'It’s very hard to say ‘I need food’'
An ad-hoc food bank at the Boyle Family Resource centre has seen a surge in demand from local families and beyond
Volunteers Deborah Rodden, Christine Murphy, Sandra Taylor, Emer Curran and Damien Fagan at the food bank in Boyle. Photograph: Brian Farrell
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, plus reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com/food
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late October, in Boyle, Co Roscommon, 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 manager 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.
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
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 community 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,” volunteer 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.
Well-worn shopping bags
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 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.”
‘There is just not enough’
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.”
While I’m there, the last of the jars of coffee, packets of rice, and Cup-A-Soups vanish. All that’s left now is breakfast cereal
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.”
The pink cake
Back in the kitchen, there is a small group of people waiting for their bags to be filled. Power chats to them and tells everyone 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.