An food bank run by lo­cals in Boyle, Co Roscom­mon has seen a ma­jor surge in de­mand, writes Rosita Boland

An ad- hoc food bank at the Boyle Fam­ily Re­source Cen­tre has seen as surge in de­mand from lo­cal fam­i­lies and be­yond, writes Rosita Boland

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

It’s a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon in late Oc­to­ber, in Boyle, Co Ros c om­mon, and I ’ m be­ing shown a frozen birth­day cake. It’s a pretty cake with pink ic­ing. “We have been keep­ing this for when we get a fam­ily who has a birth­day com­ing up,” ex­plains Louise Mo­ran, han­dling the box care­fully, and gen­tly putting it back into the freezer again. Mo­ran is the manger of Boyle’s Fam­ily Re­source Cen­tre, which has been serv­ing the lo­cal com­mu­nity for 30 years. The town recorded a pop­u­la­tion of 2,588 in Cen­sus 2016. The cen­tre, which is in a lovely pe­riod build­ing, is on the edge of the town. There are a num­ber of ser­vices on of­fer, rang­ing from par­ent­ing and be­reave­ment sup­port to ba­sic first aid, English classes and com­puter skills. There’s a drop- in li­brary, which is housed in a beau­ti­ful room, with com­fort­able so­fas and arm­chairs, Wil­liam Morris- pat­terned cur­tains, and salt crys­tal lamps that glow warmly in the dim Oc­to­ber light.

But it’s not first aid or English classes or com­puter skills that mem­bers of the pub­lic have been com­ing to the cen­tre for on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day af­ter­noons dur­ing the last cou­ple of months. From as far away as Castlerea and Car­rick on Shan­non, peo­ple have been qui­etly pre­sent­ing at the back door with shop­ping bags to avail of the ad- hoc food bank that has been op­er­at­ing since late Au­gust.

The cen­tre had al­ready ap­plied for, and re­ceived fund­ing from FEAD, a Euro­pean ini­tia­tive to dis­trib­ute ba­sic food­stuffs to those in need in their com­mu­nity. FEAD is the Fund for Euro­pean Aid to the Most De­prived. Since suc­cess­fully ap­ply­ing for FEAD, the cen­tre has had two de­liv­er­ies of non- per­ish­able food. I’m look­ing at what re­mains of it: the sec­ond de­liv­ery was meant to last un­til Christ­mas. It’s Oc­to­ber and there is very lit­tle left of that de­liv­ery, ex­cept break­fast ce­real.

“There was pasta, tinned tuna, teabags, pot noo­dles, beans. They’re all gone now,” Mo­ran says. What is left are sev­eral boxes of Weetabix, Rice Krispies, Corn­flakes, bags of por­ridge, a small box of bags of rice, a few jars of cof­fee, a few tins of veg­etable soup, corn, peas and four pack­ets of Cup- a- Soup.

The store­room is at the back of the cen­tre, and along with re­main­ing FEAD sup­plies, which are piled up in boxes on the floor, there is a fridge and freezer in the room. Both of these were do­nated by two lo­cal busi­nesses: Mo­ran is re­luc­tant to name them, but they de­serve to be named. With­out them, it wouldn’t be pos­si­ble to have a cru­cial sec­ond el­e­ment to the food bank, per­ish­able food just at its sell- by date.

Tony Scan­lon is a re­tired so­cial worker who lives out­side Boyle, who cre­ated a Face­book page ear­lier this year called Poverty and Home­less­ness. He posted on it that he had be­come aware anec­do­tally that there were peo­ple go­ing hun­gry in var­i­ous mid­lands coun­ties on a weekly ba­sis. He wanted to gauge what lev­els of need there might be, and how he might be able to help in some way.

“I just hap­pened to see that Face­book page,” Mo­ran says. At that point, the cen­tre had al­ready ap­plied to avail of the FEAD pro­gramme. She got in touch with him, and a pub­lic meet­ing was held some time later, with var­i­ous mem­bers from the com­mu­nity at­tend­ing, in­clud­ing the St Vin­cent de Paul.

