‘It could happen to anyone’ - the harsh reality of life as a foodbank user
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
'We get all kinds of people coming to the foodbank, we've had people pull up in their Mercedes after they've lost their jobs.'
This is how one Norwich Foodbank volunteer described a typical day at the foodbank. She realises more than most how hunger is a harsh reality for thousands of people in Norfolk living below the poverty line.
Foodbanks are an uncomfortable truth for many people as austerity bites down hard on their income, but it acts as a life-saver for those living in destitution.
In 2018, 10 foodbank distribution centres in Norwich handed out 9,322 food parcels of which 3,147 went to children under the age of 16.
Those who are in desperate need of food may have up to three vouchers a year, which gives them three days' worth of food each time as well as toiletries like shampoo and soap.
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On a bleak Monday afternoon at the foodbank centre in Witard Road Baptist Church, Heartsease, 27-year-old Nathan Lowe is sat in the corner of the room with three overspilling bags of food around his feet.
He has been to the foodbank before, he said, and enjoys chatting to people over a cup of tea.
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Unable to work since being diagnosed with Crohn's disease, Mr Lowe is having to get by on benefits alone but, due to delays in getting paid, most of his money goes towards his rent.
'It's hard and a struggle but I try and get through it all,' he said.
'I don't want to come here all the time, I want to get myself sorted.'
After leaving home at the age of 16, he found himself plunge into a life of crime and drugs and spent many nights sleeping rough on the streets.
He admits his turbulent past is what led him to his current plight, but the foodbank offers him some respite and time for reflection.
He was referred to the foodbank by his probation support worker, and when he was asked about the electronic tag around his ankle he despairingly explained it away as a consequence of a bad mistake.
'It was that or prison,' he added.
But Mr Lowe is thankful for the support he has received to get clean, which in turn has helped him to make better life choices.
However, he still faces days where he is unable to buy food and so he regularly visits the soup kitchen at the Haymarket to stave off his hunger.
'It's nice to socialise here and meet other people,' he said. 'They all have similar stories about how they got here.'
Volunteers at the foodbank make every effort to welcome those who walk through the door, by offering tea and biscuits in a comfortable environment where people can chat to one another.
The foodbank at the New Hope Christian Centre, in Martineau Lane, opens on Wednesdays and runs alongside a coffee and cake social.
Volunteers Jo Rose, 72, and Gary, 50, of Long Stratton, were former foodbank users in 2014 and have since become members of the church.
They fell into debt after Mr Rose was made redundant and had to become a full-time carer for his wife after she was diagnosed with breast and bone cancer.
'We had a mortgage to pay and all the money we had went on bills,' Mrs Rose said. 'So we were living on nothing really. 'I had no luxuries at all, we were living hand to mouth. 'The foodbank was amazing, to have bags of food was like Christmas.'
And while there are vocal critics of foodbanks, Mrs Rose said she comes across people from all walks of life who are dealing with a wide range of complex problems like homelessness, benefit delays and unemployment.
'It could happen to anyone - we had a man who lost his wife and he was so ill he couldn't work,' she added.
'Everyone in here can just talk over their problems and get support,'
When the Trussell Trust opened its first foodbank in Norwich in 2010 there were 48 distribution centres across the country - that number has now grown to more than 420.
Of the 10 centres in Norwich, six offer people struggling to keep warm in the winter with vouchers to help pay their energy bills.
Since November 1 last year, the foodbank has granted 42 energy bank vouchers to people in need in Norwich, totalling more than £2,000.
Norwich Foodbank Project Hannah Worsley said a large majority of people come to the foodbank as a result of benefit delays.
'A lot of those people have said universal credit was an issue,' she said. 'They are in fuel debt and in arrears, the money in the meter is paying off debt but not being used to keep them warm.
'There is a spike in numbers during the winter and I think that's partly due to Christmas pressures to buy gifts and the school holidays when the kids are at home.'
Norwich Foodbank has partnered with the Norfolk Community Foundation for its Surviving Winter campaign to help elderly and vulnerable people stay warm, fed and sheltered this winter.
Backed by the EDP and Norwich Evening News, the campaign is aiming to raise £150,000 to tackle fuel poverty and isolation for those who struggle the most between now and the spring.
The campaign is urging older people who do not need their winter fuel allowance to donate it to those who desperately do, as many are faced with choosing between paying the bills and putting food on the table.
Funds raised in the appeal will be distributed to a range of good causes across Norfolk, including the foundation trust's key partners Age UK Norfolk, Norwich Foodbank and St Martins Housing Trust.
To donate, visit the Surviving Winter appeal donation page at www.norfolkfoundation.com/news-events/launch-of-the-surviving-winter-appeal or call Norfolk Community Foundation on 01603 623 958.
You can donate by cheque made payable to Norfolk Community Foundation and send it to Norfolk Community Foundation, St James Mill, Whitefriars, Norwich NR3 1TN.