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How churches and charities are riding to the rescue

29 July 2016

Madeleine Davies learns how Coventry churches are helping plug the gaps left by cuts in state funding

Madeleine Davies

Disciples make way: signs at the Coventry foodbank

Disciples make way: signs at the Coventry foodbank

“THIS stone is laid to the glory of God,” reads a sign outside Macdonald Road Methodist Church in Coventry. Inside, beneath the crucifix in the hall, a “pasta mountain” is growing. Signs for “fruit”, “rice pudding”, and “custard” partially obscure pictures of the disciples in an old display from the departed Sunday school. The church’s congregation has departed, having merged with another one.

“If I never see another can of baked beans in my life. . .” Giles Morton, the warehouse manager at the Coventry foodbank, jokes. Surrounded by stacks of green crates filled with UHT milk, tea, and cereal, he lists toiletries, coffee, and sugar as items in shorter supply, although the local Sikh temple has just delivered 200 kilos of the latter. There is a need for nappies, too. Forty-two per cent of recipients last year were children. In total, the foodbank gave enough supplies to provide 15,800 people with three days’ worth of food.

That the Church has been at the forefront in tackling the UK’s hunger problem is, in a sense, old news. Last year, the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that forms partnerships with churches, gave out more than a million three-day emergency food parcels — its highest figure to date. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Charitable Trust has funded a parliamentary report into hunger; and, two years ago, 27 bishops signed an open letter to the Prime Minister saying that hunger was a “national crisis” on which there was an “acute moral imperative to act”.

Gavin Kibble, who founded the Coventry Foodbank in 2010, believes that the story in Coventry is “one of how a connected, socially engaged church can change the spiritual and welfare landscape of a city”. Recent years have seen a transformation in relationships between the city’s churches and the increasingly cash-strapped council, he says. “These days, the churches with one voice are talking to a city council that is struggling with a significantly reduced settlement to meet the needs of the lost, the least, and the last. It’s an amazing thing: they recognise what we can do.”

The foodbank, he feels, is just the start. The council has recently agreed to commission a service to tackle social isolation, run as a partnership between churches in Coventry and Age UK. Mr Kibble is confident that a “small army of volunteers” can be raised. Having given up a six-figure salary as the finance director of multinational company to set up a debt-counselling centre in Coventry (“God got hold of me”), he saw two centres designed to feed 2000 people a year become one of the largest foodbanks in the country: 18 centres across the city, handing out 18,600 parcels in 2014-15.

“We know that foodbanks are basically the consequence of an upstream problem,” he says. “Giving someone a food parcel just buys them a bit of time.”

In 2013, Coventry Citizens Advice Bureau and Coventry foodbank jointly bid for £380,000 of funding to deliver welfare and debt advice in foodbank centres. Run at seven centres, the service is currently returning around £50,000 a month to people’s pockets, in the restoration of benefits or cancelled debt. Of the clients who use this service, almost 80 per cent never come back to the foodbank.

Then, in January, “Feeding Coventry” was launched, a partnership between the council, the voluntary sector, Public Health England, and two universities, it is one of several pilot projects around the country responding to the call from Frank Field to “draw together private, voluntary, and public expertise to eliminate hunger” (News, 11 December). In addition to services designed to tackle long-term food insecurity, there are plans for fuel vouchers, and perhaps a community supermarket. At a conference on 17 November, Coventry is to be launched as a “sustainable food city”.

This month, a community kitchen at the John White Community Centre, Coventry, was opened. It will offer meals based on surplus food on Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunch-time. Customers will be asked to pay whatever they can afford.

Present at the launch, and closely involved in “Feeding Coventry”, is Councillor Faye Abbott. While “not particularly religious”, she says that she has always engaged happily with faith groups.

Since 2010, the council has lost £95 million a year in government grant funding — a figure that will rise to £119 million a year by 2020. A total of 1319 elderly people lost access to home care between 2009-10 and 2013-14.

Ms Abbott believes that a “fair amount” of the need for foodbanks can be placed at the door of central-government policies, including benefit sanctions and the introduction of Universal Credit. Her view is that the Big Society is “a bit of a con: the Government taking money out of the public sector and saying, ‘Get on and do it.’” She acknowledges, however, that some groups have come up with “very interesting ideas”, and that there are some areas in which organisations outside the council can deliver services better, and access other sources of funding.

Since the Government outlined its vision for a “Big Society” in 2010, churchgoers have debated whether it represents an opportunity or a retreat that must be opposed. In April, Oasis argued that churches should take advantage of the opportunities presented by the shrinkage of the State by delivering “substantial public services” (News, 29 April), going beyond the delivery of foodbanks and debt advice into the provision of health-care and education.

Mr Kibble disagrees with those who argue that running foodbanks mitigates the impact of the Government’s actions. “As far as I can see, the Good Samaritan didn’t check on the circumstances as to why the man had got beaten up before he helped him. He just did, and did it by abundantly blessing him,” he says.

The Revd David Mayhew, the recently retired Vicar of Holy Trinity, Coventry, believes that there has been a “signficant change” in churches’ social action in the past two-and-a-half years, tracing it to the day when, alerted by the police, they provided shelter for rough sleepers who faced a bitter winter. This proved a “huge catalyst” for churches to work together, and with the council. As the chairman of HOPE Coventry, he believes that faith groups can help to change a culture that is becoming “more, negative, fearful, and hostile to strangers”.

The Government’s austerity measures have seen councils “casting around for any partners who can address the needs they are no longer able to address”, he says. Aware of “examples in Christian history of Christians’ imposing their own interests and power on the vulnerable, with appalling results”, he says that “of course we talk about God, but only if that is responding to what people are asking for.”

Although he believes that it is “inappropriate” for clergy to take party-political positions, he argues that it would be “crazy” for politicians not to “take seriously the people at the sharp end of your policies”.

Going by current trends, the foodbank expects to feed 12,500 to 13,000 people this year. Staff report a decline in those dealing with benefit changes or delays, and a rise in those struggling with low income and zero-hours contracts. Last year, 34 per cent of clients were referred because of low income. Although council data shows that employment has risen since 2012, it is lower than the national average and there remain problems of low disposable income, a lack of formal qualifications and a large decline in the share of workers employed in skilled jobs. The TUC has sounded the alarm about the expansion in low-paid, insecure and casual work.

Although he is one of the few people working at the foodbank who have never received its help, Mr Morton, the warehouse manager at the Coventry foodbank, has been homeless, and has experienced long-term unemployment. Part of his job, he believes, is “helping the guys who are all unemployed get themselves back on their feet into regular work, and get themselves into the idea of believing themselves capable of doing a good job”.

Running alongside the foodbank is a clothes bank that has helped 350 people in the past six months. Some have no clothes to leave hospital in; some have fled domestic violence. Suits are provided for court cases and job interviews. One of the items currently sought is maternity wear. Just before we arrived, Dee Ward, the manager, provided a man with a suit to wear to his mother’s funeral.

“I think it’s a sorry state of affairs that people cannot afford to clothe or feed themselves,” she observes.

Another employee, Tony Lee, who has battled illness, unemployment, and a relationship breakdown, received vouchers in 2011, and went on to volunteer, “doing anything that needs doing”. He has since become a Christian, remarried, and now helps to run the foodbank. “People think those who use foodbanks cannot manage their finances; it is just not the case. There are a lot of contributing factors.”

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