Ten years ago, I helped set up the Wadebridge Food Bank. It was only the second in the county and many said it was not necessary in our affluent region of North Cornwall, beloved of royalty and members of Parliament. Yet it has fed 28,000 people since it opened, and last year my mother received an MBE for her tireless commitment to serving those in need. But she is 68 years old and many of her volunteers are older. Even before the government-imposed lockdown, demand had skyrocketed and volunteers had declined. We had to deploy new processes overnight to supply people who need it the most. This is our trip.
Friday March 20
The food bank is technically closed today, but it’s my last day without children before the schools close, so we’re planning with fury. We have implemented hand sanitizers and restricted access. Government and Trussell Trust guidelines change daily. People strip the supermarkets, but they donate huge amounts of food – which is a relief, because we know we will need it in the weeks to come.
Today’s recommendation is a 72-hour quarantine for food donations, to minimize the risk of infection from a package of pasta (if we ever see one again). Our premises are too small for our normal needs, not to mention that. We have been raising money for a bigger place for a while, but we need more space today. Mom calls the real estate agent. Later, we are loaned a store for storage. It’s incredibly generous – and just in time. We receive a call from the National Trust, which offers us boxes of Easter treats and 600 chocolate eggs.
Monday March 23
The schools closed and our administrator brought her children with her. We are key workers, but plans are still being finalized for their small school of 51 children, so they share her office chair while she perches on a stool and answers phone calls.
Usually, a referral agency – like social services, a school, or a doctor’s office – issues a good piece of paper, which a client brings to a food bank and exchanges for food. This guarantees long-term support as well as help in the event of a crisis. Now that the agencies are working remotely, issuing vouchers is no longer possible. Should they email us? Can customers just come and get food? Our normal systems are no longer suitable for the intended use and we are not sure which way to go. Demand is skyrocketing and it is unclear whether this is the new normal or temporary panic.
City businesses are closing. Costa Coffee offers us milk leftovers. Local bakeries provide bread. We plug in every freezer we have.
Tuesday March 24
My husband calls a crisis meeting after Boris Johnson announces a lockout. My parents’ annex is connected to our house. We agree to operate as a whole, since we work together, but we need a plan to protect ourselves and ensure that the food bank can still function. We accept to close for the day. This is a critical incident, says my husband. Plan well and you will get there.
Distancing ourselves from each other and the people we serve is difficult for all of us
Our administrator spends the day on the phone at Trussell Trust, of which we are a part, implementing an electronic referral system to replace physical vouchers. Almost half of our 60 volunteers have resigned. They are heartbroken but cannot continue. Their children insist on protecting. Fortunately, we have received new offers of help: an influx of people of working age like me, whose day jobs are redundant, including a father and his 18-year-old son, who are no longer sitting at their level A .
We are restructuring and establishing new rotas. We have a small team of volunteers (mostly retired) in our center in Wadebridge. It usually opens four mornings a week, with four people handling food and two at the office. It is cramped when everyone is there, so to allow for social distancing, we separate into pairs and add an afternoon shift. Only one person in the office at a time. To build resilience, everyone is allocated one shift per week, including mom. The rest must be done from home. We place new volunteers in the gaps, placing them alongside old hands to train them for work in the event of illness or abandonment.
Wednesday March 25
We reopen, but as a different type of food bank. We now only offer delivery. In addition to the food collection points, we also organized drop-in visits that provided a cup of tea, an attentive ear and signage to other services. Closing them is a big loss. But limiting contact with the public is a necessary step. Our drivers will deliver boxes to each location twice a week as usual, and from there, new teams will oversee delivery in each city, calling ahead and leaving the boxes on the doorstep.
Thursday March 26
Some of our volunteers are struggling with their reduced shifts. Some have learning difficulties or mental health problems. For many, volunteering is a lifeline. They lack the camaraderie and the structure it gives them. Distancing ourselves from each other and from the people we serve is difficult for all of us. We are a family, a unit, a vital part of our community. But health and safety comes first.
Monday March 30
During the second week of lockout, the standard food boxes remain unchanged – three days of dried and canned food – but these are the extras that are usually offered in person, such as diapers, toiletries, food for pets and fresh food, which are more difficult to manage now. A local hotel delivers a van full of products. Trying to bag it for delivery adds another layer of complexity. We know these gifts will not continue forever, so we are eliminating them as best we can.
Wednesday April 1
We go in to find more scheduled deliveries than boxes of prepared food. We work solidly for an hour but we are always late when the driver arrives. The systems obviously still need to be tweaked – this may mean that some people have to wait longer for food, and we may need to add a third delivery window.
The driver travels 52 miles in three cities, delivering 28 boxes of food to two distribution points, collecting donations from five supermarkets, and picking up 16 boxes of Cornish pastries from a wholesaler. Individuals still donate food through supermarkets, but far less than last week – perhaps because they do less shopping or collection boxes have been moved as supermarkets are reorganizing store layouts social distancing. Like everyone, we are in desperate need of canned tomatoes and pasta.
Thursday April 2
We fed 135 people this week – double the number for the same period last year – and distributed 800 kg more food in March than we received, plunging into the Christmas food supply. Family referrals increased the most, mainly from support workers. They include parents who have to stop working to care for children, those who already have low income and have lost shifts, and new references to the self-employed, many of whom never thought they would need to. ‘a food bank. Cornwall has one of the lowest GDPs in the country and a very seasonal and fragile economy. Government assistance will take weeks.
Like supermarkets, we are working around the clock to implement changes and build capacity so that we can continue to provide food to the most vulnerable. Unlike supermarkets, we are not multinational companies. Operating on a small basis, run by volunteers and dependent on donations, if analyst forecasts are correct and unemployment doubles, we may not be able to provide everything we are asked for.
Monday April 6
Our area manager, Emma Greenwood, who works tirelessly to support the 26 food banks in the southwest, sends us a request. She wants to know how long we can continue to meet demand before the stock runs out. We estimate about six weeks.
The Trussell Trust is working nationally with supermarkets to secure corporate donations – so far most of the big chains have announced multi-million pound support programs – but we don’t know how this will affect individual food banks and if that will offset the drop in individual donations we saw last week.
“I’m not sure how to express it,” she says when I ask her what the picture looks like across the region. “I’m so upset and proud – and a little moved. Everyone is rewriting their daily operational model just to continue. They’re all so resilient – but I guess that’s what this is about, isn’t it? “