Messages from around the Benefice

Covid-19’s effects local Food Banks

The start of the Covid-19 pandemic seems a long time ago, and many now look forward to life getting back to normal. Yet, in respect of the effect of the pandemic on people’s lives, all Monmouthshire’s Food Banks agree their work has hardly begun.

Caldicot Food Bank is no exception. Over the past three to four months we’ve experienced quite a few changes. These include an almost completely new team as most of the original volunteers were aged over seventy years. Rightly they decided early on not to take a risk with the virus. This left just four experienced helpers, with both the Chairman and the Treasurer continuing to do their bit, but securely isolated in their own homes.

Thankfully, in Caldicot’s case, several new Volunteers stepped up to help. These included a County Councillor, Jo Watkins, who picked up the reins of leadership. Throughout the past three to four months, Jo has been ably assisted by the remaining regulars. Additionally, she very quickly enlisted County and Town Councillors, and others, to support the effort.

County Council get involved, and food banks change the way they operate

Early on, Monmouthshire County Council exercised empathy in understanding how the pandemic might impact on our communities. Keen to get Council employees involved, as well as stay on top of the food poverty situation, they soon started co-ordinating the client requests for help. This included setting up a hot-line for those in need of food. It impacted on the food banks in Abergavenny, Caldicot, Chepstow and Monmouth.

At Caldicot, one of the effects of Covid-19 was in the way in which most clients received their food parcel. Early on the decision was made to deliver food to as many clients as possible. Undertaken by the County Council this meant volunteers no longer had the opportunity to meet most clients, nor to listen to their problems, or to be able to sign-post them to organisations like Christians Against Poverty: who provide local debt advice.

In addition, ‘walk-up’ clients could no longer be dealt with over a cup of tea inside a building: distancing measures resulted in all applicants being seen outdoors, and at a two meter distance.

The warehouse operation too had to change. Space inside the building was tight with little chance of working at safe distances. With few windows in the building, a lack of air ventilation became one of several barriers to volunteers working together in anything other than pairs. Here they’ve also had to follow strict guidelines on distancing, health and hygiene.

Recently Caldicot Male Voice Choir volunteered storage space in their near-by Choir Hall. This is proving invaluable.

Community response to the pandemic

Very soon after the ‘Lock-down’ began local organisations and individuals came together to provide help to the vulnerable in our communities.  Offers poured in, and has resulted, in Caldicot Food Bank’s case, in companies, churches, organisations like Rotary and Lions, Trade Unions and others to donate substantial amounts of both food and money.

At the time of writing, Caldicot Food Bank’s warehouse is overflowing with food and other domestic necessities or niceties.  This despite assisting a sister Raven HouseTrust Food Bank in Newport. The bank balance too is healthy. 

Other changes

Client referrals are no longer coming from traditional sources such as the Housing Associations, or the Library which remains closed.

In the past household debt has been the largest determinant for help. Now we find, and as an outcome of the pandemic, family break-down and domestic violence has become the scourge of the British nation. People as young as sixteen have taken flight from their homes; wives, children, and sometimes men, battered in a sometimes drunken rage.

Often housed in rural bed and breakfasts, or country pubs and wayside inns, they regularly find themselves far from supermarkets or easy access to Post Offices, buses, or friends and relatives. The threat of drug abuse is real. The accommodation is basic, and thy have to provide their own meals.

Thankfully the Council’s Food Bank delivery system seems to work well: but volunteers now have little to no contact with the food’s recipients.

Having to work under the changed circumstances has also meant Caldicot Food Bank being able to offer additional items such as pet food.  The PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) says it can cost over eighty pounds (£80) a month to feed a large dog. There are concerns that pets are being abandoned as a result of the pandemic, and Caldicot Food Bank is attempting to ensure that pets don’t suffer at this time.

What else is being done to help desperate people?

Firstly, the role churches and other individuals have played in ensuring those most at risk had access to medicines, food and other essentials, has been quite remarkable. Some who might otherwise call on food banks for help, have been supplied with food, whilst some pubs and restaurants have been providing free hot meals.

The Government too has ensured the economic impacts have largely been addressed with:

  • The Furlough Scheme
  • An increase of £20 a week in Universal Credit Payments
  • Food survival packs for the most vulnerable
  • Emergency Food vouchers for Children
  • Accommodation for the homeless
  • Payment holidays (rent, mortgages and service bills such as water and electricity)
  • Business loans, and more

However

At some stage all this will possibly end. The Furlough Scheme, for instance, is due to stop at the end of October. Already some employees have been given notice of impending redundancy.

At the Caldicot Food Bank we’re now preparing for a huge rise in unemployment. We also anticipate a rise in drugs and alcohol abuse, homelessness, debt, mental and physical health issues and educational problems.

Despite all the community help that’s been available, in the three month period – March to May – Caldicot Food Bank still saw the demand for its services rise two and a half times (when compared to the same period last year), as the following graph demonstrates.

The Future

As the country staggers back toward normal life the reality of a return to ‘lock-down’ remains. At the time of writing Britain still had, Belgium apart, more people affected by the virus than any other country in the world (on a per capita basis).

The economy is shrinking, and the population’s mental and physical health is suffering. Confidence in Government leadership too is abating.

After an early rush to help we’re finding our Food Bank’s support is dropping off. The message the population appear to be largely listening to is one that implies the health problem has largely gone away, and that we should return to near normality. However, a second wave of Covid-19 cannot be ruled out.

At Caldicot Food Bank we’re convinced that the numbers we help will hugely increase in the Autumn. Already some people are finding they’ve no jobs to go back to once the furlough system ends, and goodness only knows what will happen when people find they have rent, mortgage, debt repayments, and their services bills (water, gas, etc.) to catch up on.

Recent ONS (Office for National Statistics) inflation rate figures, despite showing a drop in (CPI) inflation to 0.5% indicate a rise in the cost of food by four percent. Shortage of seasonal foreign agricultural workers, and the lack of success of the ‘Pick for Britain’ scheme suggests we might well have food shortages this winter. 

Meanwhile Brexit trade talks with Europe and America are not, apparently going well.

There’s plenty to pray about.