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Takeaway food with a difference

07 June 2011

John Davies tells the story of the rise of the Okehampton foodbank

A SUNNY spring morning is bring­ing shoppers on to the high street in Okehampton, and bargain-hunters are being enticed into O.K. Leisure by its window display of discount foot­wear. As another customer leaves his shop clutching a new pair of sports sandals, Andrew Morgan expresses his surprise at this modest but wel­come upturn.

"Business has been very slow since the closure of Polestar [a local frozen-desserts firm], and the other redundancies. It's good to see that we might be starting to come out of that now."

Mr Morgan is in a good position to judge the current economic con­di­tion of this Devon market town. As well as running a local business, he is co-ordinator of a project that has been at the centre of recent events there. When Polestar laid off 232 staff, and Robert Wiseman Dairies announced its closure, with the loss of 69 jobs, the Okehampton food­bank came into its own.

A church-run project, offering boxes of food supplies to people in financial crisis, the foodbank had been supplying boxes to an average of two disadvantaged families a week before the redundancies hit. The effect of the redundancies on the town was almost immediate.

The employees of Polestar knew nothing of the plight of the business until they were made redundant, which meant that few of them had made contingency plans. Within days of Polestar's closure, the de­mand for help from the foodbank in­creased enormously. At the peak of the crisis, while families waited for government financial support, the foodbank was distributing 40 to 50 food boxes a week.

THE overnight increase of unem­ploy­ment in a Devon market town - from under two per cent to almost 12 per cent - made national head­lines. The situation worsened when Browne's Chocolates, another local firm, announced its closure with the loss of 20 jobs, and the publicity generated interest in the foodbank project.

"We were ticking along at perhaps about two food parcels a week, and then this hit," Mr Morgan said, "and because of all the publicity, both in the local and the national press, every­body became much more aware of the foodbank."

The effect was twofold: as word spread among those made redund­ant that short-term help was avail­able from the foodbank, the number of applications rose; and as other people heard about the redundan­cies, they rallied in response, and large volumes of food donations began to come in.

The basement of OK Leisure, Mr Morgan's outdoor-wear and camping-equipment shop, became the foodbank warehouse, and, while business was slow for fleeces and weather-resistant clothing, the shop was inundated with people making foodbank donations. And down­stairs, volunteers were busy sorting and packing boxes ready for their Friday-morning distribution at a drop-in at Okehampton Baptist Church.

Things have stabilised since the town's crisis-point - the "black, bleak week for Okehampton", as Ian Bailey, the chairman of Okehampton Chamber of Trade, described it. But the situation remains serious. "More folk outside of the Polestar situation are now coming into the foodbank," Mr Morgan said. "We are settled now at something around 17 to 20 parcels per week. So we are up and running now, at the place where we thought we should be."

MR MORGAN brought the food­bank idea to the congregation at Oke­hampton Baptist Church some years ago, after working with the Trussell Trust on a project support­ing orphans in Bulgaria. The Trust had set up a foodbank in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2000, which was prov­ing to be a valued resource in a county where 50,000 people live below the poverty line. When he shared the concept with his congre­gation, they embraced it enthusias­tically.

It is a straightforward idea: "The model is that people who need us would be picked up by the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Housing Benefits people - places where somebody would go to get help if they found themselves in difficulty.

"These agencies do the assess­ment, and they issue a voucher to a client, who then comes with their voucher to our drop-in to collect the food parcel.

"That's generally how it operates, but when the Polestar crisis hit, and, in combination with the problem, a lot of support agencies were taken out of Okehampton, we were run­ning out of people to do the assess­ment for us, and so we launched a freephone number. Now, a group of volunteers who run the foodbank man the phones, so that when somebody comes to us through the freephone, we will make our own internal assessment."

Donors are asked to give non-perishables: cereals, biscuits, tea bags, soup, UHT milk, baked beans, sugar, cans of tomatoes, meat, vege­tables or fish, dried pasta, and pasta sauces. These are collected together and delivered by volunteers. Often, people shopping in the town call in directly to O.K. Leisure with pur­chases that they have made specially.

On the morning I visited, this happened numerous times. As a customer passed a donation over the counter to Mr Morgan, a foodbank volunteer, Sian, looked on approv­ingly, and said: "It's those little old ladies with their two tins of beans that I admire."

"Widow's mite," Mr Morgan re­sponded.

OTHER members of the community in Okehampton have offered their time and skills to the foodbank. Some look after the warehouse, others make up the parcels, and others give the parcels out at a drop-in centre at the church.

The outcome of this generosity and activity has been good will all round. Typical of the recipients of foodbank help are Adrian and Kay Vernon, who were both made re­dund­ant from Polestar and suddenly left with no money. With a four-year-old daughter to feed, Mr Vernon told the BBC that his food-box was "a lifesaver".

Mary and Nick Wonnacott both worked for Polestar for more than 15 years, before losing their jobs in February. They described the food­bank as a "godsend" during a month-long period when they had no income at all.

The foodbank treasurer and Bapt­ist minister, the Revd Barry Walton, said: "I'm having to spend about two hours a day writing thank-you letters. And that's staggering.

