“There’s always been this issue of hidden hunger in the city, but this economic situation has amplified it” - Norwich Foodbank manager talks of big rise in users

A month after opening in late 2010, Norwich Foodbank fed 33 people. Just 18 months on, that figure had risen to nearly 500 – and demand is showing no sign of abating.

There are many factors that drive Norwich's 'hidden hungry' to ask for help from the foodbank.

It could be sudden unemployment, benefit delays or illness to the household earner, or any other number of reasons – but one fact is clear: demand is rising.

Each week, the Norwich Foodbank distributes nearly a ton of food to people and families around the city who cannot put food on the table for themselves, and expects to feed 5,000 by Christmas.

The emergency packs are offered to those who are going hungry as they try to make ends meet, with three days' food to tide them over temporarily.

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But as demand grows, so must the foodbank, with new offshoot branches in development for Dereham, Cromer and Diss in coming months.

Having outgrown the two garages that were its first home in Norwich, the foodbank operates from premises donated by the Henderson Business Centre in the west of Norwich, where a team of nearly 100 volunteers on shifts sort the food and pack it up, ready for to be handed out at one of 10 distribution centres.

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It's an operation that has expanded steadily since the foodbank opened in October 2010, but one which can only ever provide temporary respite for those in need, said Grant Habershon, the charity's project manager.

'There's always been this issue of hidden hunger in the city, but this economic situation has amplified it.

'And the care agencies we are dealing with are telling us that this is not going to go away.'

Norwich Foodbank works with 89 partner agencies, who use the food parcels to solve the short-term problem of hunger, allowing them to focus on the longer-term underlying issues.

In May, the foodbank provided food for 498 people, including 139 children, compared to a total of 158 for the same month in 2011.

'We're expecting to get even busier over the summer, as children on school holidays no longer have their free school lunches,' said Mr Habershon.

Around 40 tons of food will be collected in the next 12 months – worth around �55,000 – and handed out to those in need.

They receive a voucher which they can then exchange for a food parcel at one of 10 distribution centres across the city.

One of those is the Earlham Christian Centre where Lisa Marshall-Nichols and her team set up once a week.

As well as handing out the food parcels, she and her volunteers take time to talk to the people who drop by and listen to the circumstances that have brought them to the foodbank.

She tells the story of a young mother whose children were so hungry she would take them to furniture shops because she knew the salesman would give her tea and biscuits if she feigned interest in buying a three-piece suite.

Another woman had to ask for food after her husband fell ill and money ran out meet while their benefits payment was updated.

That short delay, an unforeseen bill, a washing machine breaking down, or countless other domestic pressures are enough to push many households into the red.

In Earlham, a room is stacked high with pre-packed boxes from the warehouse, each marked for its recipient: 'single', 'couple' or 'family'. Behind, there are open crates of nappies and baby care items – one of the biggest expenses for families on the brink – and toothbrushes, soap and other essential toiletries.

The boxes are often left behind to be reused – some feel too embarrassed to be seen to be asking for help, so the foodbank team provide supermarket carrier bags to make the items look like a regular weekly shop.

'Most people are just grateful for all the help they are getting,' said Mrs Marshall-Nichols.

'We sit and have a coffee with them, and they tell us their situation. We are here to listen.'

Donations come from the community, and that close-knit feel is one of the charity's strengths, she said.

'We don't have training, but then I think sometimes that works better than the professional approach. We are all human beings who need help and compassion, and we are people off the estate who are talking to them as real people.

'Then we are able to signpost them on to others who can help them long-term. Everyone goes off knowing that there is help available for them.'

Sometimes people only need one parcel – their situation improves or they find work, and they come back to donate food themselves.

Mr Habershon said: 'People who have had parcels know how much it means. It's the extras that people haven't had for ages that matter so much.

'We once had a grown man cry when he saw chocolate biscuits.'

Up to three vouchers are handed out before clients are referred for further help to solve root problems.

Agencies are on hand to offer advice on everything from basic money management to cooking on a budget or how to negotiate complex benefits paperwork.

The next step for the Norwich Foodbank is the extension of the 'More than Food' programme for volunteers, allowing them to direct more people towards available support.

The charity is also looking for volunteers with specific areas of expertise, such as fundraising, design or marketing.

Mr Habershon added: 'The care agencies are getting busier but haven't got the resources and the staff, so if we can do more like that it means more people get the help they need.'

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