I’m driving down a near-empty road with my car filled to the roof with toilet rolls, tins of baked beans and packets of spaghetti – what looks, at first glance, like a chronic case of pandemic-induced panic-buying is, in fact, a testament to the generosity of shoppers and churchgoers in Larkfield, Aylesford and Maidstone. For the past seven weeks, twice a week, I’ve driven to four supermarkets and several homes to collect donations for the food bank based at Maidstone Homeless Care. These donations are added to others from local businesses, schools and shops, sorted by a small team of dedicated volunteers, and distributed (in partnership with other local charities) to individuals in our local community who would otherwise go hungry. As a result of COVID-19 and its devastating impact, the Trussell Trust reported a massive 81% increase in demand for emergency food parcels from foodbanks in its network during the last two weeks of March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 – including a 122% rise in parcels given to children.
At the same time, panic-buying meant that supermarket shelves were often empty, and a large number of devoted foodbank volunteers, many of whom are over 70, were having to self-isolate. The Government asked Local Authorities to ensure that homeless people were housed immediately in isolation-suitable accommodation. In light of all these changes, Homeless Care (which usually focuses on offering a comprehensive service to homeless women and men in Maidstone) shifted its operations to concentrate more on distributing food to those at greatest risk of food poverty.
I moved to Kent last August, having been stationed to four churches in the North Kent Methodist Circuit. I heard about the excellent work of Maidstone Homeless Care almost immediately, as the churches are proud to offer support through raising awareness and funds. However, when the lockdown began, and churches had to close their doors and find new ways of living out their faith, I found I had the time to offer (on behalf of the churches I serve) some practical assistance, by collecting the food donated at the checkouts of local supermarkets and taking it to the Maidstone Centre for distribution. It has been a privilege to see first-hand the work of Zofia, the Day Centre Manager, and her team of volunteers. It has been a privilege, too, to witness the generosity of local shoppers and members of my congregations – pasta, toilet rolls and tinned tomatoes continued to appear in the donation baskets, even when they were nowhere else to be found.
It has also been a great privilege to get to know the staff working in the four supermarkets I visit, who never fail to greet me with a smile and a friendly ‘hello’ despite the pressures of recent weeks and the risks to their own health of working in a busy retail environment. Over the weeks, regular appearances in my clerical collar have prompted some fascinating conversations – not least with a member of staff who offered to let me convert her, if she could convert me to using a self-scanner (reader, I failed.)
Service is a vital component of the Christian faith. Jesus came so that all people might have life in all its fullness – and that means not having to worry about where the next meal might come from. Churches across the country are proud to support, host and run foodbanks for their local communities. And yet we will continue to campaign against the policies that make foodbanks, for so many people, a daily necessity. The recent rise in demand as a result of these unprecedented circumstances has highlighted the food poverty that is, for many people in Britain today (not least those supported by Homeless Care), a daily reality in ‘normal’ times. I pray, when this crisis ends, that not everything will return to ‘normal’ – and I hope that you will join me in doing so. Anyone wishing to donate to the Food Bank should contact Matt or Tracy on 01622 674064 during office hours or email firstname.lastname@example.org.