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Food bank founders launch appeal to help Manchester's hungry

CARING: Elaine Leverage (left) and Michelle Welch

THE FOUNDERS of a food bank in Moss Side have launched a petition to put an end to benefit sanctions, after the number of people needing emergency food parcels spiked.

Elaine Leverage and Michelle Welch, who set up the Compassion Food Bank in January this year, say that they have already collected over 200 names on the petition.

Welch explained: "The demand is increasing. Month by month, we are getting more people referred to us. Many of them are getting their benefits sanctioned then being sent to us by the Job Centre. We have had people in here who have missed Job Centre appointments because they were in hospital or not done enough job searches online – they are left with nothing. The staff at the Job Centre send them straight here because they will have no money for food for weeks – we are bearing the brunt of this policy."

Job Centres can suspend people’s benefits for a range of reasons, including missing appointments. It can leave them with no money for up to a month and in this situation, they are referred to food banks like Compassion.

The number of people getting sanctioned is contributing to the already rising demand for food parcels at the food bank that has seen an increase from 50 people a month in January when it was launched to nearly 250 a month throughout November.

In an effort to meet the demand, Welch and Leverage spend weekends collecting donations at supermarkets.

Leverage said: "The public are being really generous and a lot of the schools around here have donated from their harvest festivals. However, we know we will struggle to meet demand in the run-up to Christmas. Anything that people can donate during the supermarket collections is very gratefully received."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We welcome the contribution voluntary organisations and food banks play in supporting local communities, beyond the safety net provided by Government. That is why Job Centre Plus - for the first time - is now referring people to their services. Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the Universal Credit simplifying the complex myriad of benefits and making three million households better off.”

The petition marks the expanding role of a project that only came to life after a night in front of the television.
Welch and Leverage both sprang into action after they saw a programme about how local food banks were helping people who were struggling to find the money to eat.


LIFELINE: Food donations from the public are crucial to Compassion's efforts to help those in need

The project was not difficult to execute since they already worked as volunteers giving out food parcels to homeless people at Christmas at their local church, the Church God of Prophecy.

Through their volunteer work, they had heard several stories of individuals who were going hungry because their benefit payments could not cover rising food bills as well as low-income families who had been hit by ever increasing energy bills and changes to housing and child benefit.

IMPACT

Seeing the impact that a local food bank could have in helping people, they decided to press ahead despite having no funding, unaware of the impact that such a project could have on the lives of beneficiaries.

“We both saw changes in the area such as the effects of the recession and people struggling with changes to their benefits and we thought we really had to do something,” Welch recalled. “Elaine and I are Christians and so we prayed about it. We are also very practical people so what we decided to do was close down the food parcels programme at church after Christmas and wait a couple of weeks before we had everything in place to run a food bank.”

The Compassion Food Bank was launched in January this year, based at their local church, and runs twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays and the first Saturday of every month.

The team provides three days’ worth of emergency food to people who need it the most. Professionals such as health visitors, social workers and the local job centre identify people in crisis and issue them with a referral form.  People then take the form to Compassion Food Bank where they can receive their parcel.

The project has quickly become a community focal point, somewhere people can turn to in hard times. So far the food bank pair has helped to give away nearly 2,000 meals with donations coming from big supermarkets such as Asda and Tesco, as well as local people who support the work that Welch and Leverage are doing.

But the kind-hearted women, who also both worked as foster carers, admitted to still being shocked by some of the people who arrive not having eaten for days.

“One young black man, he was only 30, walked to the food bank from where he lived which was about four miles away,” Leverage shared. “He worked in London but relocated to Manchester with his company but soon after he moved to the city the company folded and he was made redundant.  He’d signed on but hadn’t yet got his benefits. Now he was in Manchester, he didn’t know where to turn but he found us online and walked the four miles to get to us. And when he got his parcel, he actually burst out crying. To see a young black man cry like that was very moving. And when he got the food, he wasn’t able to digest the food because he hadn’t eaten for so long. He came back a week later to say thank you.”

However, Leverage acknowledged that making this kind of impact would be impossible without the support of their families and volunteers.

“There’s a lot of hard work that goes into finding food but family members do get involved. I have a grandson that loves coming down to help. Also everyone who works in at Compassion Food Bank is a volunteer. Some of the volunteers are people who have used the food bank before, there are volunteers from the church and we’ve had one or two volunteers who are ex offenders. But despite having no money we’re still continuing to fundraise with events like barbeques and raffles.”

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