‘You can see the hunger in their eyes’: How one foodbank is preparing for Christmas | UK News
Debbie Gee knows how to spot someone who is hungry.
“It’s in their eyes, the way they are looking and staring at the food,” she said.
The foodbank trustee is well trained in how to subtly take someone to one side and offer them a hot meal.
“They then tell you that was the first time they had eaten since the day before.”
FoodShare Maidenhead has been supporting families for 12 years, but it is facing the double threat of eviction from its premises and a drop in donations, although in the build-up to Christmas volunteers remain undeterred.
Alongside the foodbank – known as the FoodHub – the team runs a small area offering meals to the homeless, and the FoodShare Shop, a social enterprise that allows people to buy items at a vastly discounted price.
Millions of hungry families will turn to foodbanks this Christmas, amid one of the hardest downturns in modern history.
“We are all only two paycheques away from a foodbank,” Debbie said.
Is corned beef a luxury?
As Debbie rallies volunteers for their Wednesday night session, a man walks through the door with £670 in donations, including a small mountain of crisps.
“I was with my family on Saturday and we decided we were doing alright but others weren’t. So I rang earlier today, asked what they needed, and went to Bookers,” he said – declining to be named or pictured.
While these random acts of generosity are not uncommon, even amidst the economic crisis, Debbie said donations are still down.
Everyone who comes on the 23 December should leave with enough food for a festive feast – from mince pies and pudding to a joint of meat, potatoes and fresh vegetables.
But half the shelves that should hold items for Christmas packages sit empty.
“I know looking at this, I don’t have enough for the people who need it this Christmas,” Debbie said.
The team begins planning backup options if not enough festive food is donated: Is corned beef considered a luxury, one volunteer asks. Could tinned salmon be given instead?
Food that doesn’t require much cooking
Volunteer Ali Griffin has spent the week prepping 62 microwavable Christmas dinners after the team began noticing people were picking up less food that needed cooking.
“One week, we had free chickens for everyone, and I was saying to a woman, have you taken a chicken? She told me she couldn’t afford the energy to cook it,” she said.
After successfully cooking 30 meals last year, Ali has scaled up the effort, despite the impact on her own energy bill.
“My oven has been on all day – but it’s okay, I can afford it.”
Volunteers have also been combining packs of food that require less cooking – such as salad cream, tinned potatoes and sweetcorn – to give food inspiration to those who are struggling.
Debbie said they would notice families picking up multiple boxes of cereal: “We want to give them healthier options.”
Similarly, the team was finding a lot of world foods were being left behind.
“A lot of the time, people aren’t picking up certain foods because they don’t know to cook them,” Debbie said while showing packages labelled ‘Thai’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Mexican’.
“So we put the items together for them.”
A ‘lot of new faces’
While volunteers make an effort to get to know everyone visiting the food hub, Debbie said they have seen “a lot of new faces” amid the cost of living crisis.
“The single people are the ones suffering the most,” she said.
“There is no one to share the bills with, and for people in their 30s, they don’t qualify for much support. They are paying for it all on their own.”
Alongside the FoodHub, which gives out emergency parcels for those in crisis, the team operates the FoodShare shop which opened in June this year.
The shop charges a membership fee of £5 for a single person and £10 for a family, with people able to choose between 13 and 19 more premium items (the upper end if they are a family) from the shelves.
“This is the future of food banks,” said trustee Lester Tanner.
“It’s much more dignified.
“This is reaching people who would never use a foodbank.”
And for the first time, many of those turning up are in full-time employment. Among those Lester has seen are an ambulance worker and school support staff.
The threat of eviction
The independent foodbank is based in Maidenhead’s Nicholson Centre, which faces imminent demolition – and soon they will be given just 21 days’ notice to find a new, and hopefully permanent, home.
Currently housed in an old Tesco unit, the majority of food remains stacked in crates until the very last second before it is put on the shelves for people to pick.
Debbie said they won’t unpack properly given the charity could be forced to move at a moment’s notice.
But until the hammer falls, the volunteers keep on working – and for Debbie, this even includes Christmas day.
“I am not officially supposed to open,” she said.
“But I can’t just sit at home eating my Christmas dinner knowing there are people hungry.”
Last year, she turned up to unlock the doors and gave those waiting hot chocolates and snacks.
“It’s only a very small thing – a Christmas stocking chocolate – but it’s enough to make them feel loved, and respected and that is what we want for them.”