The Guildford food bank highlighting a 'heartbreaking' need in Surrey

Volunteerspose together
-Credit: (Image: Surrey Live)


“We can’t have a food bank in Guildford.” That is the response that a North Guildford food bank volunteer got when picking up supplies. But that's not the case. The North Guildford food bank is busy, and the centre reveals a lot about life in Surrey.

The term ‘food bank’ doesn’t really cover it. From offering a friendly ear to more substantial help, the Park Barn service provides a lot more than a couple of packets of rice. As soon as you walk in it is clear that this is a serious operation. Piles of neatly organised packets sit in food delivery crates waiting for sorting, and a group of volunteers diligently works their way around the room sorting them further.

Stephen Knight, 58, a team leader at the site told our reporter that “our food bank operates a little bit differently to others. You cannot just walk in, I'd expect the full service. What we want to do is we want to capture what we call referrals. If a person is in crisis, in need, then they would be referred to us.”

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“We know that everyone we meet is in need, but there are people out there who wonder if they should all be receiving food. We want to make sure that we don’t get people coming in week after week, year after year because that's the total system failing. If they need out services week after week then something is failing down the line.”

That means that volunteers make the extra effort to ensure that when people are with them, they are getting more than food. The charity has a whole directory of local organisations that can help with addiction, mental health and other issues, and all are on hand to point their clients towards help.

Stephen Knight, with boxes
Stephen Knight, 58, has been volunteering at the food bank for around three years -Credit:Surrey Live

In total last year, the charity helped more than 2,650 adults and 2,000 children, but Stephen recognises that this might be a shock to some people. He said working here: “has allowed me to see the reality for a large number of people. We do see people come to us in bigger cars than I drive, but that doesn't mean they own them. It doesn't mean they don't have massive struggles with all of the bills that they're paying. We see the housing that people are living in in Guildford. Some of it is not as nice as the rest of us would like to think it is. It makes you more grounded.”

“We're all sort of in a position where if we lost our jobs, and we couldn't pay the mortgage, and we have some other issues it could happen to us.”

He told SurreyLive that the need had only increased during the time he had volunteered there, and the service was busier than ever. This was particularly true last Christmas when boxes were piled high, but were still decimated come Christmas Eve.

However, the affluent surroundings of Guildford can make it even harder to get people through the doors. Stephen told Surrey Live “We have some clients who don't want to come in here. They come around the back because they're nervous. And if you can coax them in a gentle way and then they come back, That's a good thing.”

Another volunteer spoke of the embarrassment that some clients felt when walking through the doors, telling SurreyLive that it takes time to convince them to trust. He said that some of the need he encounters is "heartbreaking."

When they do come in through the doors, clients then walk away with quite a lot of food. A family of four will be allocated six things of meat, 2.5kg of pasta, three large packets of cereal, and five tins of baked beans, among much more. In fact they are told to arrive with friends or a car, so that they can carry it all.

Lots of food boxes piled hgh
The church hall had boxes piled high -Credit:Surrey Live

However, the existence of the food bank gives Stephen mixed feelings. “It's two emotions. When you have a client who is crying because he is so happy about what we've been able to do, that's a nice thing and a sad thing at the same time. The overwhelming majority of clients are so thankful, it's a lovely thing to be involved with. I prefer to say that we're doing something wonderful.”

“Is it sad when we see people who are maybe victims of domestic abuse or in situations they could not imagine being in, yes. You will typically find a lot of people who come in for the first time and say, I never saw myself being here. Those are things that pull on the heartstrings.”

Some of the food donations come from supermarkets like Waitrose, but the charity really welcomes financial donations, which they use to buy fresh produce. Stephen told SurreyLive he would ask that anyone who can give, does it this way.

However, the volunteers hope their clients come away with more than just food. One team leader, Julie Eves, told SurreyLive: “Some of them just want to just talk. Some people come in and they haven't spoken to anybody. We've got some really lovely chatters who just make people feel at ease.”

tables and chairs set up for a chat
A part of the church is used for a catch up with clients over a tea or coffee -Credit:Surrey Live

She said she joined the team as “I just wanted to do something usual. I just looked online and found North Guildford Food Bank and sent them a message and said do you need any help, and they said yes. Then the rest is history.”

“I started as a packer, did a bit of delivering, a bit of packing. I think we have all done a bit of everything.”

They are all busy. Throughout SurreyLive’s visit, volunteers never sat down for long, and many volunteered for several sessions a week. They rotate between talking to clients and packing the parcels. Everything is very organised, with sheets laying out how much should go to different sized groups. This does not just include food, but also has toiletries and and household cleaning items.

The food bank operates out of St. Clare’s Church in Park Barn and has sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

More information about the foodbank and how you can help can be found here.

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