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The Chaplaincy Food Bank

Britain’s first university-based food bank is bringing town and gown together – and the students are queuing up to help. Bible Alive reports.

It’s 10am on a weekday morning at the Catholic chaplaincy at Manchester University, but the woman walking up the front steps isn’t a student or a lecturer: she’s someone in desperate need of food. The chaplaincy is home to the country’s first student-run foodbank, and the next couple of hours will see a steady trickle of people for whom the service really is a lifeline.

The foodbank opened six months ago, and more than 600 people have been helped in that time: earlier this month, it increased its opening times and has also opened a satellite centre down the road. ‘Demand is very high,’ says Joey Ferrigno, who graduated from the university last year and is now the foodbank’s manager. ‘The university is sandwiched between two areas of great social need, and there’s no other foodbank in the area so we’re much appreciated here.’ Like Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who recently spoke out about the growing number of people in poverty, Joey and the students at the foodbank are aware that many seem to be falling through the net. ‘We don’t want to get involved in party politics but it’s pretty obvious to us that there are people who need immediate help who aren’t getting it. What we hope is that the food bank can tide them over so they get through the crisis and don’t end up on the street.’

The idea for the chaplaincy food bank came about after students involved in the St Vincent de Paul society, who were doing soup runs amongst the homeless community in Manchester, realised there was scope to help people who were one rung up on the ladder from homelessness. ‘We started to think, if we could provide food for people before they ended up on the street, maybe we’d help them avoid that,’ says Joey.

Today there are boxes of non-perishable foods piled up in the chaplaincy, waiting to be dispatched to clients. ‘Getting food isn’t a problem,’ says Joey. ‘We get donations from big companies like Tesco, we do supermarket drives where we encourage shoppers to buy extra and donate to us, and we get a lot given to us by parishioners in local churches and of course by students.’ He knows the criticism often levelled at food banks is that they create dependency but, he says, that’s not very likely. ‘We work with a wide range of agencies across Manchester, and they assess clients and give them vouchers if they have a real need for emergency food,’ he explains. ‘The point of the bank isn’t to keep giving food out, time after time, to the same people – we don’t let people use the bank more than three times in a six-month period.’

Joey, who’s 23, is the only employee of the food bank; apart from him it’s staffed entirely by student volunteers. About 60 have signed up: some help collect the food donations, others work front of house with clients. ‘We had a big drive for volunteers at freshers’ week and we had loads of interest,’ says Joey. ‘And many of them aren’t Catholics and aren’t people who have had anything to do with the chaplaincy before.’
That’s people like Emily Graham, 21, who is in her third year of a physics degree. ‘I heard about the project from a friend who was helping here, and it struck me as a really good thing to get involved in,’ she says. ‘As a student you can sometimes feel cut off from the real community around you in your university town, and there are pockets of real deprivation in Manchester. My dad always says you should aim to give more than you take from life, and I thought this was a good way to start giving more.’

She’s enjoying meeting clients and chatting to them, she says: one of the ambitions of the food bank is to provide a friendly face and an ear for people’s troubles, and not just a bag of tins and non-perishable goods. ‘What I’ve been most aware of is how wide a variety of people we get coming in here – there definitely isn’t just one type. The other day I met a man who had a degree from Durham University – he definitely wasn’t the sort of person I might have imagined would be using a food bank, but circumstances have conspired against him and now he is in real need. It felt really good to be able to do something helpful.’

James Black, 54, is one of the clients using the food bank today: he’s originally from Northern Ireland, and he’s been working as a labourer in England for some years. A few weeks ago he was admitted to hospital suffering from depression. ‘Being in hospital really helped, and I was discharged feeling a whole lot better,’ he says. ‘But then I realised my benefits had been stopped, and that there would be a delay before they’d be up and running again. I was talking to an adviser down at the job centre, and she said she’d refer me here. This is a real godsend to me: I don’t want to be dependent, but I’ve got nothing to fall back on. The food I’ve got today will make the world of a difference over the next few days – it’s hopefully going to tide me over until I’m back on benefits, and then back in work.’

Fr Tim Byron, Catholic chaplain at Manchester University, says he’s found that students are very willing to volunteer for the food bank, and that they report huge satisfaction from being involved with it. ‘There’s always this town and gown thing, and students sometimes don’t have much idea about what’s going on in the very neighbourhood they live in,’ he says. ‘This is a way of putting them in touch with the real lives around them.’

One of the biggest hopes of those who set up the food bank is that it provides a welcome as well as a bag of food to clients who use it. ‘The idea is that we can signpost people to different groups in the area that can help them further: this isn’t an end in itself, it’s a stage on the journey,’ says Fr Byron. ‘We’re absolutely not judgemental: the good thing is that students aren’t having to decide who should or shouldn’t be entitled to food, all that is done by the agencies that assess people and refer them to us. Our job here is to be a listening ear, to put them in touch with other agencies if we can, and to be friendly.’

And James Black says he’s certainly grateful for the friendliness. ‘It was quite hard coming in here today, because no-one wants to be in this situation. But I didn’t feel judged at all, I didn’t feel less than anyone else; the students I met were great and the first thing I noticed as I walked through the door was someone greeting me with a big smile! I really appreciated that.’

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