'It's scary' - foodbank volunteers lift lid on cost of living crisis
- Credit: Archant
Tucked away in the corner of Dereham's Rash's Green industrial estate, volunteers from the Mid Norfolk Foodbank are beavering away with a long list of jobs.
Deliveries need sorting and dozens of boxes are due to be packed full of essential items for desperate families.
Team spirit is alive and well here. The group's manic morning is punctuated by plenty of laughter, but they know there is a very serious side to their efforts.
In the 2014/15 financial year, the Trussell Trust - under which Mid Norfolk Foodbank (MNF)is a franchise - distributed just under 1.1 millions food parcels across the UK.
In 2021/22, the figure had almost doubled to 2.1 million, and is only expected to increase as the cost of living crisis escalates.
Perhaps best placed to judge the spiralling situation is Helen Howe, who has been helping MNF once a week for eight years.
"Demand has noticeably gone up," said the 64-year-old former nurse.
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"I think we are going to be in for a tough time in the months ahead. We are talking tonnes of food going out every month and it's scary."
MNF - which covers Dereham, Fakenham and Swaffham - is a well-oiled machine, to say the least.
Delivered items are sorted by their categories and expiry dates, and siphoned into different areas of the warehouse.
Food parcels are split into four categories: single people; couples; families of three; and families of at least four.
With the help of shopping lists created by a nutritionist to ensure a balanced diet, volunteers fill each box with around three days' worth of food.
Overseeing this hive of activity is operations manger Suzanne Bushby, who took over the role in January having worked previously with Christians Against Poverty.
She revealed 2022 had thus far been a year like no other for many foodbanks.
"Normally, after Christmas, the number of vouchers issued would start to tail off a bit - and it just hasn't happened," said Suzanne.
"Already we have seen such an uptake in vouchers coming in, at the Dereham centre particularly.
"Clients are actually asking for food that doesn't need to be cooked now, so they don't have to put the oven on. I think that shows how much people are struggling."
The numbers themselves paint an even clearer picture.
So far in 2022, MNF has issued 500 vouchers - up from 385 in the same period last year - and fed 1,355 people.
While acknowledging that donors in Norfolk have been "immensely generous", Suzanne warned that MNF is having to be cautious ahead of an even more challenging period.
"We are in a better position than a lot of foodbanks but, since the beginning of March, the food coming in is not as great as the food going out," she added.
"We are having to stick more rigidly to the shopping list because we just don't know what the rest of this year holds."
Foodbanks have been in the headlines in light of comments made by Conservative MP Lee Anderson, who claimed those using them "can't cook properly" and needed to learn how to budget.
He went on to say there was "no massive use" for foodbanks in the UK.
The Trussell Trust says knowing how to cook is irrelevant if families "don't have enough money in their pockets".
And volunteers are concerned that statements like Mr Anderson's may worsen the embarrassment felt by some clients.
Ernie Pinch, the elder statesman of the group, said he simply feels "really sorry" for anybody who needed to walk through a foodbank door to survive.
"You get people coming in who are hard-working, and they are ashamed to come in but it's not their fault," said Mr Pinch, 78.
"There's definitely still a stigma, and a lot of people out there just don't understand. So long as they're alright, that's all that matters."
Fellow volunteer David Dove, 68, added: "People get into certain situations, often through no fault of their own.
"We are just glad to be able to meet people's needs. You don't look down on them; you are just happy to serve them."
To get help from the Mid Norfolk Foodbank, call 07542 106107 or email email@example.com.
The Times is running a campaign entitled 'Your Money Matters' to address what could be the most difficult year in living memory for so many families.
To share your experiences, email firstname.lastname@example.org.