OLDHAM Foodbank are moving into their new town centre premises this week and planning to offer an even wider range of support.
I’ve been a keen supporter of their efforts for many years and cannot praise highly enough the volunteers behind it; and the generosity of local people, partners and businesses that enable them to help local people in crisis.
Yet that pride still never hides a sense of despair at how we got to a situation in 21st century Britain where people still struggle to put food on the table, and are making a choice between heating their homes and feeding their kids.
And at a time when we’re repeatedly told that the British economy is defying all expectations – that every major sector grew last year and that it is fundamentally strong and resilient – you are left wondering how on earth we got here?
It was the Rev David Hawthorn, the vicar of St Margaret’s and St Chad’s Church in Hollinwood who decided to set up Oldham Foodbank in 2012.
What prompted him to do it was that he noticed the growing numbers of people coming to his vicarage asking for help in crisis – and increasingly for food.
While many had been made redundant, had little savings, or had hit short-term financial problems, he was concerned that many of these people were also actually in work. The profile of those suffering was widening.
Oldham Foodbank gives people three days’ worth of non-perishable food as long as they have been referred by agencies, social services, GPs or charities. It’s run by local churches and am amazing army of volunteers who also direct people to other organisations for any additional help they need.
In 2011, the Trussell Trust which runs the largest foodbank network, including Oldham, gave out 129,000 food parcels. Last year that number had shot up to 1.1 million, of which Oldham Foodbank gave out 5,005 emergency food parcels to help 3,317 adults and 1,688 children (March 2015 to April 2016).
After four years at Clegg Street we’ve now finished repair works, agreed a lease and handed over the keys to Oldham Foodbank for the former Three Crowns pub in Manchester Street as their new permanent home.
This building is four times the size of their old premises and it means Andrew Barr, the manager, and his team can offer so much more.
As well as emergency food parcels, they aim to help people get out of poverty with access to other support services, free internet access for jobs searches and online applications, and free use of a telephone to contact agencies and employers. There is even a fuel bank scheme offering vouchers for foodbank users with pre-payment meters for gas or electricity to prevent them struggling with the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma.
They’ve also just had a massive success which, thanks to their campaigning and your generosity, means that new home will soon boast a new community kitchen.
Initially they had hoped to raise £13,850 to create a kitchen preparing hot and fresh meals using surplus food that supermarkets and producers would otherwise have thrown away.
Yet now – with exactly a week still left until fundraising closes – they have already reached £22,950 and are hoping to hit £26,000 by February 8.
Please visit the website at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/oldham-food-bank-community-kitchen to find out more and donate before that closing date.
I still get asked what reasons drive people to use foodbanks and they are – of course – complex and different in every case, and often the subject of heated debate.
Interestingly, the Trussell Trust commissioned a study last year by the Oxford University to look into what is causing increased food bank use.
It tells us that since the start of Welfare Reform and the introduction of ‘benefits sanctions’ the use of foodbanks has rapidly accelerated.
They found that for every 10 extra benefit sanctions imposed between one three-month period and the next, five more emergency food parcels were given out. Food for thought, clearly.
If you are facing difficulties, Oldham Council has a team of dedicated Welfare Rights officers to help.
They can give you independent, impartial and free advice on benefit issues to ensure you are claiming what you are entitled to, assistance with forms and appeals and ways to save money. To get in touch, call 0161 770 6655 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday or click here for more information.
Finally this week I want to mention our excellent new season of live@thelibrary which offers comedy, drama, new writing and storytelling.
Running until April this programme has become a central and much-loved part of our library offer.
Libraries don’t just lend you books, they can give you inspiration, entertainment and activities for everyone and our Performance Space at Oldham Library has become regionally recognised for its innovative arts and community work.
Please visit the website at www.oldham.gov.uk/liveatthelibrary to find out more and take advantage of what is on offer.