The community lifeline that ensures no-one goes hungry

PROVISION Community project manager Ruth Scott with one of the hampers provided at The Beacon. Picture: Sarah Standing (123121-3859)
PROVISION Community project manager Ruth Scott with one of the hampers provided at The Beacon. Picture: Sarah Standing (123121-3859)

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It all started with a cupboard under the sink, with a few tins of baked beans, tomato soup and some fusilli pasta.

It all started with a cupboard under the sink, with a few tins of baked beans, tomato soup and some fusilli pasta.

Four years on and there is a whole warehouse of food, intricately labelled up and ready to be shipped out.

In a windowless room in the Meridian Centre in Havant, shelves are stacked high with baked beans, soups, tea bags, and pasta.

There is a whole shelf dedicated to custard and rice pudding – and enough of it, you would think, to feed families for years.

It looks like a lot, but the grim reality is The Beacon food bank would quickly run out of its supplies were it not for the generosity of the public.

Hampers are the name of the game for this church charity – and we are not talking about country-style jams and fancy chocolates in the hampers you get for your gran at Christmas.

These hampers have milk, bread, eggs, spread, ham, cheese and sausages, as well as a range of non-perishable foods. They can literally be the difference between eating and going to bed on an empty stomach.

The growth of food banks – and there are now several across the Portsmouth area – is a sad reminder of the harsh times we live in and the fact that the poorer may be getting even more destitute.

A study from Church Action Poverty suggests that up to 500,000 people in the UK may rely on food banks.

The high demand is certainly noticed at The Beacon food bank in Havant, which is seeing more and more families referred to it by social services.

‘We started in 2009,’ says Ruth Scott, who co-ordinates the food bank.

‘We wanted to help our members that we knew were struggling, particularly in Waterlooville in the Wecock area.

‘We found it expanded. We were doing maybe one hamper a week. This time last year we were giving out five hampers a week.

‘This week we are giving out 10. We see that need is going to keep on increasing.

‘We have seen the changes in benefits recently are already having an impact.

‘People are coming to us with gaps in benefit.’

But Ruth, who speaks in a softly-spoken Northern Irish accent, explains that this is not a free-for-all giveaway.

‘The Food Bank is seen as an emergency response,’ she says. ‘It’s not your weekly shop and we are not going to help you every week. It’s just a one-off in a time of crisis.

‘I thought people would be knocking on my door saying “Feed me every week” as they got used to it.

‘We have a six-week rule – we won’t help people for a second time unless six weeks has passed.

‘The vast majority of people only come once.’

She says that many people feel embarrassed to have to ask for food.

‘It’s always sad when you see a family in need and we have had a lot of tears,’ she said. ‘There’s a difference in expectations – it’s not that long ago we didn’t have a welfare state.

‘Before that there was nothing. It was the workhouse or church that helped you. In the past 80 years we have got used to a welfare state. We all need to help each other and it’s always been like that.’

Christmas is the busiest time of the year for The Beacon, with 80 hampers – complete with turkey and all the trimmings – given out last year.

Up to 100 hampers are expected to be given to local families this year.

One among the army of volunteers is retired Carole Phillips, from Hayling Island, who used to work in catering.

The Beacon is donated around £5,000 every year and this cash is spent on buying fresh goods from places like Iceland in Havant.

‘I wanted to help something that I thought was necessary for the community,’ she says. ‘It’s very rewarding.’

People have to collect the hampers.

Ruth says: ‘When we first started doing this, we delivered the food to people’s houses. That’s when you see the real poverty. That was an eye-opener for me actually. You don’t know what’s going on behind a closed door. People have to come and collect their hampers now as we could no longer keep up with that.

‘It’s an incentive as well – if you have to come and get it, you really want it.’

Ruth adds: ‘We found a little racket where somebody was collecting food on behalf of other people.

‘We suspected, but could not prove, that they were selling it. We blacklisted them. That’s why we have this relationship with referral agencies so we can have accountability.’

A team from HMS Collingwood helped set up the food bank’s new storage unit.

The food bank is in desperate need of coffee and tinned fruit.

Ruth says the job can be ‘amazingly fulfilling’ as she knows needy families, particularly children, are not going hungry.

Her measure of success is not seeing a client come back.

She explains: ‘One young lady was leaving care and setting up home for the first time. ‘When she came she was so anxious with all the changes she was literally shaking. She was very embarrassed to have to ask. We gave her food to start with and two weeks later we gave her another hamper.

‘We haven’t seen her since.

‘That’s a success story as far as we are concerned.’

TEARFUL THANKS

Sarah Riggs, church administrator at The Beacon, says: ‘One referral that sticks in my mind is the situation one mother and four or five children found themselves in.

‘The father had left home and had emptied the family bank account leaving his family with no money for electricity, gas or food.

‘After several days of living off almost nothing the mother asked one of the local services if they could help her.

‘She was referred to Beacon Food Bank.

‘I was one of the team members who handed over the hamper and saw the immediate reaction.

‘The mother turned to her children and said “look we can have some tea tonight, look at all this lovely food”, and burst into tears.

‘She said “I am so grateful for the kindness shown to us. I can’t believe how much food and other bits that we are being given, is this really all for us?”.

‘The children stood by watching with big smiles on their faces while mummy held out things like a box of sweets and some chocolate biscuits and said “we’ve even been given some luxuries”.’

FOOD BANK LOCATION

· PORTSMOUTH

Portsmouth Food Bank, Kings Church, 37 Elm Grove, Southsea, PO5 1JF.

Tel: (023) 9298 7977.

Email: info@kingschurchportsmouth.co.uk. Open: Monday 12pm to 2pm, Wednesday 12pm to 2pm, Friday 12pm to 2pm.

· FAREHAM

Fareham Basics Bank, Aspect House, Westbury Road, Fareham, PO16 7XU.

Tel: 01329 822204.

Email: enquiries@friendsofthehomeless.org.uk. Open: Monday 1pm to 3pm, Wednesday 12.30pm to 1.30pm, Friday 1pm to 3pm.

· HAVANT

Beacon Food Bank, Portsdown Community Church, 69-73 Meridian Centre, Havant, PO9 1UN.

Tel: (023) 9247 0167.

Email: admin@portsdowncc.org.uk. Open: Monday to Friday 10am to 12.30pm.

· GOSPORT

Gosport Basics Bank, c/o Jacobs Well Care Centre, Units 1 and 2, Park Street, Gosport, PO12 4UH.

Tel: 07502 027032.

Email: enquiries@friendsofthehomeless.org.uk. Open: Monday 1pm to 3pm, Wednesday 12.30pm to 1.30pm, Friday 1pm to 3pm.