Strabane Foodbank making a huge difference to those most in need

It’s one of our most fundamental needs - to be able to feed ourselves and our families when hungry.

But as the impact of these tougher economic times continues to be felt throughout our communities there are increasing numbers of people staring at empty cupboards and empty purses.

Louise ???????????, Strabane Foodbank, pictured making hampers ready for distribution this week. DER5013JM043

Louise ???????????, Strabane Foodbank, pictured making hampers ready for distribution this week. DER5013JM043

Thankfully, an initiative in Strabane is working tirelessly to help provide a much needed hand-up to the most vulnerable in our society.

Thanks to a dedicated team of four core volunteers, with the backing of Strabane Community Project, the Strabane Foodbank has helped feed hundreds of local people who have found themselves in dire financial need in recent times.

Clients of the foodbank - who are referred through a range of 14 support agencies including the likes of the NSPCC, the Housing Executive, St. Vincent De Paul and First Housing - receive a three day food parcel - suitable for their family - whatever its size.

It will typically include staples that most of us keep in our cupboards - cereal, soup, pasta, sauce, tinned tuna, tea and and coffee. But as Ursula Gallagher, one of the volunteers working at the fronline at the food bank said, it is about much more than simply food.

“The foodbank is a simple thing, but is a very effective thing,” she said. “The way we treat our clients works well - because they don’t feel they are being judged, means tested or scrutinised.”

Understandably, people can be very emotional when they first come to the foodbank for help.

Ursula said for many of the clients it is the first time they have realised or admitted they are in a crisis.

“People can be very emotional - but once they get over the initial meeting and greeting and they realise we are just like them and ordinary people, it gets easier.”

Crises come in many different forms - as Louise Boyce of Strabane Community Project explained.

“It could be that someone is ill, or someone has lost their job or many different reasons.”

In fact, statistics show that those most likely to have received helped from the foodbank in its first quarter were those on low incomes.

Benefit delays also factored in the increase in need - and benefit changes were also an issue.

“We see patterns emerge,” Louise said. “We saw an increase in demand when the weather got a bit cooler - so people had to heat their homes.

“And we saw an increase when the schools went back and parents were trying to find the money to buy uniforms.”

They fully expect need to increase again - and not insignificantly - in the coming months.

“We expect the numbers to rise a bit before Christmas - and again in January.

“Because there seems to be a survival mechanism over Christmas - just to get through it. But we expect demand will double over the next two months.”

At the moment the food bank relies on the generosity of businesses and individuals to keep it going.

To be able to run effectively the organisation needs to have at least three tonne of food available at all times.

“It sounds like a lot, but it’s not,” Louise said. “

A tonne of food will feed 40 families. So we have enough to feed 120 families.

“Thanks to the support of business such as Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s we have enough food to keep us going through January and February,

“But we need to look at where we go from there - how we keep momentum going and how we don’t exhaust our resources.”

Both Ursula and Louise are keen that the foodbank is not seen as a negative thing.

While it is unfortunate that such a need exists in the community - Strabane Community Project works hard to make sure the bank is part of its overall anti-poverty strategy and that it is a step up for clients.

This also includes an innovative fuel stamp savings scheme which allows people to save for their heating costs - so the choice is no longer between “heat or eat”.

According to Louise, “It empowers people.

“There is a trust with the frontline workers immediately because clients have come in and have admitted they are in crisis. So they may disclose more information and it is important that our volunteers then know who they can refer them on to for additional support - be it to Citizens Advice, or Social Services or whoever.

“It is a short term solution - but it can offer vital breathing space to someone in a crisis.”

And from experience both Ursula and Louise know how grateful the clients can be for that helping hand and empowerment.

Ursula added: “People do think they are on their own.

“It’s a dark, dark place to be and you think it’s visible to everyone if you are having a crisis and you are in a vulnerable place. “People have come back and said thanks - that we will never know how much we helped them.

“That makes the work very rewarding.”

Louise added: “People are very giving and it has really touched people’s hearts.

“ It has affected us as well - the kindness and the generosity that is out there - and the empathy that people do have in regard to people who are in need - especially at this time of year.”