Oldham food support service helping people through pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of stopping, people are being forced to choose between buying food and whether they can afford to turn the lights on.

“We have a lot of customers who are making decisions about whether to eat or whether to put their heating or the electric on.”

Dave Breton is speaking on a sunny spring afternoon as behind him a long – but socially distanced – queue is forming across a hillside at the Sholver and Moorside Community Centre in Oldham.

It’s a mixed group, old and young, single people and families but all have turned out for one reason – to get a weekly delivery of food support. 

Dave (pictured below) is a support team manager at First Choice Homes, a housing association that is working in partnership with The Bread and Butter Thing, a Manchester based charity that distributes surplus supermarket food to those in need.

Since November the housing association has invested £80k in getting the project up and running in the borough, including buying their own van named ‘Rob’.

Residents living in First Choice homes in Oldham can use the service, and many are directly invited by staff who identify that they are falling below the breadline, getting into debt or struggling to pay their rent.

And since the coronavirus pandemic hit, that number is on the rise.

“We’re seeing new people coming in every week, a massive increase in the double bags to help more with feeding the children who aren’t in school, and things like that, so more food needs collecting,” community impact manager Lorraine Black (pictured below) explains.

“Quite often it’s the waiting for benefits as well, that’s why we have hardship loans, so we can help them out while they’re waiting for benefits to be paid.”

Her colleague Dave adds: “We’ve probably registered around 60 customers since this started, just through referrals, people who are struggling.

“At the warehouse now they’re packing over a thousand bags a day 

“With the current situation a lot of self-employed people had to apply for the government scheme, they’ve done everything that they need to do but you’ve got a few weeks where you haven’t got any money coming in and you’re really finding it difficult.

“We’re expecting about 70 customers today. We’re not far off full capacity here.”

He adds they have also set up a delivery service for customers who need to self-isolate, and who don’t have anyone able to collect their food bags for them.

Although it is targeted at First Choice residents who are struggling financially, the service offered three times a week at different Oldham hubs isn’t run as a foodbank.

The first visit is free, and after that residents pay £7.50 for three bags of food, the equivalent of £35 worth if bought in the supermarket. 

They contain ‘cupboard essentials’ such as cereals, drinks, biscuits, pasta and sauces, but it also comes with fresh fruit and vegetables, and a cold ‘fridge’ bag with meat and dairy products.

Larger families can also take the option of doubling up, taking home six bags for £15.

The fact that you pay towards it is for some people more of an incentive to use the service, Dave explains.

“With a food bank, one of the barriers is that a lot of people don’t want charity whereas this is still something that you’re paying for, so it’s different,” he says.

Les Robinson (pictured below), who is queuing to collect his bags, agrees. 

“A lot of them think it’s like a form of begging but it’s also using up food that no one would ever use,” he says.

“The last nine years I worked for Tesco and it gobsmacked me how much stuff they threw away.”

The 67-year-old has been volunteering at the service since it started in November, but is also a customer – buying bags for himself and family members.

And that’s become even more important since the pandemic hit. 

“I’m retired, I class myself as a very fortunate side of society at the moment but people in my life, they have lost jobs and money coming in at this present moment,” Les adds.

“The bags are partly for me, but mainly for other parts of my family, if I can just help them out because they are vulnerable as well and struggling. I want to try and help. 

“They are trying to make whatever they can but unfortunately it’s not enough, so I’m buying this now.

“We have little snippets of what we want and then just pass it on.

“They’ve not even been furloughed, their whole income comes from helping people, getting £10, £20 notes here and there. 

“I know people say it’s not the way to live your life but that’s how they are living it, and they fall off the radar. There’s no paper trail, you don’t exist. 

“I think life is going to be very different for a lot of people after this. It’s going to take them years to get them back to the standards they had before.”

Kevin Gilroy (pictured below) started coming to the service after First Choice contacted him directly to offer the support. 

“What you have got here to spend, you couldn’t get it for the money in shops. It comes in handy,” the 59-year-old says.

“You get a phone call off First Choice, I didn’t know anything about it before but I’ve since been a few times. 

“It’s not bad, you get fruit and veg and all in all it’s good cupboard fillers, and it makes life easier.

“My son’s been off work, they have not put him on furlough he’s just on sick pay so it’s left us all a bit short. That company has a lot to answer for.”

During the service, First Choice staff – many of whom worked in different parts of the business before the coronavirus crisis hit – sort customer’s bags and take them directly to some people’s cars

This helps Gerard McGrath, who is disabled and would struggle to walk up the steep hill to the collection point by the delivery vans. 

“I’ve been using the service since it started. They phoned me up and told me about it, I was very surprised to hear about it,” the 78-year-old says.

“It saves me doing a lot of shopping, saves me going out. I only come out once a week now.

“If they hadn’t reached out I wouldn’t have bothered, but at the end of the day I am glad they did.”

Despite living alone being one of the people recommended by the government to self-isolate, Gerard (pictured below) is stoic about the current crisis.

“After 50 years driving an HGV down to Saudi Arabia this is easy. I have got everything I need, I have got a bungalow, I have got a bathroom, I have got a bed,” he says.

“We’ve all just got to get on with it.” 

A woman in the queue, who asked not to be named, explained she started using the service after being recommended by a friend who also lives in a First Choice property.

“I think it’s amazing, absolutely fantastic,” she says.

“The bags are always very varied. My friend had done it and told me about it and then she said come with me so I just came with her that first time and I said ‘god I’ll have to come back’. 

“Especially how things are now, how stressful it is in the supermarkets. It’s just such a long queue everywhere you go.

“There is still a little that I pick up, just basics but mostly what you get does the job. It’s been amazing.” 

Before the nation went into lockdown in March, the service had been run by volunteers out of the community centre, and with just one staff member from the housing association. 

But because of issues around social distancing, the bags are now coming pre-packed from The Bread and Butter Thing’s warehouse in Trafford Park, and distributed by staff.

“Normally it’s much more of a community led service, the whole point is it brings the community together and the community leads it,” Dave explains.

“We pay for a citizen’s advice drop in here every week when things are normal and that’s something else we’ve funded.

“But because of Covid-19 and trying to maintain social distancing, reduce the numbers of people going into the centre all of the packing is being done at the warehouse. It just allows us to deliver it much more safely.”

In normal times customer Les would also be one the volunteers at the centre, packing up bags and handing them out.

He says that if the service doesn’t return to normal he plans to volunteer at the main warehouse to continue helping out.

“It’s like anything else, a lot of people don’t get involved enough because they don’t think it matters to them but since I have come volunteering it’s shown me just how vulnerable society actually is,” he adds. 

While volunteers have been stood down, staff from other parts of the First Choice business have stepped up.

On the day it includes Mark, who normally works as an electrician, and Tanisha Rigby (pictured below), a customer engagement officer who responded to an email from Dave asking for support with the scheme.

“I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been quite rewarding.,” the 23-year-old says.

“I’m still working but my day to day has changed. I go down to the warehouse, help with the delivery. On a Saturday I go to a different hub.

“As a community we have come together to do welfare checks. We’ve rung nearly every single customer, and we have 12,000. 

“I had PPE delivered to my house the other day, the business is supporting us with all that.

“It’s actually been nice doing different things, being able to organise a delivery for a 93-year old-customer who can’t get out, it’s nice to be able to do that.

“There is a lot of job satisfaction when you can help somebody.”

Images: Local Democracy Reporting Service

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