'Nobody comes here by choice' - volunteering inside Sheffield's biggest food bank as demand set to grow
Arriving at the S6 Foodbank on Gilpin Street, I realised that my perception of a foodbank as a couple of trestle tables laden with a dozen or so bags of tinned food and pasta was way off the mark.
This was an industrial operation. Hundreds of crates laid out before me were filled with all manner of long-life food and healthcare essentials.
I had volunteered to help out sorting food for a couple of hours as the Telegraph backs the S6 bank’s campaign to fund one million meals, to get an inside view of how the vast task of feeding more than a thousand people is completed week in, week out.
Alison Wise, a volunteer who is also responsible for communications, explained that the S6 site was responsible for sending supplies out to the other ten foodbanks across Sheffield
She said: “We get a lot of donations but we also order in because of the sheer demand.
"It might look like we’ve got shedloads of stuff but that will all go within two weeks. Last March we were supporting 400 individuals from four sites, now it’s around 1,200. Lockdown has had a massive impact.
"We have a massive fundraising campaign at the minute. A huge amount of our funding is through fundraising.
"We have some amazing donors - Sheffield Wednesday, the Milestone Group, we have contacts with a lot of local schools. And we have individual people too.”
Volunteers at this foodbank now expect heavy demand to increase even further, as pupils are off school for the holidays, and later in the year as furlough ends and the £20 universal credit uplift expires.
Alison said: “It’s not just food, hygiene products and nappies are always needed.”
Indeed, as I came across a box of nappies, I was shown to another room filled with just hygiene products. I was truly shocked to see just how big a space was needed to store these supplies.
The dignity of the people who use the foodbank was central to the ethos of the volunteers. I spotted shelves filled with children’s toys and Alison explained that that they give every child dependent on the foodbank a toy at Christmas and on their birthday.
It was a testament to the support of the volunteers and donors that such an operation could be maintained, but it also highlighted the systemic problem of food poverty in one of the world’s richest countries.
Chris Hardy, S6 manager, said: “We want to change people’s perspective of it being this twee operation to understanding that it’s industrial in scale.
"We’ve just put a bid in on a five-tonne truck because nothing we send out is under a tonne anymore.
"We send out 500 crates a week – seven tonnes of food and supplies – for roughly 400 families. Some weeks it ends up being more like 10 tonnes, and we do expect an increase in winter when furlough ends.”
Alison discussed some of the work that the foodbank carries out besides providing supplies.
She said: “On the phonelines we are helping people to work through issues that drive foodbank use, such as debt. People still feel huge shame in coming here.
"Some people are working full time jobs and they don’t have enough money for food.
"It’s not that they can’t manage their money, they just can’t afford it. “Nobody comes here by choice.”
One food package will include basic supplies for three meals a day for three days. Sorting through boxes, I realised how much of a desire to give there was in the city.
One trolley full of food and washing products was being donated and I spoke to the woman dropping it off.
Stephanie Fields, a member of Hillsborough Baptist Church, a big supporter of S6, said: “The church has been doing this for a long time, since 2011.
"We felt compelled to do our bit for people less fortunate."
Harry Welburn, aged 70, has volunteered with the foodbank for five years. He said: “The attitude of the people who use the foodbank is amazing. They’re not expecting anything and they understand the circumstances and that Covid may sometimes slow things. The idea that they are just lazy is nonsense.”
After working for two hours, I had sorted through perhaps half a dozen crates. Looking around I saw that hundreds more would need to be organised before the next delivery. I had barely made a dent.
The volunteers who give their time and energy (it was tiring work) so others are able to feed themselves and their families, are certainly a credit to Sheffield.
Donations of food are always welcome, but a cash donation is a better way to support foodbanks as the money can buy specific much-needed items in bulk.
S6 needs to raise £150,000 to provide one million meals for people in Sheffield. So far £25,000 has been raised.
To donate, visit the fundraising page here.