The West Cheshire Food bank has been active for four years, in that time helping supporting thousands of people. Ruth Mock, Family Life Officer at the Diocese of Chester and Alec Spencer, Development Officer at West Cheshire Foodbank, reflect together on over four years of food parcels and ask ‘‘If we envisage a future without foodbanks, what should our response be now?’
In the last few years, we have both witnessed and been an integral part of the development of local foodbanks as a response to the public health crisis caused by rising food poverty. This experience means that we can’t help but be impressed by the commitment and generosity of the people who volunteer their time and donate food on a regular basis. In the last four years, volunteers at West Cheshire Foodbank alone have distributed enough three day emergency food parcels for 15,577 adults and 7,393 children. And the West Cheshire Foodbank is just one of many in this Diocese.
But increasingly, we’re troubled by concerns that such generosity is actually shoring up unjust systems rather than tackling the problem. The team at West Cheshire Foodbank has constantly grappled with such challenges and has been committed not only to provide emergency food, but also to ask ‘Why are people going hungry?” That question has been at the heart of their work founding the West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission and publications such as the recent Still Hungry report co-authored with the Universities of Oxford and Chester .
With strong evidence as to why the numbers of people turning to local foodbanks are still on the rise, it is important that we now turn our attention to other, equally important ‘justice’ questions. Such as ‘Are there ways of working that will offer people greater dignity? How can we build stronger communities, tackle injustice and develop skills so that all can afford to eat?’ And, ‘’If we envisage a future without foodbanks, what should our response be now?’
At a recent “Beyond Food Parcels” event, food bank volunteers, local authority representatives, housing association staff, academics, policy-makers, members of faith and voluntary organisations and people with lived experiences of food poverty all came together to share what they are doing and discuss the barriers and benefits of working in partnership to tackle food poverty. It became clear that we shared a common desire to work together to share stories, co-ordinate resources and gather data to be used in campaigns. It will require openness to work across the boundaries of different organisations, but developing this collaborative approach this seems to be a vital first step.
We know that working together is more effective. The success of pilots including a summer holiday ‘food and fun’ project and a city centre initiative developed in response to the large number of single men with enduring and complex needs have shown this very clearly.
In West Cheshire, these conversations and experiences are helping to shape the work of a newly emerging ‘Welcome Network’ with a vision to establish friendly, welcoming places which bring people and organisations together to reduce loneliness, end food poverty and create sustainable lives. Now, with so much commitment from local people; the leadership of a local MP, and funding secured for two people to co-ordinate this work, we have a way to move forward. By working closely with others, including people with lived experiences of poverty, we plan to learn how to respond to these questions. We mean it when we say: no-one in our community should have to turn to a foodbank.