From babies in pushchairs whose mums are on the bread line to homeless war veterans who’ve struggled to adapt to Civvy Street, there’s no discrimination when it comes to those in need of food banks.
A steady stream of people, young and old, from all walks of life are welcomed through the doors of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Eden Vale as I sat in on one of its twice-weekly food banks.
One mum, with a baby and two toddlers in tow, pops in and chats to the volunteers who’ve become friends and leaves with two carrier bags of pasta, tinned meats and baby food that will provide their evening meal for the next few nights.
Another man in his 30s, on his first visit to the food bank, seems nervous at first but is soon put at ease and leaves with a bag of food and toiletries which he’s been struggling to pay for himself.
Elim is one of a network of 12 such projects in the city who give out vital bags of food that, for some people, mean the difference between whether they’ll eat or not that day. They operate on alternate days, meaning that seven days a week the people of Sunderland in need don’t go hungry.
Food bank manager Granville Hawkins said the demand for the Elim Food Bank is as great as ever.
“We set up the food bank eight years ago and we are one of a network of 10 food banks that have been set up, as well as the Salvation Army who have always done it. The fact that Sunderland has at least 10 food banks shows how great the need is.
“It’s difficult to say how many people use the food bank each week as it changes every week, but it’s up to two dozen families a week, as well as all the individuals. Sometimes we have a queue out of the door.”
No judgement is made at Elim food bank, which is open to all walks of life and all faiths - and it’s this anonymity and nondiscrimination which keeps the wheels of this vital service turning.
Granville explained: “Most people feel embarrassed to come here: life has kicked them and they are down. But we do all we can to reassure them. We don’t want to be nosy and we’re not healthcare professionals, we’re volunteers. Some people want to talk and some people don’t. But first of all we make them a cuppa and make sure they feel ok.”
The food banks operate on a voucher system with health professionals, schools, charities and other organisations identifying those who are in need and referring them to the food bank.
Elim work closely with Richard Avenue Primary School who, particularly in the school holidays, make sure families have enough vouchers to see them through.
For many, walking through the door of a food bank can be the first step to them getting the help they so desperately need.
As Granville explains: “We work with a number of signposting organisations and we can put people, especially those with young children, in touch with people who can help. We’re not political and, although we are a Christian organisation, we are open to anyone of any faith or people of no faith at all. We’re here to administer to a need.
“We see people with all manner of problems. We’ve seen a lot of people affected by the Universal Credit system, others have mental health problems and others struggle with addictions.”
Other families have been subject to controversial settlement orders which restrict people’s right to work in the UK. “Some people come here who haven’t eaten for days and it’s heartbreaking to see,” said Granville.
I spoke to one 38-year-old lady on her second visit to the food bank who stops for a cup of tea with the volunteers.
“I’d never heard about it until my friends and family told me,” she said. “Sometimes it can be a real struggle on benefits, I did feel embarrassed at first, but the people here are all so pleasant and don’t judge. I don’t know anywhere else like this to go and I feel like coming here makes the difference between going to prison or not.”
Granville helped set up the food bank after moving to the city from South Wales, where he ran a similar project at his church.
“Sometimes you have to be practical about your Christianity, it’s not all about praying and singing hymns,” he said. “Some people want to know about our faith and we share it, but we don’t preach.”
The food bank is entirely run by volunteers and has no backing from any government organisations. It runs solely on the good will and time of its volunteers and those who take the time to donate.
“We have a number of regulars who donate and we are so thankful,” says Granville. “One man comes in every Tuesday with two carrier bags of shopping in memory of his wife, and he has done that for eight years. We also have the backing of a number of other churches and businesses who all want to help.”
Another of the regular donators is hairdresser Neville Ramsay who rents a chair at A1 salon in Durham Road. The salon takes donations six days a week from clients, and those just passing, which Neville then drops off each Tuesday.
He said: “In this day and age for people not to have the basics they need is shocking, it’s like something in the Victorian ages. Families and kids are relying on these food packages just to get by. I’m privileged in that I get to go home every night and sleep in a warm bed and open a full fridge, but that’s not the case for everyone, purely because of their circumstances in life.
“If you speak to the homeless in Sunderland it’s heart-breaking. These people are not all here because of drink and drugs. Some are young girls of 18/19 whose family have broken down and they’ve had no where to go. It’s important to take the time to listen to them.”
•The Sunderland Elim Foodbank runs every Tuesday and Thursday from 10.30am to 12.30am and is open for donations to be dropped off during those times. You can contact Sunderland Elim Foodbank on Tel.: 0191 567 1367 or on email at email@example.com
•Donations can also be dropped throughout the week at A1 Salon in Durham Road.
How you can help. Food Banks need the following items:
•Milk (UHT or powdered)
•Instant coffee / tea
•Fruit juice (not refrigerated) / squash
•Pasta / rice / noodles / instant mash
•Tinned rice / sponge pudding
•Beans / spaghetti
•Toiletries for men and women