"The giving out of the food par­cels we can pre-plan to some extent, even though we have no idea how many people will turn up or of the consequences of recent redundan­cies, but the amazing thing has been the response, not the need."

Sian began volunteering after she lost her job. "I brought some food to donate, and ended up downstairs, working. I get satisfaction from do­ing it. It gets me out of the house; it gives me something to do because I'm not working."

Mr Walton described a not un­typical scene at the Friday morn­ing drop-in. "We are redeveloping our premises at the moment. One day, three of the Polestar folk came along, put on their gear, and started paint­ing. And, last Friday, one of the Pole­star guys, who has now got another job, came and asked to see me: he wanted to give us an envelope con­taining a financial donation.

"I managed to persuade him that his need was greater than foodbank's when it came to money, but said, I tell you what, I'll swap you for two hours' painting. And he was sitting there with tears in his eyes, because here's this guy wanting to give, and getting back some self-respect. So there's all sorts of spin-offs."

IN OKEHAMPTON, it looks as though people are responding to hard­ship on their doorstep in un­precedented ways, and the foodbank has been a catalyst for this. "We are seeing the shoots of new life," Mr Morgan said, "inasmuch as the af­fected factories are starting to find new ways to continue trading, and all the agencies are finally getting to­gether. The benefits system is kicking in, and people are finally receiving their benefits."

He finds it encouraging that the foodbank has enabled the town's Christians to witness to their faith in a meaningful way. "[It is] God's work in action, isn't it? Actually feeding them. . . We want to emphasise the fact that it is run primarily by Christians; it's all the local churches getting together."

The Okehampton story illustrates what has been happening around the country since Paddy and Carol Henderson started operating the first foodbank, from a garden shed in Salisbury, more than a decade ago.

The Revd Simon Woodley, Team Rector of St Michael and All Angels, Bemerton Heath, Salisbury, de­scribes their story: "Paddy and Carol Henderson were using her mother's [Mrs Trus­sell's] Trust to help people in Bul­garia.

"Someone heard them on the radio talking about their work in Bulgaria, and phoned them up and said: 'It's all very well helping them over there, but I'm going to bed hungry in Salisbury tonight.'

"They were convicted by this, and researched lots of different models of helping people - including projects in the USA. They decided on this 'Robin Hood' system of collecting cans. It's emergency relief only, not long-term. There is also counselling, money, and life-skills advice for folk; so the hope is that if people have long-term needs, those get met, too."

Now operating from St Michael's Community Centre, the Trussell Trust employs staff who are involved in developing the work of foodbanks and encouraging churches across the country to consider starting their own.

"Our vision is to have a foodbank in every town in the UK," the Trust's PR and marketing manager, Molly Hodson, said. "That's a big goal which we certainly hope to achieve; so we are really keen for any churches that are interested in starting a foodbank in their area to get in touch with us for advice on how to do it."

Ms Hodson expects that the number of foodbanks up and run­ning around the UK will very soon reach 100. Like Mr Morgan in Oke­hampton, she sees the foodbanks as a positive sign of the vitality of churches in local communities. "All of the foodbanks are run by the churches. There are a couple that are run by Christian charities; so our protocol is to work with churches to develop foodbanks.

"What we try and do is get a group of churches to run a foodbank to­gether - even if it's one church that's leading it. And then it's crucial to get the whole community to­gether; so, for instance, people get referred to a foodbank through a front-line professional - a social worker, or a health visitor.

"I think it's really good that you have to work with these local secular organisations. It means that the church is engaging with the com­mun­ity in a really positive way, and providing a service that local au­thori­ties really appreciate. Lots of volunteers are not from church at all; not all are Christians; and obviously the food is donated by the general public, so it is involving everybody."

The simplicity and directness of the foodbank idea is a significant strength, Ms Hodson said. "I think that one thing that people really like is knowing that if they give a tin of soup, it is definitely going to go to somebody who is struggling near them. . . People love the immediacy of it."

Back in O.K. Leisure, Mr Morgan is speaking to Mr Walton, who has brought a bundle of paperwork and donated cheques that are now spread across the shop's counter.

The public's response to the Okehampton foodbank has included generous cash donations from across the country, and the committee at the centre of the project now has the challenge of deciding how to use more than £10,000 to further its work.

"We've always had one eye on expansion," Mr Morgan said, "and probably the route we will take will be to move the work out into the villages that surround Okehampton. But because the financial donations have been so far beyond anything we could possibly have expected, we are thinking to ourselves, hang on a minute, there's a message here from God that he wants us to do some­thing significant with this money."

"It's a magnificent amount. We want to use it wisely, and for the purpose for which God has brought it about."

The talk of growth, development, faith, and hope adds to the bright­ness of a midweek spring morning in a town whose outlook had been overcast for most of the year. "It's a lovely sunny day; it's Easter time; the tourists are just around the corner.

"We'll have a good summer now, and pick ourselves back up, dust our­selves down, and get going again," Mr Morgan said, as another cus­tomer passed a cash donation over the counter of his shop.


The Revd John Davies is Team Vicar in the Northmoor Team, West Devon.

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