Appetite for support

Firth Park Food Bank: Volunteers LtoR:  Susan Reid, Phil Davis, Diane Maitland, Ali Karim
Firth Park Food Bank: Volunteers LtoR: Susan Reid, Phil Davis, Diane Maitland, Ali Karim

As the number of food banks grows in Sheffield, David Bocking meets volunteers helping needy people through difficult times in the city

PASTOR Samuel Okerenta was shocked by the statistics he found after arriving here from Nigeria.

Firth Park Food Bank:   Pastor Samuel Okerenta chatting to Rachael Pease while daughter London Pease (2) gets on with her colouring

Firth Park Food Bank: Pastor Samuel Okerenta chatting to Rachael Pease while daughter London Pease (2) gets on with her colouring

“The statistics from around the Firth Park area show this is one of the most in need areas in the UK. Depression is very high, and some families don’t have food,” he said. “There are many people who live alone and also there are continuing cuts in income and benefit.”

The Firth Park Food Bank joined the ranks of city food banks in July, when Samuel, pastor of the local Royal Assembly Church, arranged to use the kitchen and hall of the church hall at the Brushes Community Centre, and a group of half a dozen volunteers stepped in to make it all happen.

Phil Davis and Susan Reid, for example, who every Saturday morning set off from Lowedges at 8am to travel by bus to Firth Park, where they then cook a meal for 20 or more local people.

After clearing up, they get back to Lowedges by early evening, then on Monday the preparation starts again, with fund-raising, picking up donations from shops, suppliers, members of the public and even local farmers.

The team also publicises the scheme to potential users, arrange for storage and deliver food parcels to those who can’t make it on Saturday – the latter often carried out by Samuel in his car, during time off from his job as an environmental consultant.

“It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ to people who helped us,” said Susan.

She and Phil were both homeless in the past, and Phil said that helping with the food bank gave him an important purpose in life.

“After being helped off alcohol I wanted to put something back into the community,” said Phil, who, along with Susan, is now the main contact for the scheme.

Phil enlisted the support from local shops and businesses: Roses the Bakers donate several bags of bread every week, and several of the Castle Market butchers give the food bank large discounts on meat. The food bank has been supported by the Waitrose Community Matters Scheme, and is also linked to the local Food Aware community interest company, who work with farmers, shops and supermarkets to collect surplus food for community use.

“For most supermarkets, it generally costs £2,000 a week to dispose of unwanted food close to its sell by date, so it make sense for them to let Food Aware give it to people like us,” said Phil.

Ali Karim works for a local authority during the week, and is a new volunteer to the scheme on Saturdays.

“To me it’s tragic that in the developed world this kind of thing is happening,” he said. “The fact that some people don’t have food while elsewhere we’re dumping food into landfill - what nonsense that is.”

He had researched food poverty before volunteering to help, and found it’s often people in work but on low wages who don’t have enough food. “I know that people will pay their bills first and go without food.

“Anyone in this community can be living next door to someone who doesn’t have enough food to eat.”

At present the volunteers provide a meal every Saturday and around 30 food parcels every week, together with counselling and advice to help people get back on their feet. All the work is done voluntarily, at some financial cost for Samuel and his church, part of the international Redeemed Christian Church of God.

Samuel and Phil say they need more volunteers, support or donations for storage and room hire, and ideally the donation of a van with chiller compartments to help with collection and deliveries.

“It’s getting worse. We need to grow two or three times in 2013 to meet demand in this area,” said Phil. “Our vision is to be able to open six days a week serving meals.”

Some of the volunteers at the Firth Park Food Bank carry out almost a full time job to provide the service, and none of them feel they can take a step back, whether they’re a full time professional like Christian Samuel or Muslim Ali, or formerly homeless people like Susan and Phil.

“Poverty is deepening and support systems are crumbling,” said Samuel. “We feel we have an obligation to do this as citizens, but from the Government all we hear is cuts and cuts and cuts.”

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