Cromer Foodbank

Cromer and District Foodbank - a Trussell Trust foodbank in rural Norfolk

Introduction

This is about the Cromer and District foodbank, one of the 400 or so Trussell Trust foodbanks established in the UK by the autumn of 2013. We do not claim our story or our strategy is unique; however it has some important and not wholly typical features, the reasons for which are clearly understood and well documented. We therefore believe it sits well within the ‘Together for the Common Good’ study.

Figure 1: Norfolk Foodbanks as at March 2013

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Mounting need

By 2011 England was established within a deepening economic recession. Employment opportunities were insufficient for the growing UK adult population; business was facing severe challenges; the housing market and building industry were stagnant; many workers found themselves redundant; many young people were unable to find a place on the employment or housing ladders; government cuts resulted in the disappearance of many public sector jobs; families were being economically squeezed. The elderly are of course a diverse group and, being somewhat protected by government policy, many of their number were relatively secure, but others were in deepening crisis.

In the middle of that year a vicar and his wife retired to Cromer in north Norfolk, and a few months later she heard a radio broadcast by the Norwich foodbank which was intending to expand and seeking volunteers. Visiting the Norwich operation, it was at once clear that expansion would not reach the north Norfolk coast some twenty miles distant; any foodbank here would need to be a separate organisation. The couple were put in touch with the recently-arrived Methodist minister in Cromer and her husband, both of whom had previously worked with the Norwich set-up. Now we were four – an embryonic steering group.

But was there a need? Although much of the area appears well-to-do, statistics of multiple deprivation showed Cromer to have the greatest need outside the major conurbations of Norwich, Yarmouth and Kings Lynn. Child deprivation figures showed unexpectedly high levels in Holt, an apparently affluent town 10 miles distant, whilst fuel poverty figures for the North Norfolk District were well above the national average. Anecdotal evidence collected from front line agencies also pointed to a significant, albeit unquantified, need in this rural coastal arc.

Figure 2: Cromer Foodbank area

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Seeking an appropriate model of collaborative working

A second line of investigation led to discussion with several of the local churches, the immediate outcome of which was the discovery that two Methodist and Anglican churches had separately begun to think about a foodbank, as had the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP, a charitable organisation) at a neighbouring Roman Catholic church. The Anglican curate and the chair of the SVP joined the steering group, which was from its inception committed to ecumenical working.

Listening to local church comment (there was a ministers’ fraternal, but no Churches Together or equivalent in the town), two very distinct perceptions became clear. On the one hand, the Anglican church, large both in building and congregation, perceived that other churches were reluctant to join with their initiatives, whilst the other much smaller churches felt their contributions were not needed, and would be swamped by their large neighbour.

Several of these factors are significant in our organisational approach. It is often the case in establishing a foodbank that one church takes the lead; frequently but not exclusively the foodbank becomes part of that church organisation, often with other churches joining in various ways. Our determination to work ecumenically and the perceived difficulties arising from the imbalance of church size and resources described, led us to exclude this strategy. Instead we opted to set up an independent company limited by guarantee. Organisationally this placed us under company law which makes some modest administrative demands, but has the great advantage that all churches participate on an equal footing, and all their contributions (food, money, facilities or volunteers) are equally valued. So far as is possible we avoid publishing lists showing amounts of donations, simply listing all participants and celebrating the contributions of each.

A second significant factor was the ‘newness’ of the prime movers. The Methodist minister and her husband had been in the town only three months when our discussions began; the retired couple not much longer and were not yet settled in a particular church. The chair of the SVP also was newly appointed to that task. Thus we brought little historical baggage or allegiance to place, people, or ways of working. Probably our local ignorance caused us to ruffle a few feathers along the way, but it had the great advantage of independence and freshness of perception – benefits too often ignored in church affairs. A public meeting held to launch the project and assess support was attended by over one hundred people, sixty of whom registered their interest, and many of whom became volunteers.

Public collection at a Tesco store

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Wider partnership with local agencies . . .

The foodbank opened for business in August 2012, nine months after our discussions began. We had a warehouse and distribution centre in which to meet clients in a hall of the Methodist Church, kindly given free for the first year. A one-day food collection at a local supermarket brought in 0.88 tonnes of food. As our name implies, provision of food to people in crisis is our most obvious aim, but there is much besides.