At that point, Scan­lon had ap­proached FoodCloud, the in­spired ini­tia­tive that sees var­i­ous su­per­mar­kets mak­ing freely avail­able to com­mu­ni­ties food­stuffs that have just reached their sell- by date. There are a num­ber of FoodCloud hubs around the coun­try, but so far, these tend to be mainly in ur­ban ar­eas. Scan­lon ap­proached Tesco in Sligo, and Aldi in Roscom­mon, and they agreed to con­tact him on a weekly ba­sis, should there be food at a sell- by date about to be taken off the shelves. Lidl is now in the process of join­ing up.

Af­ter the pub­lic meet­ing, it was agreed that the best use of shared re­sources was to dis­trib­ute what­ever per­ish­able food would come from su­per­mar­kets, along with the FEAD sup­plies, through the Boyle Fam­ily Re­source Cen­tre. Ads were put in lo­cal pa­pers, in church news­let­ters, on lo­cal com-

mu­nity web­sites, and on the cen­tre’s no­tice­board; that food would be dis­trib­uted there, be­gin­ning on a cer­tain date.

“We had no idea what the de­mand would be like,” Deb­o­rah Rod­den, the cen­tre’s ad­min­is­tra­tor says. The first af­ter­noon they opened, at the end of the sum­mer, more than 100 peo­ple turned up. Now they split the food dis­tri­bu­tion over two af­ter­noons a week, and Mo­ran knows that peo­ple are com­ing from within a 20- mile ra­dius.

On the af­ter­noon I visit, Scan­lon has been on a run to Tesco in Sligo the evening be­fore. If there is food to col­lect, he re­ceives a text mes­sage. He drives there and back on his own time, and pays for his own petrol. He was in this store room last night, putting what he col­lected in Tesco into the do­nated fridge and freezer. What­ever can be frozen goes straight into the freezer.

Each time Scan­lon goes to Sligo or Roscom­mon to col­lect the per­ish­able food, what he brings back is dif­fer­ent. It de­pends on what­ever prod­ucts are at their sell- by date at that time. A few weeks pre­vi­ously, he came back with sev­eral bags of cel­ery and turnips. Even af­ter dis­tribut­ing some the fol­low­ing day, they still had a large sur­plus of veg­eta­bles.

“I hap­pened to men­tion to some­one I know who runs a res­tau­rant in town that we had all these turnips and cel­ery,” Mo­ran tells me. “They said, ‘ Bring them to us, and we’ll make soup out of them.’” The soup was made, di­vided up into bags, frozen, and later dis­trib­uted. “It’s an ex­am­ple of how a com­mu­nity can work to­gether,” Mo­ran says. “And I’m sure if I had asked, any other res­tau­rant in town would have done the same.”

I look in the fridge. “There’s not much today,” Damien Fa­gan says, also look­ing in the fridge with a prac­tised eye. He is one of 12 vol­un­teers who help dis­tribut­ing food.

There is not much in the fridge – not much when you know a num­ber of peo­ple will soon be ar­riv­ing, all hop­ing to leave with some­thing for their fam­i­lies. Some weeks there have been steaks, premium cuts of meat and lots of veg­eta­bles. Today there are four pack­ets of sausages. Four bags of car­rots. A cou­ple of pack­ets of stir- fry veg­eta­bles. A sin­gle cu­cum­ber. Two curry ready meals. Some bagged salad leaves. A cou­ple of con­tain­ers of hum­mus. A tub of cus­tard.

In the freezer, there are mainly loaves of bread, bread rolls, buns, cook­ies, crois­sants and Dan­ish pas­tries. There are a few ap­ple pies, and the pink birth­day cake.

The of­fi­cial hours of dis­tri­bu­tion are 2.30pm- 4pm, al­though no­body who comes ear­lier is ever turned away. I go into the kitchen at the back of the cen­tre, put away my notebook, and sit at the back of the room with a cup of tea, be­hind vol­un­teer Wendy Power, who is at a ta­ble with the log book. Peo­ple who at­tend are not asked for their names, but they are asked their ages, their na­tion­al­ity, and how many chil­dren they have un­der the age of 15. This is so that the vol­un­teers filling their bags can ad­just the con­tents as best they are able, and be­cause records need to be kept for FEAD.

