Laura Gibbs had an anxious first experience with the community food bank at Jeneses Community Centre.
She said: “All of my income just stopped last year with the pandemic. My mum kept tagging me in the food bank’s posts and I didn’t want to come down here, but she eventually forced me to.”
When she finally did step through the door, the former bar tender – who was forced by personal circumstances to move from Chichester to Bognor Regis several months ago – found an important centre of community support.
“I was moved here from Chichester in the space of 36 hours, so literally all of my money went on a removal van to get out of there. So this place was and has been, especially now I’m waiting on Universal Credit, a real lifeline. It really has.
“I’ve got anxiety anyway, really bad social anxiety and, with what I went through at the beginning of the year, it was even worse.
“But me and Steve (the food bank’s volunteer founder) got on really well. We share an interest in acting and music, and he made me feel really welcome.”
She’s since volunteered with the community food bank, which, unlike traditional food banks, provides vital staples like fruit, vegetables, tinned food and the occasional cup of tea, with no questions asked.
Ms Gibbs thinks of it as a vital service, a life raft for people who need help faster than Universal Credit or traditional food banks can provide it.
“I’ve seen quite a few people that have lost their job or lost hours at work because of the pandemic, especially in industries like pubs and hospitality. We see all sorts of people here – all walks of life – but it’s for everyone at the end of the day.”
Trussell Trust food banks in Arun delivered 2,403 more parcels in the period from April 2020 to March 2021 compared to the same period in the previous year. Chichester District Food Bank saw a similar increase, distributing 2,222 more parcels in the same period. So it’s no wonder services like these have appeared in both districts, providing the kind of informal support official food banks can’t.
But Laura said the existence of community food banks like Jeneses doesn’t mean the Trussell Trust is doing a bad job, just that it can’t be everywhere at once.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s the problem, I think the issue is that they’ve been under so much stress, especially over the last 18 months. So anything we do is to help them. Because if everything depended on just one service, it would have imploded.
“But an experience I’ve had quite recently trying to get proper food bank vouchers has shown me it can be a bit of a nightmare, to be honest.
“That’s why we don’t ask for vouchers or anything, we’re just open to anyone who needs it. It can be quite difficult to access those services sometimes.”
Ms Gibbs’ story is just one of many in Chichester. Of all the industries affected by the pandemic, hospitality and catering is arguably one of the hardest hit. As a result, the bar, wait and kitchen staff who man our restaurants and cafés have frequently lost out.
Joanne Kondabeka, the chief executive officer of the Chichester District Food Bank made it clear that, although Chichester is reasonably affluent, that doesn’t mean its residents haven’t been affected by food poverty.
“Although, obviously, Chichester in itself is quite a wealthy area, I think a lot of the people that actually work in Chichester are in the hospitality industry in some way or other. So many of them were on furlough and I think there were redundancies as well.
“I think that was a major contributing factor and, when you’re living in an expensive area anyway, it’s difficult to have your already limited salary reduced to 80 per cent.”
Of course, plenty of shops, restaurants and cafés have now reopened. Covid restrictions have been lifted since July 19 and many businesses are anticipating a return to normality. But, Ms Kondabeka says, that doesn’t mean the food poverty problem is over – far from it.
Many workers – like Ms Gibbs – have either moved on for new training or haven’t been able to return to their old jobs. With the government planning to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week by the end of September, Ms Kondabeka said, the food poverty problem could actually get worse, not better, as the year goes on.
“A lot of people were made redundant and having to live on Universal Credit for the first time, which I think is probably a shock to most people. I know the government put £20 extra a week into Universal Credit, but my concern – and I think the concern of all food banks – is that the government are going to be stopping that at the end of September, which actually means we’re going to see an increase of people coming to us again.
“Our figures are still going up and, by the end of September, when this £20 per week is taken off people’s benefits, I definitely think our figures will go up again. And they always go up in the winter anyway.”
To find out more about the Chichester District Food Bank, visit chichesterdistrict.foodbank.org.uk
Why official figures only reflect part of the problem
Danny Dawes has a lot of experience with food poverty.
He runs Grandads Front Room, a community interest company on High Street, Bognor Regis, and spends every day face to face with the reality of social deprivation locally.
For Mr Dawes, official Trussell Trust figures, which show a marked increase in food parcel distribution in both Chichester and Bognor over the last year, might be indicative, but they’re just one part of a wider problem.
“There’s a group of people who get their food bank vouchers but there’s an underlying group of people who aren’t going to the Trussell Trust because there are other groups setting up saying ‘no ID needed, no referral needed’. And that skews the figures hugely.”
Mr Dawes said he understands why these groups exist but worries that the way they affect food parcel statistics might lead some people – including the Trussell Trust itself – to misapprehend the scope of the problem, leading to a loss of local funding and support from the national charity.
Speaking to the charity itself, though, staff seem aware of – and grateful for – the services provided by community organisations like Jeneses.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the food charity said: “Food banks throughout the Trussell Trust’s network have experienced record levels of need during the pandemic, with huge increases of emergency food going to children.
“These figures are just the tip of the iceberg, as many people will be helped by other community groups.”
