The first time I visited Black Country Foodbank (BCFB), it was a small operation managed by a couple of staff and a handful of volunteers, housed in the backroom of a Church in Stourbridge. In its first year it provided 450 meals.
Twelve years later, I found myself standing in the middle of a huge warehouse in Brierley Hill, big enough to house tonnes and tonnes of food. Mouth ajar, I stood staring at a terrifying statistic written on a dry wipe board on the wall, which read: ‘Last year, BCFB provided 182,000 meals to people across our region.’
Looking around the place, I didn’t know what was more upsetting. The fact that there is a need for a building of this size to attempt to handle the food crisis in our region, or worse still, the fact that during my visit, the shelves were nearly empty.
“The summer is always our worst time of year for receiving food donations,” explained Jen Coleman, BCFB Manager. “Holidays and a break from the normal routine prove to be a distraction for many of our donors and the amount of food in stock always dwindles.”
The hidden tragedy in all of this is that the very break in routine provided by the school holidays which causes a reduction in food donations in July and August, is the same break in routine that causes some of the greatest annual needs in terms of food poverty in the Black Country. Free school meals during term time mean that children from poor families at least get to have one healthy meal a day. This isn’t true when school’s out for summer and the result is thousands of children in our area quite literally going hungry for six weeks.
The politics surrounding the effectiveness of foodbanks in solving issues of food poverty unfortunately provide an easy fence for many to sit on. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people make sweeping statements about the “self-inflicted” cause of food poverty to justify their lack of concern. The reality is, the types of people receiving food vouchers for BCFB is extremely varied. There are countless reasons why people may find themselves in food poverty. Causes range from administrative governmental mess-ups and delays with Universal Credit payments to completely unexpected and unavoidable life experiences that suddenly make it much harder to make ends meet. The truth is, whatever the reason people find themselves requiring the services of a foodbank, no one visits for an easy freebie. It is no-one’s first choice. They visit foodbanks because if they didn’t, their families would go hungry.
Nationally, the Church has been speaking out about the social injustices which cause food poverty for years now. Justin Welby has spoken publicly about the direct impact that Universal Credit has had on the use of foodbanks when it comes into a local area.
This is most definitely true for the Black Country. In the first half of 2018, the roll-out of Universal Credit in our region saw a 50% rise in claimants using foodbanks.
The reason why Christians have something to say on this issue is because the Bible is crammed full of reminders for us to take care of the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the orphan and the lonely in our communities.
Despite its age, the book of Leviticus is revolutionary in its advice in how we should relate to and consider the hungry around us. Truly, if everyone in our area lived this way, food poverty would probably end overnight. Here’s what it says:
When you harvest your land, don’t harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don’t strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10)
The instruction is clear: leave some room in what you earn and what you eat so that you have some left to give away to those who need it. Is there room on the edges of your shopping list for the poor in your community?
I agree that the political and social issues that create food poverty in our region most certainly need to be addressed. I dream of the day when there is literally no need for foodbanks at all. But in the meantime, it’s just as easy to add a couple of extra cartons of fruit juice or boxes of cereal to my online shop and donate them, as it is to crease my brow and nod solemnly at the tragedy of food poverty whilst doing nothing about it.
So this Spotlight article is an unashamed challenge and plea, not only to the hundreds of churches in our region but also to you – the individual still reading this. The summer holidays are nearly upon us again and pretty soon, Black Country Foodbank will once again be in desperate need of stock unless we all do something to help.
As I sit around the dinner table with my family tonight, I don’t want it on my conscience that there are kids living near to me whose tummies are rumbling again, knowing I could do something to help. It’s not right, it’s not fair and a solution to the immediate problem probably sits unopened in the back of your food cupboard.
Please give what you can.