FOOD parcels will be given to families in Northumberland as churches react to a huge increase in calls for help.
About 20 to 30 churches across all denominations are working on plans to launch the Wansbeck Food Bank later this year to provide emergency packs for people in crisis.
The scheme, which will be the first of its kind in Northumberland, comes as local clergy grow increasingly alarmed about the number of requests for help they are receiving in the wake of the global economic downturn.
Morpeth Minister Mike Willis, of the New Life Christian Centre, said: “We are all saying we have had a spate of people knocking on our doors for help and unfortunately I think it is only going to get worse.
“I have had three people at the door in the last two weeks. Two years ago we would get the odd homeless guy and would be asked for help on occasions, but nothing like the level it is now.
“I heard an item on the Jeremy Vine show about an organisation called Foodbank and they were saying the same kind of thing, which really got my interest up because I knew this kind of problem was happening. I did a bit of research and found a charity that provides three days worth of food for people based on a referral system and I realised that is what we could do with. We then found out that churches in Ashington were looking at the possibility of doing this as well so it made sense to do it together.”
The churches are working with the Trussell Trust, which has established more than 200 food banks nationwide, to set up the project covering Morpeth, Pegswood, Ashington, Lynemouth, Ellington, Bedlington and Newbiggin-by-the Sea.
It will be based on a voucher referral system where professionals such as doctors, health visitors, headteachers, ministers and social workers will identify those in need. They will then be given a three-day food pack.
Mr Willis said: “We hear stories from people who say their benefits have stopped for whatever reason and their children are hungry. As a minister, you get quite a bit of that and you have to take a view on their story because there are people who just want something for nothing and you do get people who try to rip you off. It is a terrible position to be in.
“With this scheme, you know that the stuff you are giving out is going to someone in need.”
The trust has a strict list of foodstuffs that can be used in the programme to ensure there is no waste. Food will be gathered through donation baskets in churches, initiatives with schools, such as harvest festivals, and food-drives two or three times a year in which volunteers stand outside supermarkets and ask customers to donate items. Ashington’s Asda store has already agreed to support the scheme.
A steering group, including Morpeth Baptist and Methodist churches, is now on the hunt for a warehouse, with plans to launch the food bank at the end of September. It is hoped it will become a permanent scheme, with part-time staff employed from the second or third year.
“I’m disappointed that we aren’t already set up, but it is important that we do it right,” said Mr Willis.
“We want to make sure that what we are doing is sustainable. We don’t just want it to be run out of church, we want it done professionally. That is why it is taking a bit longer.”
The minister said there are a number of reasons for the need for emergency help, from long-term unemployment to people who are changing benefits and have a gap between payments.
But he said people in work are also suffering and often those seeking support have a number of problems.
“When people say they are having problems feeding their families there are sometimes other things like debt or mental health issues, or there could be a whole family breakdown. We hope to recognise that and signpost people to other agencies,” said Mr Willis.
“I think the real problem is not that people aren’t working, it is that for the people who do work the money is just not going far enough. I think that is a bigger issue with prices going up and wages getting cut. You have a hard-working, normal guy who has this problem.
“It is more hidden here and it might not be talked about much, but talk to people from Citizens Advice and they will tell you there is a problem in Morpeth. Maybe the need is less so here than other places, but it is there.”
He added; “The last thing we want to do is something that is already being done. We want something that is going to meet a need and I believe there is a need.
“This isn’t for people who haven’t got enough money like food aid in the Third World, it is a food bank, almost like a stop-gap, to help people get back on their feet.”
Fund-raising is under way to pay for the warehouse, transport costs and other expenses, and some donations have already been made.
Anyone wishing to volunteer to help set up or run the food bank should contact Mr Willis on 01670 511778.