Hannah Drury, project manager at the Bognor Regis Food Bank, echoed that sentiment, adding: “There has been an increase of 33 per cent with regards to people receiving food parcels from food banks across the Trussell Trust network nationally. In Bognor, there has been a similar number of people accessing the Bognor food bank throughout the pandemic, comparative to the numbers we recorded during the year before.
“However, we recognise that other places offering food provision have opened since the start of the pandemic elsewhere in Bognor, which we do not have data for so we cannot comment on whether there has been increased food poverty in our locality since the pandemic.”
Even so, sometimes the only way to grasp the full extent of the problem is to wrestle with it first hand.
Wayne Smith is a Bognor Regis town councillor and chair of the community engagement committee, who also works with a variety of organisations throughout the community to help people in need. He describes some of the things he’s seen while working with groups like Grandads Front Room as ‘absolutely heartbreaking’.
“All throughout the pandemic, I’ve been delivering groceries to people that couldn’t get out. The elderly, the vulnerable. People like that,” he said.
“But I’ve also worked extensively with Danny and the team at Grandads and what we’ve seen has been absolutely heart-breaking.
“The amount of people that need help and that are either too proud or too scared to come out and approach people is huge.
“It’s terrible. We had a 73- year-old lady come and bang on the door in tears because she hadn’t eaten in three days and she was absolutely starving. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t get out, it’s that sometimes she couldn’t afford it.”
Mr Smith is full of stories like that – stories of people pushed to the edge by the hardships of the pandemic.
He recalled another incident in which, while pretending to be Father Christmas for a Grandads Front Room event last year, a little boy made a particularly touching request:
“‘He said: ‘Santa, I don’t want anything this year, but if you’re delivering presents on my street to the other children, could you drop some money off to my mum? Because she’s got nothing.’
“I literally had to get up away from the display and go out the back because I started to cry.”
Is enough being done to tackle food poverty?
Alongside volunteer-led community groups and district food banks backed by the Trussell Trust, local councils are also doing what they can to fight the food poverty problem.
Wayne Smith, Bognor Regis town councillor and chair of the community engagement and environment committee, sincerely believes the town council has done, and is doing, all it can to limit the effects of the pandemic.
“As part of the community engagement and environment committee, we’re doing everything we can. We are supporting people and doing our best to make people’s lives a little bit more normal.
“We have something called the flexible community hardship fund. This year’s budget was £5,000 and it’s for people or groups within the community that need funding on an emergency basis. Last year, we gave Bognor Regis Football Club £1,700 because the club was going on a tour and there was a load of underprivileged that couldn’t afford to send their kids.
“We also gave Grandads Front Room £500 at Christmas to buy selection boxes for the kids. Whatever we can do to help the community, my committee is definitely doing it. It’s what we’re there for.”
For Mr Smith, local councils like his are doing everything they can to offset the long-term effects of the pandemic on society’s most vulnerable people, and Joanne Kondabeka, of the Chichester District Food Bank, is inclined to agree.
She said Chichester District Council is doing everything it can, given its resources and the challenging circumstances, to help people who need it most.
“I think local government is doing the best it can with the means it has,” she said.
For her, the problem is more structural. Local factors play into the food poverty problem in Chichester, but, she maintains, it is actually manufactured by national policy.
“I actually think it has more to do with national policy. Benefits have not gone up since 2016 and then, during the pandemic, they decided to add this extra £20 a week and then take it away again, which is actually going to be a shock to those who had never been on benefits before the pandemic made them redundant.
“And it’s hard enough to manage on benefits as it is, especially in an expensive area.”
Hannah Drury, project manager of the Bognor Regis Food Bank, spoke along very similar lines – pinning the solution to food poverty in a post-pandemic economy on positive steps which need to be taken by national government.
She said: “Bognor Food Bank works alongside other local organisations seeking to support and work with people experiencing food poverty in the hope that a holistic and informed approach to tackling the issue will reduce the need for people to access emergency food provision.
“The data provided through our voucher referral system operating within the Trussell Trust’s network across the UK feeds into the essential work the charity does in campaigning for long-lasting changes and towards a future where everyone can afford the essentials .
“We believe that the answer must also be to ensure our social security system provides people with enough money to cover the essentials.”
Another, arguably more difficult challenge faced by food banks is getting people to accept the help they need.
Danny Dawes, who runs Grandads Front Room, a community interest company which provides support to vulnerable people throughout Bognor Regis, said people sometimes fail to acknowledge the extent to which they need help.
He said: “We’ve had people who come in here and say ‘I really need help but I won’t ask for a food voucher. There are other people who need it.’
“And I’ll say: ‘but you need it’.
“There’s a sort of – maybe not a shame – but definitely a stigma attached to it.”
That’s something Laura Gibbs, a volunteer at the community food bank in the Jeneses centre on Linden Road Bognor Regis recognises in herself, and in other people. For her, the solution is all about getting people through the door, getting them past the stigma of needing to ask for help.
“There’s this attitude of ‘put up or shut up’. But obviously everyone’s welcome here. I’m happy to make people a cup of tea if they want it. I give out squash when it’s hot.
“Once people have been here got over that initial anxiety, it’s a lot easier.”