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What comes after 25,000 tins of soup?

In the middle of March, as our country began to lockdown with mass stock-piling of toilet roll and groceries, closures of pubs and restaurants and amidst an increasingly worrying death-toll, we were already deep into our Corona Virus emergency response at First Days. We sent out thousands of nappies, wipes and other toiletries to families all over the country who were in desperate need as a result of the escalating crisis, whilst also contingency planning for whatever was coming next.

At this time, Wokingham Borough Council (the local authority in which we are based) was convening charity leaders to work out how we could best respond as a community. It was becoming clear that access to food was going to be a huge issue for people, along with delivery of prescriptions and the potential for loneliness, isolation and mental ill health as a result of any sort of lockdown. The race was on to get services in place to ensure that everyone was fed, safe and cared for.

One of things I have always loved about the voluntary sector is our ability to be agile and mobilise quickly in response to a crisis. We all rapidly took to our feet and played to our strengths - at First Days this is, quite simply, getting things to people who need them. We, like so many businesses in the pandemic, took our skills and pivoted towards what people needed: we had a food distribution hub set up in a matter of days. A project that would normally take months to plan was up and running and delivering food to people who needed it within a week. It took a lot of work and exceptionally long hours, but we did it: In just one week we had sourced premises, food supplies, established new data systems, bought t-shirts, made ID badges, kitted out the venue, written policies and assessed the endless risks associated with a new service in a global pandemic.

The referrals for food parcels began pouring in through Citizens Advice’s ‘One Front Door’ as did, thankfully, volunteers to run the hub. When Rich, an ex-police officer, turned up and asked if I’d like some ‘help running the place’ I could have jumped for joy (if I wasn’t so exhausted). I took him, and many, many others up on their offer to give up their time to join the team and we soon had a brilliant operation. Together, with redeployed staff from Wokingham Borough Council's Sport & Leisure department, 140 volunteers have delivered over 4,500 (including 25,000 tins of soup) food parcels to residents in the Borough in just twelve weeks.

We quickly realised that the residents we were helping fell into two main categories: those who couldn’t go out to buy their food because they were vulnerable and shielding at home, and those who couldn’t buy food because they could no longer make ends meet. When you’re living hand to mouth, as so many people are, even the government’s furlough scheme with a reduction of 20% of income can cause a spiral into financial free fall. We have heard some very upsetting stories about people who have lost their income as a result of the pandemic and simply cannot afford to put food on the table.

The long term ‘new normal’ solution for those who are vulnerable and shielding but could afford their food has been tricky to work out, but we have got there. After many weeks of asking supermarkets for delivery slots, exploring ideas around volunteer shopping services and scoping out what was available we are pleased that we have now been able to help over 700 households in Wokingham Borough access their own food shopping through the local Covid Support Groups, a DEFRA scheme for priority online shopping slots and many supermarkets and local shops now taking telephone orders and making deliveries. This is a huge relief as, whilst it was great to be able to help at a time of crisis, it is not nice to imagine people alone, stuck at home and unable to to have the joy of eating their favourite foods!

Hastily scrawled above Emma Cantrell's desk in the Leisure Centre that became the makeshift food hub

Unfortunately, its not so straight forward for those people who find themselves unable to afford the basics. I read recently that ‘it takes a crisis to reveal a crisis’ and this is exactly what we have found when it comes to food and the ability to pay for it for many local people. The amount of residents who simply cannot afford to put food on the table has skyrocketed in the last 12 weeks. Wokingham Foodbank has reported a 400% increase in demand for their service and is distributing one tonne of food every single week. The Grub Club, who provide meals to children in school holidays, launched their food hub at the start of the crisis. They have stocked the Community Hub and the Foodbank with fresh food boxes and given out food parcels to well over 100 households in need every single week, all through donations of surplus stock from local supermarkets and businesses.

For us, as a collective of charities supporting people in Wokingham Borough who can’t afford food and essentials, the question is what happens now? The Community Hub has served its purpose - to help people access food during the Covid-19 crisis, but what happens to those people who are relying on the support of the Grub Club, the Foodbank and First Days in the future?

Well, whilst we know that food parcels and hand-outs do not solve poverty, we also cannot leave people in our community without the basics to survive whilst waiting for national policy to change.

People need our support now, not only with the food and goods we can offer, but also with personal and practical advice and support, all under one roof. Our vision is for a community space where people can access all of our services in a positive, life affirming and non-judgemental way.

We’d love to harness the passion and enthusiasm of the local authority, charities and the incredible volunteers in our community, which we have seen during this crisis, and turn it into a long term, sustainable service that leaves no one in need of essentials and support. If any good at all can come out of this pandemic in Wokingham Borough, and across the country, this can be it.

Obviously a project like this needs funders to share the vision - we can give you lots more information if this is you. If you don't happen to be someone with lots of money to invest in the community then you can still help.

You can:

- Share this article on social media to raise awareness of the issue

- Find out what the situation is in your area by contacting your local foodbank

- Write to your MP to make them aware of the growing issue of food poverty as a result of Covid-19

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