Understandably, the majority of foodbanks are urban or town-based. Some do a good job of reaching into the surrounding countryside, usually by a delivery service; but in the patchwork map of urban foodbanks there can be gaps – mostly rural areas – that remain unreached. Churches in the North Cotswolds are working together to fill one of these gaps.
Key to the North Cotswold Foodbank is the tiny village chapel at Naunton. A year ago God gave them a vision for a foodbank serving the surrounding area, where they were already aware of people in need. The problem was that the chapel is nowhere near any centres of population, and its human-power far too small to deliver a full foodbank operation running a delivery service. The solution, then, was not to go it alone, but to establish a distributed foodbank with multiple partner churches.
What is a ‘distributed foodbank’? It is one where there are multiple ‘outlets’ (churches ) to which needy residents go for foodbank assistance, each outlet serving a small rural town and its surrounding villages, and all served from a central food store and administrative point. That was the vision that Naunton Chapel shared with churches in the local small towns. Churches of all sizes and all denominations responded enthusiastically, in Winchcombe, Bourton on the Water, Stow on the Wold, Moreton in Marsh and Chipping Campden. For partner churches in those towns, the demands are relatively light: they have to hold a small stock of food, and to open at set times once (or twice) a week for an hour or so to receive visitors. For Naunton Chapel, at the centre, the task is to manage the main food store and to keep the outlets re-stocked. That’s a distributed foodbank: sharing the work between a number of partner churches, acting together as an expression of the body of Christ across a rural area.
Has it worked? Yes it has! In the first ten weeks of operation, 100 people have received foodbank assistance from right across the target area and beyond. Each one has been referred to the foodbank by a professional – a health worker, school worker, council service, children’s centre etc. – who has validated their situation and provided them with a foodbank voucher. Their stories are highly varied. Take, for example, Peter (all names changed). Because of failing eye sight, Peter lost his tractor-driving licence and therefore his job. He has a benefit appeal pending, but until that is resolved he is really struggling to make ends meet. Or there’s Sharon, working in a shop on the national minimum wage and only able to afford to heat a single room upstairs, while Council Tax arrears mount up. Or there’s Tony, who lost his business, and everything else with it and is trying to rebuild a life for himself and his family from nothing.
Or take Nina, separated from her husband and just recently provided with a council home of her own after time in a refuge. Nina’s income is absolutely minimal, but she is determined to pay something back to the refuge, and by strictest budgeting is able to do so. This leaves little for basic necessities, and life is very tough. The days Nina loves best are when her children visit. Unfortunately, because they mostly reside with her husband, she gets no child allowance: so on the days when they visit, there is little food. Until they came to the foodbank, that is! Like all foodbank clients, Nina received a balanced allocation of food equivalent to half a week’s shopping. Both she and her children were delighted! “We even had chocolate!” the children beamed, "and you know what? Now our cupboards are really full of food!!"
When asked whether the offered food was suitable, another mum said “My children will be grateful for anything. Food on the table will be a treat. This is going to make such a difference”. A third mum simply said, with eyes full of tears , “I couldn’t believe people would help so much. It’s a small community, but with a big heart! This has restored my faith in people.”
Getting the food for the foodbank has been unbelievably easy. Given a chance, people are so willing to help, especially if it is as easy as donating a can or a packet! Churches and schools have been more than ready to collect food; and not just at Harvest Festival time, but steadily, week after week. It’s such a simple and practical way for anyone to help those in greatest need around them.
But not everyone is convinced that a foodbank is really needed in an “affluent” area such as the Cotswolds. There are sceptics who would rather see only the tourist-facing façade, the big houses and the weekenders’ chocolate-box cottages. Yes, the Cotswolds it is an affluent area. But if you are at rock-bottom, the affluence of your neighbours does not magically filter through to help you. In fact, if you live in the country, the costs of transport, shopping and accommodation will be higher than they are in town, so that the rural low-earner is actually worse off than their urban equivalent. Coupled with this, many rural jobs are seasonal or poorly paid – such as equestrian work, the tourist sector or agricultural employment. The rural poor certainly exist; and in the current economic squeeze, they are only likely to increase in number. For them, foodbanks offer a vital helping hand at moments of greatest crisis, and an tangible expression of the Christian compassion and love.
The great majority of UK foodbanks operate in a network run by the Christian national umbrella charity, The Trussell Trust. The Trust provides invaluable consultancy, training, systems, services, networking and quality assurance. With the Trust’s support and guidance, even a tiny rural church or chapel like the one in Naunton, working with willing partner churches, can look at setting up a foodbank to fill another gap in the map, and so to bring practical help and the love of Jesus to households in crisis.
North Cotswolds Food Bank
If you want to know where the Trussell Trust foodbanks are near you, you can find them using the map here. (Click the "full screen" link under the map.)
The North Cotswold Foodbank provides a one-page information sheet about rural poverty called You Can't Eat the View, which you can download here.
There are, of course, many other foodbanks where rural churches are involved. Another excellent example is the Fosse Foodbank in South Warwickshire. You can find more about this by reading or downloading A Foodbank in the Countryside (from Workcare) and the Fosse Foodbank's own Information Leaflet.
Find some helpful comments here on the contemporary debates around foodbanks and poverty from Andrew Bradstock, Church and Society Secretary, United Reformed Church/Joint Public Issues Team.