At Bow Foodbank today we distributed 172 food bags to current and new users plus a similar number again of ‘family’ bags if the user had kids. Given the risk of coronavirus transmission between users and volunteers, we changed our operation to maintain social distancing as best possible. We normally use St Marys Church to offer a ‘shop’ experience, in which users choose their 10 items from a set range of about 20 items that are bought in bulk each week from Tesco. The core items are supplemented by donations, which adds a good variety and choice to the ‘freebies’ section, where users can pick up extra items from whatever has come in that week. We usually register all new users, and log the visit dates. All our users are self-referred and are not restricted by postcode or residence status. We offer hot drinks and sandwiches and a friendly chat in our hospitality area. All of this has had to be halted because of the pandemic.
The impact of the pandemic has been huge.
Firstly, Tesco cancelled our order on Sunday morning, just a few hours before volunteers were due to arrive to unload it. This was half-expected, since the limits on the numbers of some items had already been chopped and changed by them several times during the week.
Secondly, we decided not to operate inside the St Mary’s church. Today we set up trestle tables outside the St Catherine of Sienna RC Church and used the car park to snake users in a zig-zag queue, spaced 2m apart. Users were called forward to the tables one at a time, given a simple choice of a ‘meat/fish’ bag or a ‘vegetarian’ bag (each with 10 items) plus one extra bag for families (with 4 extra items). This is much less than we can usually offer as each dependent child usually qualifies a user to 3 extra items. So despite children now being at home and needing more food, we could only offer less.
The last table of ‘freebies’ provided some extra fresh vegetables (donated in bulk by a catering company having to close), sanitary towels, nappies, bread, sweets/ crisps, and mixed random toiletries.
We suspended the registration of clients, just keeping a simple tally of numbers, but no individual records. This streamlined the process and kept people moving through, without too long to wait. We were lucky to have breezy sunshine and no rain.
We also minimized the number of volunteers needed, asking some of our regulars to stay home if they were in the high-risk groups due to age or health conditions. So today we had about 20 volunteers instead of our usual 30-40. We were able to give out disposable gloves to the volunteers and offer users hand sanitizer before touching the ‘freebies’, but we could not obtain any masks.
The messages about social distancing have not got through to some of our users. Many came close to volunteers instinctively, either to hear better or to look and try to understand what was going on.
In terms of self-isolating people, there were only half-dozen pick-ups by neighbours or relatives. We tried to be clear with these cases that the Bow Foodbank parcels were for people with no food at home or no money to buy food; really just for those in urgent need. This did cause a couple of people to rethink and not join the queue. Overall, we got the impression that not many of our regular users had attended and that maybe 30-40% had not been to the Bow Foodbank before.
On Monday night, the Prime Minister ordered the nationwide lockdown. Though it subsequently became clear that foodbanks could continue to operate, the Trustees, in spite of their great efforts to establish reliable sources of goods and transport, felt that our supply chain was still too fragile to guarantee sustainability through the critical period, and were also concerned about the exposure both of our volunteers and of the clients themselves. They took the decision on Wednesday to experiment with a new model. As an interim measure, users would receive £15 supermarket vouchers instead of food parcels. However, we would continue to receive donations and seek to acquire staple stock through the sources available to us, in order to be a distribution hub for local community groups who have identified people in need.
The first request came in from the Mulberry School, who want to set up a foodbank for the families of children on free school meals. We will be working with them to help them source toiletries in particular.