity and very angry, like all the people here, that we should need this provision to such a degree.”
Although demand for foodbanks in January and February is traditionally high, this year exceeded all expectations.
S2 foodbank gave out 250 food parcels to individuals and families in February – compared to about 60 last year. And the story is the same across Sheffield.
The need is increasing to such an extent that what was once seen as a temporary service for people in crisis is now on the verge of becoming a voluntary arm of the welfare state. And that poses difficult questions for those in charge.
Nick Waterfield works for the PXI-Parson Cross Initiative foodbank and was part of a discussion with the bishop about the future of foodbanks in Sheffield.
He said: “It’s a sad reality that it seems the Government and the rest of society has come to see foodbanks as a permanent fixture.
“Many of us never expected them to be or hoped for them to be.
“We have to think about how we make access to them fairer across the city.”
Most of Sheffield’s 20-plus foodbanks are connected in some way. Some that are fortunate to receive a large amount of donations share their food with others in worse situations. And advice and knowledge is shared often.
But increasing demand is putting more pressure on all of them and if things continue to get worse, as many predict, then new solutions will be needed.
One possible option is a move to a ‘hub and spoke’ model, such as the one used in Barnsley. A central warehouse supplies about a dozen foodbanks, and the Fareshare Yorkshire organisation helps with logistical support and transport.
This helps cut costs, increases standardisation and improves efficiency. But the idea concerns some involved in Sheffield’s foodbanks, who fear it could cement the service as part of society when the ultimate aim is to reach a point when foodbanks are no longer needed.
Another fear is the risk of individual foodbanks losing the connection to their communities.
Among those The Rt Rev Croft spoke to at S2 Foodbank were Sohail Mumtaz, project leader of the Sheffield Muslim Community Forum, and taxi driver Lee Ward.
They helped organise a trip to Cleethorpes for some of the children of the foodbank’s clients by bringing in transport, collecting buckets and spades, and much more.
Some of the children had never been to the seaside before and all of them were experiencing some form of poverty and deprivation.
Sohail and Lee described to the bishop how one of the teenagers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw seashells on the beach, and thought they only existed in Hollywood films.
They told the story of a 16-year-old Syrian refugee, who was reluctant to come but was encouraged by her mother. They said she was ‘wonderful’, and giggled and laughed like any other teenager when she arrived.
The trip involved people from across the Woodthorpe community and beyond, and the positive effects have spread like ripples on a pond.
The Bishop said: “It’s ordinary people helping ordinary people. The foodbank enables that help.”
But while foodbanks provide relief in a number of ways, they cannot solve the problems that cause the demand for their services. People from all backgrounds use them, but their story is usually one of poverty and desperation and almost all are struggling with money.
One of the clients at S2 Foodbank during the bishop’s visit, a mother of four young children, said benefit sanctions had cut her income of £142 by 40 per cent.
Another, a single parent, had broken her hip and was having to use the bulk of the £200 she got every fortnight in benefits to pay for taxis, bills and clothes for her daughter.
“The foodbank is brilliant,” she said. “But the Government could give us a lot more help, both with money and social help.”
A third client said the foodbank had saved her Christmas.
“Our benefits got stopped two weeks before Christmas. They helped get our kids Christmas presents.
“But I’m no better off working with the tax credit changes.”
Following the release of the Diocese of Sheffield’s foodbank survey, The Rt Rev Croft urged politicians to act to protect the most vulnerable in society – and he repeated the call during his visit.
“People are not coming here to scrounge,” he said. “They are being referred here because they need it.
“I’ve heard stories about benefit sanctions. I’ve heard over and over again that it’s a really big thing.
“We need a fairer system for that. People are being sanctioned for relatively minor demeanours. It then has a really big effect on families.”
But while the Bishop uses his influence to lobby politicians, the task on the ground remains the same.
S2 Foodbank volunteer Bill Edwards, one of many who give up their time each week, said: “It keeps people alive. But it’s not just that.
“People have not got as much to worry about, they can feed themselves and their kids. Some families say it’s like Father Christmas coming when they get back with the food.”