Photo: Laura Abernethy
Photo: Laura Abernethy

The increase in the use of food banks has made headlines across the UK as more and more people are affected by food poverty. St Andrews is often seen as a fairly affluent town but Storehouse, based at the Vineyard centre on Largo Road, has seen the number of parcels they are providing increase by a third since August of last year. Storehouse collect donations of food, pack food parcels and deliver them to the most vulnerable people in northeast Fife. Rebecca Weir, manager of the charity that is run by the Vineyard Church, explained: “We pack food bags once a week and deliver them to our partner agencies.”

They work with local charities like Families First and Homestart as well as people such as health visitors. Rebecca said: “They actually have a really good opportunity to find out what people’s situations are because when a mum has had a baby, the health visitor will go in and they’ll say ‘No, you sit there. You’ve just had a baby, I’ll make the cup of tea’. She has permission to go into somebody’s kitchen and look in all their cupboards trying to find things and can actually see that this person does not have any food in their cupboards… They distribute probably about 50 per cent of the parcels that we give out.

“We also give bags to Women’s Aid; they have 10 safehouses in the north- east Fife area and whenever someone who is experiencing domestic abuse that gets so serious that they need to leave, they can’t give any indication that they’re planning to leave so they have to literally throw a few clothes in a bag and walk out the door. Women’s Aid will always have a few days supply of food in the safehouse ready for them when they move in. “

The food bank also support the Council’s homelessness service, ‘Homes for Good’, and they get one-off referrals from social workers and the job centre.

The charity has grown enormously since it was established in 2006. It has evolved from a plastic storage box that Vineyard’s pastor kept in their porch and brought to the church each week to a group that collects from 12 churches across the local area.

“The first point that it really grew was nearly four years ago; one of our students got really keen to collect food from people in halls who were leaving at the end of term. We collected maybe 10 boxes full of food and at that point, we felt we needed somewhere better to store. First we had some storage in Holy Trinity Church hall and then when we outgrew that we moved to a basement room in Hope Park Church… About a year ago we got these premises. We now have all of the food under one roof.”

Rebecca explained that although the charity has grown enormously from that small plastic box, the need for their help has also increased. In a similar way to food banks in other towns across Britain, more and more people are now relying on them to get by. “From about August last year, the number of bags we’ve given out has tripled which is really alarming and scary to think it’s grown so much. It’s fantastic that we’re able to keep up with the demand for now but I think the fact we exist at all is shocking and I would love to see the day when we close down because people don’t need it.”

There has also been a noticeable change in the circumstances of the people who are seeking help as the rise in the cost of living forces more and more people into food poverty. “We’ve been getting more people that are actually in work but are not able to make ends meet – food prices have gone up 30 per cent in five years and energy bills have gone up 37 per cent in three, but wages and benefits have remained stagnant. Welfare payments have only increased by one per cent. It used to be people who had their benefits delayed or stopped or had a change of circumstance… We’re now seeing more people who are in work but not able to make ends meet… They’ve got debts or just struggling with the cost of living, which is concerning. People don’t have any safety net living week by week, getting down to the last penny before their next pay cheque or next benefit payment comes in. They’ve no spare cash at all so if something like their energy bill is bigger than expected or their car breaks down, they’ve got no spare cash so can be tempted to get into things like payday loans which are just terrible. I don’t see how they can be legal.”

Although St Andrews is often seen as an affluent town, the higher price of living means that the most vulnerable people are now struggling more than ever. Rebecca commented: “A senior mental health social worker, who has worked in Fife and other places, told me some of the worst places he’s seen were on Lamond Drive. It’s a town of such extremes so there are some very wealthy, the students and some who are really struggling. Food prices are really expensive, rent is really expensive, heating is expensive so it’s really hard.”

As Rebecca showed me around the building, it was impressive to see shelves full of food, ready to be packed to help those in need. They have had to install purpose-built shelves to hold the weight of the tins and other non- perishable food. However, Rebecca explains that the shelves are not always as packed: “Thankfully, we’ve never completely run out but in the summer, things are tight because the students are all away and everyone else is in holiday mode.”

Rebecca said that she has seen some remarkable acts of kindness from those in the local community. “This past summer we had a lady who wasn’t connected to any church; she was making a recipe and had run out of something she needed so she popped to the shops. As she was in the shops buying whatever it was, she was suddenly struck that not everybody could just pop out and buy whatever they wanted. She phoned Fife Council to see what she could do to help and they gave her our number. She went and spent £30 in the supermarket and brought it down to us.” This came on a day when the food bank was completely running out.

Rebecca said that although they appreciate all donations, it has been a steep learning curve for both the volunteers and the donors on what they should and should not give. Rebecca uses their website and Facebook page to keep supporters up to date with what they need to ensure that they can give a variety of products that will provide a balanced diet. “It’s tricky getting the right mixture of food – we try to pack bags that are a balanced package for three days’ worth of food, so breakfast cereal, milk, a couple of lunch things, couple of dinner things and some biscuits or dessert or something like that.

“It’s taken a bit of education as well to get people to think. At the start we got a lot of tinned tomatoes and kidney beans, which to me screams chilli con carne but you have to have the meat and so for someone to unpack a bag and see those ingredients it’s going to be a bit of a slap in the face…A jar of chicken tonight sauce is only useful if you have the chicken. It’s taken a while to try and encourage our donors to think in terms of what will really be useful that we can make complete meal out of.“

In the future, Storehouse hopes to become a drop-in centre, allowing people to come to the centre and receive support alongside their food parcel. Plans are already in the advanced stages to set up a coffee area and other facilities. Rebecca believes that this will allow them to provide more support and to help people move on from the situation they are in.

“At the moment it’s the professionals who identify who needs a food bag – there will still be those people making those decisions, but they will give them a referral letter and will have them come up to the centre where we give them hospitality. We have volunteers who have time to listen to their story. We’ll let them have a bit of choice about what’s in their food bag… At the moment it’s a bit random but if someone doesn’t have any Fairy Liquid to wash the dishes, toothpaste isn’t really very helpful, so we can ask them. It reduces waste and gives people a bit more dignity as you feel like you have more choice over what you eat, which can lift their spirits.

“The drop-in centre will allow us to do that and also to signpost people to other sources of support because what we’re really passionate about is seeing people move out of the situation that they’re in and getting them onto a course, for example to help them budget their finance better or tell them about other benefits they’d be able to apply for, and supporting them throughout the application process. I’m keen to get some funding to have some computers available because benefits are increasingly being changed so you have to apply online, and it’s the people who are most in need of those benefits who are those less likely to have access to the internet in their homes. We can give support as some don’t have fan- tastic reading and writing skills so we have volunteers available to help with things like that and to also provide friendship as it’s hard to have a social life when you don’t have any money. Somewhere warm that you can come have a cuppa and chat to someone is nice.”

As term comes to an end and you find that unopened packet of rice or tin of soup at the back of your cupboard, think about donating it to those in need within the community. Storehouse hope to arrange drop-off points for students. The Vineyard Centre is also open from 10 am until 4 pm every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning for people to drop off donations. You can keep up to date with the items that they need and find more information at storehousenefife.org.uk.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.