This week, I volunteered at my local food bank. It's something I've wanted to do for a while now, as I live in an area where the local community is especially active with helping out those who need help. There is an alarming statistic about how the use of food banks has increased by 74% in the last five years, and I wanted to find a way to help, as I'm not entirely sure this number will improve any time soon. I also really wanted to experience volunteering alongside the people who volunteer at the food bank week in, week out and I wanted to see what goes into working there.
You, me and the Local MP
When I got to The Fresh Food Bank at St Michael's Church in Mitcham, I was greeted by one of Merton borough's local councillors, Martin. He then introduced me to Louisa who took me in and, over a cup of tea (it's a tradition for new volunteers to be welcomed with tea), we had a good chat and she talked to me about the food bank, as she has been volunteering there since it started.
The Fresh Food Bank Mitcham started in March, at a community centre called New Horizons which is right on the Merton/Croydon borders. Shortly after opening, it had to move to the church hall down the road because demand started rising, more donations were coming in, and they needed a larger premises to meet that demand. One of the big donor groups is the Dons Local Action Group, who I volunteer with in a different capacity (fundraising, furniture and Google AdWords) and they come in every week with a massive van-load of donations. On the right there is Tim, who I'd never met before. When he's not delivering bread, he's delivering furniture for the London Furniture Collective and we're on the same WhatsApp group for that.
The volunteer force at the Food Bank is roughly 15-strong, and they are all super-friendly. The group is made up predominantly of local councillors from the borough, including my local councillor, Linda (who knows me as 'Tomato Lady', from when I donated a bunch of tomato plants back in the summer). There are also a few regular volunteers who live locally, as well as some people from the church which hosts the food bank. Remarkably, one of the most ardent weekly volunteers at the food bank is my local MP, Siobhain McDonagh. Although MPs are generally meant to be out and about and immersed in their local constituencies, it's not often that you see them regularly volunteering like this within their community, and I absolutely love this. One of the things that struck me when talking to the volunteers about Siobhain's volunteering at the food bank, is the affection and respect they all hold for her. I sincerely doubt that there are many MPs who are held in such high esteem like this, so it's hardly surprising that she usually wins by a landslide in elections (that, and the fact it's very Labour-heavy round here). Siobhain's also really nice, and I feel really lucky that she's representing us.
What did the work involve?
It was really well-organised, and I was put to work pretty much straight away! I got there at about 9am, the deliveries arrived at around 9.30, and then it was time to sort! The Dons Local Action Group had given us a huge load of donations which had to be brought in, and we then had to sort through everything, separating it all into sections such as fresh food, tins, bread, toiletries, dried food, tinned food etc. After that, I was sorting through fruit, removing any bruised oranges and then bagging them up so that they'd be ready for when the families came to collect and I then moved on to bagging-up loo rolls to put in the boxes and then on to dividing the fruit and veg into portions for each food parcel. At around 10.30, the families started arriving to pick-up boxes, which was managed expertly by Martin who had a ticketing system. From start to finish, it was at least three hours' physical work, not including clearing-up, and it was undertaken entirely by people who had given up their own time to do it.
Every week, the Fresh Food Bank in Mitcham serves around 80 families in the local area, with numbers ranging from couples, up to families as large as eight. Working at a food bank certainly puts many things into perspective and is a very humbling experience. Food banks serve people who are really struggling and don't always know where their next meal is coming from. People don't go to a food banks because they like the banter and fancy hanging out with their local councillors, they go to them because they really need the help. The Felix Project issued a stark reminder with the fact that almost 4 million children in the UK live in households that struggle to afford to buy enough fruit, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods. It's not an easy thing to have to rely on the help of strangers, but some people have no choice and there is a different story behind every family - it's no one's place to judge, it's everyone's place to see what they can do to help if they see it.
Volunteering at the food bank was also, in a way, a really uplifting experience because it's good to know that there are people in your area who have got your back, no matter what situation you find yourself in. One of the reasons I volunteer is that I like to meet people and make new friends - and my new friends at the Fresh Food Bank are lovely! People who give their time to help others without expecting anything in return tend to be a lot nicer than people who have no interest in doing things for free (it's a sweeping generalisation, but I speak how I find). It's difficult for me to stomach that the need for food banks is in no way unique to me or my local borough. There are thousands of food banks across the UK, all of which are relied-upon by so many families.
For as long as I have the time to do it, I will go back and volunteer there. It's definitely a worthwhile use of my time, and I really like the people I get to spend time with there. If you're interested in volunteering at a local food bank, either look on your local council website, or visit The Trussell Trust or The Felix Project. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good way to donate their time - it costs you nothing!
END NOTE: You might well ask the question, "Why don't I see MY local MP at my local food bank?"
If you go on to the UK Parliament website and search 'What do MPs do?', it tells you the following: "MPs split their time between working in Parliament itself, working in the constituency that elected them and working for their political party". Scroll down a little further, and it says "In their constituency, MPs often hold a 'surgery' in their office, where local people can come along to discuss any matters that concern them. MPs also attend functions, visit schools and businesses and generally try to meet as many people as possible. This gives MPs further insight and context into issues they may discuss when they return to Westminster."
For me, it's rather a vague sort of non-description and all sounds a bit ceremonial. It doesn't really get down to the grimy detail of what a politician does, or give examples outside of visiting schools or businesses as to what their job actually is. My personal opinion is that there is probably a chunk of MPs who don't even know where their local food bank is, and there is likely a smaller minority who don't even know WHAT a food bank is. I'll leave you to make your own mind up about that...
If you'd like to see your MP down at your local food bank, you can find and contact them HERE and why not invite them down? It was a fantastic experience volunteering alongside Siobhain, and it's easy to see why she's so well-connected to her area.