Trying to feed all those who are in need

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For many people Christmas is a time of plenty. We look forward to gorging ourselves on turkey, Christmas pudding and wine.

But for some, that's just a dream. Because scores of people in Portsmouth depend on handouts just to have anything to eat.

The Portsmouth Food Bank has seen an increase in demand in the run-up to Christmas as hard-up residents struggle to buy even the basics.

But the need is there all year round. In 2009 the charity gave out seven tonnes, distributed among 1,374 people. This year more than 1,600 people have been helped so far.

Martin Mant, head of the food bank, says the recession has forced hundreds more residents out of work and on to the breadline.

'At Christmas, whether it's buying presents for the children or whatever, I think people become more aware of their need. And they're becoming more aware the food bank is here too.'

The food bank usually relies on donations from schools and kind-hearted members of the public.

But Martin says: 'We're having to go out and buy in some of the essentials at the moment because of this increased demand.'

The bulk of provisions come from school harvest festivals. This year the food bank, run by members of King's Church, collected 4.6 tonnes from the schools. That sounds like a lot, but Martin says it runs out fast.

This year he has seen a wider variety of people walking through the doors of the service, which is based at the Kings Centre in Elm Grove, Southsea.

He says: 'It's difficult to make an assessment of the people we work with.

'But some of them, listening to them, you'd know they're not from an area such as Somers Town.

'I can honestly say it's a problem that reaches everyone. The cross-section which the economic downturn has affected has increased.'

Martin explains: 'We've had quite a lot of job losses and a new claim takes six weeks to process. About half the people we see, it is because of benefit delays. In a lot of ways, we're people's last port of call.'

The coalition government is calling for the development of a 'Big Society', where people look out for each other more and lend a helping hand when it's needed.

But in reality, that may simply mean already hard-pressed organisations such as the food bank are going to be left picking up the pieces as both work and benefits are harder to come by.

Martin says the government's cutbacks are going to simply add pressure on the service next year.

'We're going to see another increase, particularly as we move over to the new universal benefit.

'The results of the cuts are going to increase pressure not just on us, but on other volunteer organisations such as the Salvation Army or St Simon's.'

In addition to running the food bank, Martin is also pastor at the charismatic King's Church which runs in the centre.

The 51-year-old says he runs the food bank because he cares about others in a less fortunate situation.

'I just want to be compassionate. I know it's a well-worn phrase, but it's a case of there but for the Grace of God go I.

'We're all only a pay cheque away from crisis ourselves, any one of us.'

Juliet Gillespie, 39, helps out on Wednesdays at the food bank. She says: 'Our credo is 'without prejudice'. We help everyone.

'Life is strange. You never know what could happen. Anything could go wrong in your life. You never know.

'We help the homeless or just people in crisis who've run out of food.'

Isn't it just helping to support drug or alcohol addiction for many people though?

It might, for example, mean a junkie can spend the money they would otherwise use for food on buying heroin.

'I'd say we do it all without prejudice,' says Martin.

'Other people make that decision. If you think in practice about drugs, a lot of people that come to see us are in a programme. The key is not to be judging them.'


Claimants can get vouchers from recognised community organisations such as the Community Legal Advice Centre in North End, Portsmouth or homeless advice service Kingsway House, in Elm Grove, Southsea.

People can use the centre up to three times, after which they will not be served unless in truly exceptional circumstances.

The food bank at 37 Elm Grove, Southsea runs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the centre, between noon and 2pm. It is appealing for donations of foodstuffs. Call (023) 9298 7977 and ask for Martin Mant.


Sarah, who has two children aged five and three, has been living in a women's refuge for about two months.

It was the 21-year-old's second time at the food bank and she says it has been a great help while she is waiting to move into a house of her own.

'This helps us out and tides us over. Food has gone up, it's generally more expensive. I'm getting a new house, but this will tide me over in the refuge until I get it sorted.'

If the food bank wasn't there, Sarah (not her real name) admits that her children would go hungry.

'Especially when they're off from school and they're with me all the time, it's even more money. I've got them 24-7. But at school they get free school dinners.'


Sue Bailey, tenancy support officer at Portsmouth City Council, was collecting food parcels for three different tenants in social housing in Leigh Park.

She is one of about 16 on the team, each with a caseload of 20 to 25 residents to look after.

Sue says: 'There's a delay while one of them is changing from Jobseekers' Allowance to income support.

'One chap's marriage has just broken up, so he has to change benefits and claim as a single person. He's got nothing at the moment. Another has debt problems.'

She adds: 'A lot of people are getting more into debt. They borrow from Peter to pay Paul and are not the most financially aware people.

'The food bank is the last resort. One of the ladies I came to collect for had 7 to last her two weeks after paying for her gas and electricity. I defy anyone to live on that.'