Peo­ple start ar­riv­ing be­fore 2.30pm. They all come with well- worn shop­ping bags. Ev­ery week, new faces have pre­sented, as word spreads through the lo­cal­ity. The pre­vi­ous week, more than 50 peo­ple availed of the ser­vice, rep­re­sent­ing 50 fam­i­lies. Scan­lon also de­liv­ers food to some peo­ple who don’t wish to be seen pre­sent­ing at the cen­tre, while so­cial work­ers also sup­ply some fam­i­lies.

It is not an easy thing to come to a cen­tre look­ing for food. But it is harder to see your chil­dren go­ing hun­gry. I have asked Mo­ran and the vol­un­teers for some typ­i­cal sto­ries they hear from the peo­ple who ar­rive on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day af­ter­noons, look­ing for food.

Some peo­ple don’t say any­thing about

It is not an easy thing to come to a cen­tre look­ing for food. But it is harder to see your chil­dren go­ing hun­gry

their sit­u­a­tions, they tell me. They hand over their bags qui­etly, write down their de­tails, and dis­ap­pear. Oth­ers have said they some­times could not man­age to have both lunch and din­ner ev­ery day. Some par­ents have said they some­times go hun­gry so that their chil­dren have enough to eat; that their own din­ner is fre­quently a bowl of ce­real. That by the end of the week, there is just not enough food left in the house. Other par­ents have said that weekly bag of food from the cen­tre al­lows them to use the money saved to put to­wards an ac­tiv­ity for their child, or to­wards some­thing their child needs at school, or save it for Christ­mas. There is no one rea­son why peo­ple need to avail of this food bank. As vol­un­teer Pa­tri­cia Ja­cobs says to me sim­ply: “It’s amaz­ing how quickly peo­ple’s cir­cum­stances can change.”

For one woman ( whom I’ll call Sarah) it was the in­creased price of car in­sur­ance that pushed her fam­ily over the edge. Tony Scan­lon says ev­ery story of need has one com­mon­al­ity: “It’s a vari­a­tion on one story; more go­ing out than there is com­ing in.” For Sarah and her husband, who are both in their 40s, and rent­ing, things start to slowly get worse when their car in­sur­ance in­creased from ¤ 35 a month to ¤ 68. In ad­di­tion, pay­ments spread over 12 months have be­come much more ex­pen­sive through the bro­ker they are with, which has added an ad­di­tional ¤ 300 to their an­nual bill.

A hos­pi­tal stay in Gal­way by Sarah also put them un­der un­ex­pected fi­nan­cial pres­sure. There was the cost of petrol for her husband to visit, car- park­ing fees and the cost of eat­ing in the can­teen there. She is cur­rently un­able to work through ill­ness, and her husband gave up his job to be her carer. “We are liv­ing on the edge all the time. If petrol goes up by a few cents, that mat­ters,” she says. “There is no spare cash. All our sav­ings were spent on help­ing our chil­dren in col­lege, and our daugh­ter, who has had a baby.”

They have four chil­dren, one of whom still lives at home and is 17. “We have cut down hugely, but there are weeks when there is just not enough in the house, and we live on bread and soup for a few days. I think there are a lot of peo­ple liv­ing pay cheque to pay cheque and scrap­ing by. As a so­ci­ety, we are good at cov­er­ing things up. It was OK dur­ing the re­ces­sion to say you had lost your job and times were hard, but it’s very hard to say in pub­lic, ‘ I need food’, when we are sup­posed to be do­ing well again, and out of re­ces­sion. Peo­ple are bad at ad­mit­ting things are tough: I am bad at ad­mit­ting it.”

The money that Sarah can save by avail­ing of a bag of gro­ceries from the cen­tre is care­fully thought about. “It means I can put enough food on the ta­ble to have my daugh­ter and her part­ner for din­ner. Or buy for­mula for the baby. Or put some petrol in the car, so we can go some­where and do some­thing.”

Back in the kitchen, there is a small group of peo­ple wait­ing for their bags to be filled. Power chats to them and tells ev­ery- one who comes in to pass on the in­for­ma­tion about the food dis­tri­bu­tion. There are men of 70 and 22. An adult mother and daugh­ter ar­rive to­gether. One mother brings in her three small chil­dren with her, two in school uni­form, who look around shyly. This mother tells Power her el­dest child’s teacher sent him home with a bag of clothes the pre­vi­ous week, and how grate­ful she was. More than 15 peo­ple have come through the doors so far.