We work closely with some fifty professional partners (e.g. CAB; Health Visitors; School Parent Support Officers; Social Workers; Women’s Refuge; and many charitable organisations). It is they who validate the client’s need and provide them with our vouchers which can then be exchanged for food. One benefit of this is that we do not ourselves have to question the need. One client summarised it like this: ‘The foodbank is the one place I can go where I know I will not be judged’. This is key to our ethos: people coming here are valued; welcomed with a hand-shake and personal introduction; given a drink and something to eat; time to talk and be listened to if this is what they want. Prayer is available, but only if requested, which is rarely. Importantly, clients are frequently signposted to one of our partners for further help. This partnership is crucial: food will not solve the underlying needs, but together with kindness it will do much to hold the client whilst those needs are being addressed.

. . . and the Trussell Trust

Information from our vouchers is downloaded (anonymously) to the Trussell Trust head office. Together with data from all their other foodbanks this allows the Trust to build a comprehensive map of need across the country - a powerful tool much used in informing the media and government, allowing the causes of poverty to be scrutinised by area. Thus we are a voice for the voiceless. We likewise speak locally, raising awareness through broadcasting and printed media; school assemblies and talks to groups. On occasion we have also provided advocacy for individuals.

What we do and why

Our prime aim is to address food poverty to support local people in crisis whilst the underlying needs are being addressed by appropriate statutory or voluntary specialists. It is not our brief to provide long-term support; we do not wish to encourage a culture of dependency as seen, for example, in Canada and the USA. Our food parcels provide the household with a generous allocation sufficient for three days’ meals. Initially clients could return for up to three food parcels in any six month period – however, increasing delays in resolution of benefit changes – especially when there is an appeal – have sometimes required a generous extension of this support.

Record-keeping is a key to our work. To maintain public confidence and accountability all food is weighed in and out of the warehouse, and all client provision is recorded. Computerised systems facilitate close monitoring and there are mechanisms whereby the few clients inclined to abuse the system are detected. We work together with our partners to tailor our response in difficult or unusual cases.

In the first fifteen months of operation just over 1,830 three-day packs of food were provided in response to 865 requests (the average request being for two people). Currently demand is around 160 packs per month. Most clients come to us on one or two occasions; less than two percent have required more than four food parcels, but this is increasing. About one third of those fed are children, and Children’s Social Services and School Parent Support Advisors have been important points of contact.

Statistics for the year to November 2013 show a variety of primary needs: Benefit delays (34%); Benefit changes (25%); Low income (11%); Debt (7%); Homelessness (7%); Domestic violence (1%).

To date we have never declined a valid authenticated request for help within our geographical area. Urgent requests are usually met on the same day.

Rural areas have the additional problems of distance and high transport costs

In this predominantly rural area (we now serve around 70,000 people in total) there are difficulties both for us and for our clients, which do not apply in city-based centres.  Rural deprivation, particularly the cost of transport or lack of it, is a major issue potentially affecting access to our service. Many of our partner agencies cover wide geographical areas, and they were soon pressing us to expand. Within our first year we opened a further three centres in local towns, have since added another and located emergency food boxes in a sixth. Some of the centres are busy, one or two are less so, and may prove not to be viable. Alongside these we operate an ‘on call’ system Monday to Saturday to meet urgent needs, and frequently to take food to people who cannot otherwise access the service. This is currently staffed by the trustees, and is demanding.

The danger of burn-out

A further, but hidden, aspect concerns our (now six) trustees. All of them have a pastoral heart and have valued their involvement with clients, for whom they have made a tremendous contribution. Most continue active involvement in governance, management and front-line provision. This is a hugely demanding commitment. As a body, the trustees recognise the need to separate these roles, but the process of ‘letting the baby go’ is at best, embryonic. It is the author’s view that this is a potential obstacle to development if the transition cannot be achieved.

Pre-requisites of effectiveness

This work could not have been undertaken without large-scale collaboration. The Trussell Trust to which we are affiliated has provided our working model, initial training and much else. I have already described the importance of our partner agencies, both statutory and voluntary, of which we now have over fifty; a small number of church ministers are included among these, affording them the opportunity to make referrals. Earlier this year we organised a training and networking day attended by many agencies and our volunteers, to mutual benefit.

