Recently we sat down with Mike Jourdain of Brighton Foodbank, to talk about food poverty, lockdown and some of the challenges they have faced over the past year. In the store room of the Brighton& Hove City Mission, surrounded by crates of food, with team members occasionally slipping in, their arms laden with further provisions, Mike explained to us the background of Brighton's largest foodbank - giving us some insight into the procedures by which they operate, the other organisations they work with, as well what they need from the public in terms of donations.
Mike was also keen to dispel a few misconceptions about foodbanks, the perceived profile of a typical client, the kinds of foods the public assumes would be good for donations and the need for sustained, reliable support, both financial and otherwise, being chief amongst them.
But there was one myth surrounding foodbanks he was especially eager to challenge - the idea that all a food bank does is just give people food. In truth, Brighton Foodbank takes a much more holistic approach to fighting food poverty. By addressing not only the immediate symptom of hunger, and tackling the causes of food poverty, Brighton Foodbank hopes to free their clients from the need for their services. Through partnerships with employment, Debt & Benefit advice and Housing agencies, Brighton Foodbank works to get people living in food poverty back on track.
Mike also shared with us some of the issues experienced by the foodbank and its clients over quarantine. Like many of us, Brighton Foodbank has had to adapt over the past year, finding new ways to satisfy its existing client base, as well as dealing with a dramatic increase in their number of clients.
Could you give us some background on the foodbank?
The food bank has been in existence for over 21 years, approx. 15 years in this building, and in that time, it has transformed dramatically from where it first started - It used to only look after a couple of people a week.
All our clients are referred to us by over 70 organisations in the City so we know that they have a need for food. But we also know our clients may have a number of other issues, Mental Health, Unsuitable housing, Alcohol or Drug addictions, no job, Subject to domestic abuse, trafficking, isolation, anxiety or even unable to budget.
When they come to us, we normally sit down and talk to them one on one. During lockdown we have had to do this over the phone. By listening to them we can gain their trustand this enables them to tell us more about their specific situation. Then we can signpost them to other organisations and services - we have very strong relationships with Christians Against Poverty, a debt advice agency, and Money Advice Plus, who provide benefits advice. We have just started working with two Employment specialists.
Christians Against Poverty work very closely with us. We have seen a number of our clients come out of debt as a direct result of working with them over 12-15-month period.
They also help us to run budgeting courses specifically for our clients. A lot of our clients have never been taught that as they were growing up. They are then presented with a monthly benefit payment and have no understanding how to plan what they spend their money on or how to make it last.
We love our clients but we don't want them to be coming to us forever and ever - not for food anyway. I mean we want them to come and see us - but we want them to stand on their own two feet. So, building trust, listening to them is an important part of that process
How do you follow up with clients after signposting?
We would still be supporting them during that process and eventually they would say "I don't need that support anymore, thank you very much, I've found a job". We've actually just referred our first clients to an employment agency we've started working with. They will be given 3 to 4 months support in looking for a job, creating their CVs, helping them with presentation skills and the interview process itself. Also making sure they settle in.
What was your experience of the rising rates of food poverty before Covid?
In the three years that I've been here we've seen an 18 to 23% rise year on year. We are even now seeing a 30% increase from last year, so we're looking at over 100 clients a week, whereas before Covid it was probably in the mid 60s.
How have you coped with that?
It has been difficult. We haven't been able to use our volunteers to do the one to one work because a lot of them are in the most vulnerable and high risk age groups, so we have had to protect them as well as our clients. The building is also not great for having lots of people in it, so we've had to use the staff resources from Brighton & Hove City Mission to operate the food bank and indeed work in bubbles. Some of our amazing volunteers have delivered food to the doors of our client and picked up donations.
From last March we operated a 100% delivery service where volunteers would be able to chat with our clients on the door and we would call them in advance to see how they were and what they wanted
We are now encouraging all our clients, where possible, to come and collect their food. This is important for their physical health and mental wellbeing. Now 70% of our clients are picking their food up, where we are able to chat with them outside the building. 80% of our clients are single people so this social interaction is vital.
