How a Sheffield foodbank has risen to the coronavirus challenge
Tucked away on Gilpin Street, just minutes away from Penistone Road, volunteers at S6 Foodbank are working harder than ever to meet increased demand and help those who have fallen on hard times during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Trussell Trust food bank, which is run by St Thomas’ Church, saw the numbers using its services spiral when the pandemic hit six months ago - now feeding an average of around 750 people per week, quadruple its usual volume.
But under the watchful eye of manager Chris Hardy, volunteers in the stock room have risen to the challenge working with military precision to now distribute eight tonnes of food, toiletries, and essential supplies.
Due to the nature of Covid-19, many of the older volunteers and those with underlying health conditions had to sadly relinquish their duties – but new younger volunteers have been coming through its door to help behind the scenes.
There are, understandably, fewer working at any one-time but the operation remains just as systematic.
Pre-packaged food parcels are also now the norm, with the all-too-familiar sights of face masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser visible around the stock room and volunteers working in smaller ‘bubbles’ – the risk of losing all at once with a positive case of coronavirus too severe for them to work any other way.
“After lockdown, we quickly opened new sites and extended our area to make sure people could get food within walking distance of where they lived,” Chris explained. “We used to have four sites but now have eight in Sharrow and Parson Cross and everywhere in between.
"We had to move our focus from a very hands-on community project focusing not only on the food but sitting at tables talking through peoples issues and having shelter, debt services, job club, clothes bank on-site for the sessions – we just can’t do that at the moment.
"This time last year we’d receive around 80 food vouchers, but that’s risen to 350 and we’d shift about 1.5 tonnes however we’re massively above that.
“Without our volunteers and donations, we wouldn’t survive and as demand has increased we need them more than ever.”
Visiting the S6 Foodbank on a sunny Thursday morning I met Becky Eden-Green, a professional musician who has been volunteering at the centre two days a week since January.
She said: “It’s a strange time for the foodbank. Volunteering before the pandemic meant I was able to see how demand skyrocketed and luckily I’ve been on furlough and had support from the government but that meant I had more time to give at the foodbank so I’m doing four days week at the moment.”
Working alongside Becky was new volunteer, Jasmine Caylow, a university student who started in March when the pandemic hit.
"I knew I wanted to help in any way I could,” she said. “I graduated this year but was still doing my thesis and exams and I knew that foodbanks had seen an increase in demand.”
The Trussell Trust was founded in 1997 and now supports 1,2000 foodbanks across the country to provide emergency food to people in crisis, and help tackle the root causes that sweep people into poverty and build people’s resilience so they are less likely to need a food bank in the future.
Foodbanks within the charity’s network reported their busiest month ever this April, with an 89 per cent increase in emergency food parcels given to people across the UK compared to the same period last year.
In Sheffield, the S6 Foodbank works with over 140 front-line agencies who make a decision on whether a person is in need of an emergency foodbank voucher and where they can collect their food parcel from.
Chris explained that the team also quickly set up its own referral system during the Covid-19 outbreak, which runs alongside the Trussell Trust.
"In the past six months we’ve put in place a solid structure to work from and a dedicated phone/email so that people can get in touch,” he said. “This is our safety net to make sure that people get help with more than just food as usually food poverty is caused by an underlying problem.
"It is now helping people deeper than what an initial food parcel can achieve.”
However, in what should have been a quiet time for the foodbank to replenish its stock, the reality is now that demand will increase even further as it heads towards an uncertain winter.
Chris added: “When the lockdown hit, shelves were empty and for a lot of people that was the first time they were needing food but couldn't get it. They were facing the same reality as many foodbank users, some had seen their incomes cut and it brought that realisation of just how easy it is to get into food poverty.
"People continually live in that situation and as we go into winter for some it is a real choice between putting the central heating on or putting food on the table.
“The support we received in the first six months of covid was brilliant but we're predicting a 30 per cent increase in December so securing that continuous support is now our big aim. I think that, on a conservative level, we’ll be feeding roughly around 1,200 people.
“Our heartbeat as a food bank is always local people supporting local people they’ll never even meet.”
For more information visit the S6 Foodbank website.