Not many people know this, but Stone has a food bank. In the Frank Jordan Centre, an anonymous door opens on a small storeroom where two tall metal racks are neatly stacked with packets, cans and jars.
“It’s only small, but it’s about the right size for the 6-8 clients who currently use it each week,”
explained Jo Yendole from Signposts Drop-in Centre, who administer it.
But donations and the need for them have grown since the food bank was set up about three years ago.
“It began with local schools giving us their harvest festival produce,“ Jo explains. “We kept it discreetly in a cupboard, handed it out on demand and didn’t worry too much if stocks ran out after the October peak. But it’s now got to the point where we need donations all year round.”
So Signposts sent out appeal letters to publicise the food bank’s existence. These brought in more donations from local schools and churches, from neighbours at “The Moorings” retirement complex and even from a Signposts user who collected from family and friends.
“Stone people are really generous and we’ve had donations from the most unexpected sources,” Jo explains. “Most importantly, the appeal has led to the regular donations we have come to rely on. St Dominic’s Catholic Church now give us two bags of food per fortnight and Stone Baked on the High Street make weekly donations of leftover bread.”
Morrisons supermarket is also now on board and keep a Signposts’ red donation box beside their customer service counter. Signposts also receive regular donations from the food collection basket at Barclays Bank in Stone.
What to donate? Non-perishable goods, as the list on the donation box helpfully suggests. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, powdered milk, UHT milk; cereals; jams and marmalade; soups in packets or tins; dried pasta, rice and sauces; tinned fish, green veg and potatoes, tinned meat, fruit, canned meals and biscuits. “We never turn a donation down,” Jo insists.
“The food bank must include non-cook food, as a few of our clients have no gas or electricity,” Jo revealed. “Some only have a microwave. Many have no cooking skills and need advice about which foods go together. We bring them into this private room, help them choose, give them a recipe card and make up a parcel to last them 2-3 days.”
The food bank is usually a short-term stop-gap to tide people over a crisis. “Welfare recipients can temporarily lose their benefits when there’s a change in their household, leaving them out of pocket,” Jo explained. “If they are unemployed or seeking employment, they can be sanctioned for missing paperwork or failing to attend an appointment.”
Even people who start a new job can also find themselves out of cash to begin with, Jo revealed. Their benefits will have immediately stopped, but they still have to wait up to a month for their first pay!
“While clients are often referred by other agencies, Stone food bank is open to anyone. You don’t need a referral to use it,” Jo insists, “just come in and have a chat with us! We’ve had clients from ‘normal’ backgrounds whose lives have been suddenly turned upside down by illness or marital breakup.”
Of course, there is still a great stigma about needing to turn to a foodbank – or setting one up at all in an affluent place like Stone.
“Clients will tell us they’ve walked past our door three, four or even five times before plucking up the courage to come in,” Jo reveals. “We treat them sensitively, and give them supermarket bags to take their food away in so it looks like they’ve been shopping.”
But maybe this stigma even has the advantage of making clients determined to rely on the foodbank as little as possible. “We’ve had no cases of people abusing it,” Jo insists.
Resorting to the foodbank is often just the tip of the iceberg, Jo continues.
“Clients will often have debt problems, benefit issues or a general inability to make ends meet.”
But if foodbank clients want to make repeat visits, Signposts will start a conversation with them which could lead to them being referred to Stone Christians Against Poverty’s debt-management service and budgeting courses. Signposts will also communicate on clients’ behalf with the Benefits Agency and housing associations.
Or it could be a relatively simple case of offering them a place on one of their ‘Body for Life’ cooking classes, or helping them plan a £30 weekly food shop by helping them write their shopping list.
We’re just wrapping up the interview, when the door bursts open and in strides a middle-aged man beaming from ear to ear. It’s Dave, Jo tells me, a homeless former foodbank user.
That morning, he’d come to tell Jo he’d just been given a place to live in Stafford.
“I’ve got my own address now,” he says, giving her a bear hug while proudly brandishing a key. “I’ve come to thank you all because I owe you everything. It was Signposts in Stone that has pulled me through!”
Signposts Stone in the Frank Jordan Centre in Lichfield Street is open Mondays – Wednesdays 9.30 – 12.30 and Fridays 9.30 – 12.00, tel: 01785 812417.