I go back out to the store­room to watch Damien Fa­gan filling bags. I open the fridge. There is noth­ing left in it, ex­cept the cu­cum­ber and the tub of cus­tard. Of the FEAD sup­plies, which were meant to last un­til Christ­mas, the tins of peas, corn and soup are now all fin­ished. There are a few jars of cof­fee left, and when I check the box with the rice, only a few bags still re­main.

The bags that Fa­gan is now filling are mainly full of break­fast ce­real, frozen bread, buns, and pas­tries. Those he had filled at the start of the af­ter­noon each con­tained some­thing from the fridge, whether a pack­age of sausages, or salad leaves, or stir- fry veg­eta­bles. The vol­un­teers try to give every­one some­thing per­ish­able, but if there isn’t enough in the fridge, there isn’t enough to give every­one some­thing ex­tra. While I’m there, the last of the jars of cof­fee, pack­ets of rice, and Cup- A- Soups also van­ish. All that’s left now is break­fast ce­real.

Mo­ran comes into the room. “There’s a birth­day,” she says. “A lit­tle girl who is go­ing to be six. Her mother is out there and has asked if we had any­thing at all for her. I knew we would need that cake some­time.” She digs down into the freezer and finds the pink cake.

By the end of the af­ter­noon, 21 peo­ple have come to the cen­tre. Be­tween them, they have 31 chil­dren un­der 15. They range in age from 22 to 70, and rep­re­sent ev­ery kind of fam­ily unit; sin­gle peo­ple, sin­gle par­ents, two par­ents with two, three, four chil­dren. Power says that most of the peo­ple who ar­rived today, in­clud­ing the mother with the child about to turn six, were new to them. I look though the com­pleted sheets of pa­per. Un­der the sec­tion for “na­tion­al­ity” all but two of the 21 have iden­ti­fied them­selves as Ir­ish. The other two are Bri­tish.

“It’s my be­lief that we haven’t yet reached all the peo­ple we need to reach,” Scan­lon says.

Louise Mo­ran is not quite sure what is go­ing to hap­pen next. Lidl will soon be join­ing with Tesco and Aldi in agree­ing to sup­ply their per­ish­ables to Boyle’s Fam­ily Re­source Cen­tre. That means wait­ing for an­other text mes­sage each week, and an­other jour­ney. Tony Scan­lon, no mat­ter how ded­i­cated and driven a vol­un­teer, can­not con­tinue to take sole re­spon­si­bil­ity for col­lect­ing the per­ish­able food his com­mu­nity clearly needs so badly. As he put it to me: “What hap­pens if I get sick, and can’t go?” He doesn’t men­tion what hap­pens when he would like to go on hol­i­day, or has per­sonal clash­ing com­mit­ments, or that he pays for the petrol him­self.

Mo­ran hopes other vol­un­teers might come for­ward, per­haps to work to­gether on a rota to drive and col­lect any food that is avail­able. At the be­gin­ning of this ex­per­i­ment, they did not know if there was a need for the ser­vice in their com­mu­nity. Now they know there is. And they are won­der­ing how rep­re­sen­ta­tive their small town of Boyle is of the rest of the coun­try. “We can­not be the only town in Ire­land where peo­ple need to avail of a food bank,” Mo­ran says. Boyle­frc. ie

We have cut down hugely, but there are weeks when there is just not enough in the house, and we live on bread and soup for a few days

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PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRIAN FAR­RELL

Vol­un­teers Louise Mo­ran and Deb­o­rah Rod­den at the Boyle Fam­ily Re­source Cen­tre.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRIAN FAR­RELL

Vol­un­teers Deb­o­rah Rod­den, Chris­tine Mur­phy, San­dra Tay­lor, Emer Cur­ran and Damien Fa­gan at the food bank in Boyle.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRIAN FAR­RELL

Vol­un­teer Chris­tine Mur­phy ar­rives at the Boyle Fam­ily Re­source Cen­tre with stock do­nated by a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket.

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