Making a bigger difference in Widnes during the coronavirus

Vicky Ferguson, Project Co-ordinator at Widnes Foodbank tells how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on their work at the foodbank.

The foodbank, which was seeded by the Trussell Trust, is supported by churches across the Widnes area. Despite being closed, they not only continue to help through food and financial donations but also prayer. While many members of the churches’ congregations are volunteers at the foodbank.

They are still managing to open four days a week as before lockdown. What has changed is location. Vicky said:
“We have moved all sessions to one location with a slight tweak to our Friday opening hours. We also remained open over the Easter bank holidays.

“The pressures were initially how were we going to continue? We knew we needed to but how with a loss of a huge portion of our volunteers? Widnes foodbank has a solid foundation built by the volunteers through their faith, passion and time given to help others in need.

“But we have always been in on the front foot regarding what could happen next. We have put safety nets in place should we need to make rapid changes, for example, a full delivery service. We have contingencies in place – we can bulk buy from certain supermarkets and we are working closely with other voluntary agencies to ensure that nobody gets missed.

“We have implemented an electronic voucher system with most of our referral agents engaging with us, and we have had some temporary referral agents sign up with us to help those that are slipping through the net due to some services being closed.”

The foodbank has made lots of changes since lockdown. A large proportion of their volunteers are in a particular age bracket so were restricted from being onsite from the first week of lockdown. Vicky elaborates:
“We very quickly gained a large team of new and temporary volunteers with some none regular but long-standing volunteers stepping up to help. We have reduced the number of volunteers in our warehouse and centre to help us observe social distancing and made sure PPE is available.”

“All new and temporary volunteers have signed a confidentiality agreement and have a temporary ID badge. All volunteers have been issued with a car sign to identify them as a key worker should they be questioned."

They have also introduced a delivery service for when a voucher holder is unable to get to the foodbank. Their food parcels are now prepacked to minimise contact for both volunteers and clients.
She says it’s difficult to say what the ‘normal’ number of parcels is and therefore to forecast. She added,
“We can give anything from 50- 100 [parcels] out each week. What we do anticipate feeling the ripple of this for at least 12 months.

“Surprisingly, we initially saw a drop in users of foodbank. We think this is due to creditors not chasing debts allowing people that little bit more money to be able to buy food and also Universal Credit benefits were issuing advances whilst benefit claims were being completed. We are now beginning to see a rise in clients.”

‘Low income’ is cited as the reason by around 50% of those seeking help from the foodbank. Vicky says that this is usually because the money coming in is not covering the cost of food, adding: “This is partly due to children being at home and not receiving promised Government food vouchers or food boxes. Also, sudden loss of jobs is featuring more often and the Universal Credit advance has not lasted until the first Universal Credit payment.

“We currently have healthy stocks due to the generosity of our community and some large donations from our supermarkets. We also receive weekly donations from FareShare. Saying this, we are always in need of long-life juice, long-life milk, 500g bags of rice, sponge puddings, tinned veg, custard, tinned tomatoes, size 4/5 nappies and men’s toiletries.

“I’d like to say thank you to our volunteers. All our volunteers, regular and temporary, have been outstanding. Whether they are working from home, taking on extra responsibilities or simply supporting us as they are shielded or in isolation. They have each been instrumental in keeping the foodbank going.”