Likewise the ecumenical stance is vital. At least sixty churches are involved (including Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Society of Friends, New Life and other groups). Many of these have regular food collection points; these and others support at harvest and Christmas. The churches are also a source of finance, many volunteers, and prayer. There is strong evidence that foodbank has been a profoundly harmonising influence within the Christian community.

However, we look wider. Some of our volunteers have no religious affiliation but are happy to work with us, and we are delighted to have them. Support has come from funding organisations, local clubs and groups, schools, businesses (including several supermarkets) and the general public. An ex-offender seeking rehabilitation has recently become a volunteer in our warehouse, and there is hope of including clients and people with learning difficulties within our workforce as occasion permits.

The foodbank has provided training and skill development for over 100 volunteers; fostered family stability; has contributed to cohesion within the community, and has likewise received greatly from it – we estimate 3000 to 5000 people have contributed in some way.

For the trustees, the preparation stage was a huge learning curve; we were greatly indebted to a neighbouring foodbank for support and advice during this time, and have often commented that if we had known what we were getting into we would never have begun! None the less, there has been great personal growth and satisfaction in doing so, and we have been immensely blessed by good working relationships and friendships within the Trustees. A key benefit has been the variety of gifts we have among us: one has strong networking skills; another analytical skills and an eye for detail; another PR and writing skills, etc. The team has been well constituted for the task, for which we thank God, for this was not a conscious construct on our part!

Benefiting from the Trussell Trust brand

The experience of collaboration, not least with our partner agencies, has been invaluable. It is our perception that the Trussell Trust brand is significant in this – it is now well known and indicates good practice and training – the result is that other bodies are willing to accept foodbank managers as fellow professionals, which is vital for confidential discussion.

The Trussell Trust model epitomises good practice. Its foundation ethos; emphasis on training and respect for all; outline policies and effective monitoring tools, are key factors in a good organisation. However, the translation of these is the responsibility of local management and governance. There is much to be said for mutual support from a network of neighbouring foodbanks and some concerns could usefully be worked out in such a forum. The expansion of our Trustee team to include persons whose focus is primarily governance rather than pastoral, and whose skills might include business or management experience, would also be beneficial.

The church in action

Many churches are inclined to look within themselves for all the resources and benefits needed for a particular piece of work. Seldom do they find them, and frequently the work is limited or abandoned as a result. A re-orientation is needed to see ‘the church’ in the (lay) people out in the world doing their daily work. This too is the church in action, if only we would recognise it. Writing as a recently retired Anglican minister, I wish I had realised this earlier – in my experience the pressure of parish work tends to an introversion which blinkers the leader to this vital dimension.

Our foodbank experience required us to abandon the ‘safe’ and familiar way of doing things from a church base. As a ‘Company limited by guarantee’, we possibly appear more secular than we otherwise would. Yet this course has been unifying for the churches; has been visibly (but not necessarily audibly) Christian in its dealings with people, and has brought us into trusting relationships with many non-church organisations, not to mention our clients. It has been the church in action – and not too worried if our ‘Christian’ identity is in the action rather than on the label!

This project has not been dependent on church leaders per se, though one trustee is a serving ordained minister, and a second a retired one!  However, ordained input has not been an essential component, and one can envisage that in some circumstances it could have been an obstruction. Our Christian foundation is key to our ethos, gives a rootedness to our aspirations and is the source of both our prayer and our great and sometimes totally unexpected blessing. If one were to look for a scriptural hook on which to hang foodbank, it could be Luke 4.18-19 or Matthew 25.35-40or ‘The Lord Bless you and Keep you and make his face to shine upon you ...’ which is included in the little message inside each parcel of food. Alternatively it might be Revelation 21 which tells of the new Jerusalem having no temple – and presents us with the challenge to be church without walls – not a bad description for Cromer and District foodbank.

The views expressed are those of the author, Revd Malcolm Nicholas,
Trustee of Cromer & District foodbank, Companion of The Northumbria Community
and sometime vicar in the Diocese of Lincoln

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