Even before the Pandemic hit, the foodbank at St. Matthew’s Church, Redhill, has been providing a vital service to the families in the area hit hardest by food poverty. Serving up to 20 families a week, it has provided much needed support for those most affected by the financial crisis of 2008 and the following period of austerity. However, during the coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2) pandemic, the operation has become even more vital for community wellbeing. Serving up to 120 families a week, often through delivery, the food bank at St. Matthews has worked closely with other foodbanks (such as the council-run service at the Harlequin Theatre) to feed the dramatically rising number of those affected by food poverty.
I meet the church’s Vicar, Father Andrew Cunnington, at 9am on 15th June (coincidentally the day of the reopening of non-essential shops in the UK). Expecting a short, rushed interview, I’m pleasantly surprised to instead be given an informative and passionate tour of the foodbank and its various arms of operations.
We start with the religious aspect. “Jesus didn’t just give sermons, he fed the hungry,” says the Vicar emphatically. The first thing he shows me on the tour is a stained-glass window of Jesus doing just that, a valuable reminder of the thousands of years of history that such charitable endeavours have behind them. This informs everything else I see at the church, a religious building transformed into a vital centre of community outreach.
Next, we enter the nave of the church, the cavernous space of worship transformed by the food bank’s activities. Instead of hymn sheets, the pews are littered with tins of beans, loaves of bread and toilet roll. Instead of preaching, which has been prohibited on an in-person basis since the lockdown began, Father Andrew is busy organising food distribution for the his rapidly expanding base of clients. Some of the more devout may find this disrespectful in a place of worship, I think. But Father Andrew doesn’t see it that way; he is firm in his belief that action trumps aesthetics.
The workings of the food bank show the generosity of the community, which often extends beyond simple food donations. At one point during the tour, Father Andrew takes me into a room filled with toys and children’s books. Father Andrew explains that the food bank will work as a conduit for such goods; the jumble won’t go to waste, most of it being redistributed by a charity called Stripey Stork, finding homes where it will be valued. The food bank’s network of connections has many hidden benefits.
Their operations would not be possible without this strong network of connections within the community. The food bank started off small, serving only a few families each week. However, over time, they were able to build a much greater base of regulars using referrals from other institutions, such as Raven Housing Trust and the Citizens Advice Bureau in Redhill town centre. Having those in need referred to them by these organisations, the food bank was able to expand what it did, helping as many as it could with the resources it had.
While demands have increased during the pandemic, so have volunteering workers. Before the virus hit, the food bank was run mostly by the older generation, many of whom where part time volunteers. Now, says the Vicar, the volunteer base is much younger (because the old must stay at home for their own safety) and works far longer hours. For some of them, “it’s almost like a full-time job.” Indeed, the operation extends throughout many of the Church’s rooms; this is a service that needs a lot of manpower to function.
He takes me to the storerooms, packed floor to ceiling with supplies; it’s impressive just how many resources are going into the service. However, it’s also a great shame that so many are needed. The pandemic has only exacerbated the UK’s existing poverty problem; in an article published by The Guardian in late February, over a month before full lockdown began, it was reported that “about 14m” Britons were struggling to make ends meet.
Father Andrew seems optimistic as he leads me around the premises. The operation is a hard one, of course, especially during a pandemic, and with the uncertainty surrounding the lifting of lockdown, it’s unclear how many will continue to use the service and how many will find they no longer need to. But whatever the future may hold, the food bank will face it head on. We can only be grateful for its resilience in the face of not only the immediate Covid-19 crisis, but the larger, older crisis of food poverty that will never truly go away.