what’s it like, to help at a foodbank?

Before Christmas I wrote about the impact of the projects that have been set up by 300 churches with support from Tearfund and the Cinnamon Network.

We talk a lot about the impact that this kind of work has and the transformation that it brings – rightly so: we want to be sure that we’re using our resources in the best way possible. But we don’t talk, as often, about how it makes an impact on the people volunteering in these projects.

IMG_0153One week of each month, one of my team works compressed hours so that she can take the Friday morning to volunteer at her church’s foodbank. I asked her to write a short reflection of what it’s like and what impact she thinks it’s had on her.


One Friday every month, my commute goes a little differently from usual. Rather than flinging myself out of the house in the direction of the train station at 7:30 am, I get to leave at the more civilised time of 8:45 to get the bus up to church, where, from about 9:30 till 12:30, I volunteer with the Foodbank.

There are a number of things I could find myself doing: I could be in the back sorting out the food store or sorting out bags of food for clients (our bell tower, and that bit behind the altar that I believe is called the ambulatory – thanks wikipedia! – are full of shelves stacked up with food given by the generous people of the church and the local community); I could be in the kitchen making tea and toast; or I could be meeting clients, sitting with them, talking them through the process and chatting with them over the aforementioned tea and toast while they wait. Sometimes I feel like I’m not sure I’m really adding anything – there are often a lot of volunteers there, but mostly I try to remind myself that being there as part of a warm and friendly atmosphere might be as useful a thing as anything else, and that anyway, having made up my work hours over the week, it’s my free time to spend.

And it is a pleasure. I think. I mean, I enjoy it. I enjoy doing it – I don’t enjoy the fact that modern London needs foodbanks to help feed its people because wages aren’t meeting the cost of living, or because benefits are being cut back and back with what feels like a complete lack of mercy, or because the system has just so many cracks that a woolly mammoth could fall down them, let alone a human being. It’s a pleasure to sit and talk to the people who come in, because they are pleasant people to sit and talk with, and it’s a privilege to be able to do it, to be in a position where I am able to spend one morning a month doing this.

This video tells a little bit of the story of a couple who have visited the Foodbank over the last few months.

My monthly shift is also a reminder that I don’t always get out of my box very much. Despite the fact that my church straddles a border between one London’s richer areas and one of its poorer ones and the fact that I live in a part of London that is probably being described by estate agents as ‘up and coming’ (coffee shops and new blocks of flats are springing up all over the place), I don’t often spend that much time with people unlike me. My friends might come from different backgrounds to me (sometimes I forget how different), but we’ve ended up in similar places, with similar tastes, and it can be very possible at church and at work to stay in that kind of bubble.

But at foodbank, I can’t do that. I meet different people from different places, with radically different backgrounds and experiences to mine. And while most of the time I know, rationally, in my head that people who aren’t me and aren’t like me have absolutely as innate a worth as me, especially in God’s eyes – and generally my politics and choices are built on this knowledge – once I month I’m reminded of it head on.

I’m not blind to personal responsibility and the fact that its something that we struggle with at pretty much every level of society in the UK at the moment – but nor am I blind to the fact that our society is also struggling to exhibit compassion to those on the margins. Actually, they’re not even just on the margins any more, people are struggling everywhere, and they’re not always being met with a lot of grace.

On these Fridays, the people in that I’m sympathetic towards in my head and the policies I’m angry about on my twitter feed are manifest before me – and sympathy becomes empathy and anger becomes, well, a fairly unchristian desire to throw eggs at anyone in government who might be in any way a responsible part of the situation. I can no longer just think about it and move on to the next thing, because, ‘Oh, I know this…’ – I want to make sure that the other parts of my life change and contribute to making it better in whatever small way I can, because, ‘Oh, I see this… and it sucks.’

I don’t volunteer at foodbank because I want to feel good about myself or learn things, or whatever – I really want to not be that person. I do it because I believe that the church is called to be in its community and meet its needs, and because I believe that I should do something, in church that is about people outside the walls as well as the things that I do that are about the people inside the walls. And any impact that this has on me is a plus, yes, but only if it doesn’t just stop at me.

by Hannah Swithinbank