Have you seen a difference in client profile?
We have seen during covid more people using our services who have lost their job or put onto reduced hours- often using a foodbank for the very first time in their life. Our client profile is varied in age, from 18 to 75 and family sizes go up to 9. Mental health issues are predominant.
Are all your clients referred to you?
Yes, but we would never turn someone away who knocked on the door or gave us an emergency call. We would give them food but we would also signpost them to Money Advice Plus to help them with their benefits and see if they are entitled to any financial help.
There's no point in us just giving them food without signposting otherwise three or four weeks later they will come back and they are in no better position - it's not solving the problem.
Have donations over lockdown been an issue?
Well, we are totally reliant on donations. We have a number of supermarkets, Asda, Waitrose &Morrison's who collect from their customers so obviously those donations went down because there were fewer customers in their shops. We have a lot of contributions from churches, but obviously church goers haven't been able to get together over quarantine. There's also been a shortage of food at certain times through panic buying.
All three of those things had an impact on us, but we've been blessed with the amount of financial donations that have more than compensated. So financially we have been well supplied - but we're lacking in food donations, so we're buying in food because we don't have the stocks. Just buying in what we needed each week has been fine, but it's slightly more time consuming to do that.
But we're starting to see some organisations get back into physically donating food. By example, Julien Plumart Café donates 120kg of fresh fruit and veg every 2 weeks. Also we've had individuals who have donated through supermarket online delivery services. So that's been really good for us.
Have you received any funding from government or corporate sources to help you through this crisis?
We have not received anything directly from the government, but there has been some emergency funding put in place from other institutions, and I suppose the local government has encouraged those things to happen. We applied to grant making bodies to support the work we do. We have had a couple of large organisations who have had offices in Brighton provide additional finance. We have really benefited from local organisations such as Fatto A Mano who are so supportive of what we do.
What is your greatest spending need at the moment?
New building. I suppose it's not just spending; it's actually finding a new building. We're looking for new premises to do all that we want to do. This building is restricting what we can do. We've been here for a long time and we've outgrown this place although we have a great relationship with our landlord. Over thirty steps to get every food item up and down - it's not a great use of time and our energy. We want a ground floor building for the Foodbank with enough space to house a Café so we can have an inviting and safe place for people to come.
What would you like to communicate to our host partners and the donating public?
Donations please and regular donations either in food or finance. People tend to be very generous at Christmas but we equally busy throughout the year. We appreciate people have their own budgets to work with and we always have a needs list on our website so people can see what we need.
Anything that makes our clients feel extra special is good. We always encourage people to donate the same quality of food they eat. People that need to come to the foodbank are no different from you and I. Giving thought to what you donate makes a big difference to our clients. Our clients love treats.
People might think people who come to food banks are sponging off society, but we're seeing referral evidence that that is certainly not the case. Yes, there will always be people who will exploit any system you put in place, but the majority of our clients are definitely not in that category. They are so grateful - sometimes they will hand back something and say "actually we've got enough of that". Many of our clients are humble, feel embarrassed about coming to us but so need help.
How do you see the future of food poverty?
I would love to say that, five years from now, we won't need Foodbanks at all. But after 21 years the need is bigger than ever. But I would like to think that even if there was no need for us to give out food, we would be here to support people with whatever issues they have. I can't see there ever not being a food issue. There will always be those that have more and those that have less. Regardless we are there to make people feel loved and cared for. To give back their self-esteem.
Having met with Mike and some of his team, it's become clear just how committed and enthused the people at Brighton Foodbank are about supporting vulnerable members of their community and we at City Food Share are so happy to be able to raise funds and awareness for their vital work.
As they search for new premises and continue to increase their number of clients, we hope that Brighton Foodbank can reach even more people living in food poverty. With love and care, Mike and his team work tirelessly to help their clients out of food poverty, and back on the road to self- sufficiency.
Visit https://www.brightonfoodbank.org.uk/ to find out more about Brighton Foodbank and what you can do to support them in their work.