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West Berks Foodbank now needs more than just food – emergency Christmas appeal launched

An appeal to fund slow cookers, air fryers and heated throws to help those forced to choose between eating and heating this Christmas has been launched for West Berks Foodbank.

Jeremy Cottam (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East), chairman of West Berkshire Council, said it was his “chairman’s Christmas ambition to bring hot meals to those in need”.

Food Bank - Laura Laschi (WB Food Bank) Jeremy Cottam (Chairman of the Council) Fran Chamings (WB Food Bank)
Food Bank - Laura Laschi (WB Food Bank) Jeremy Cottam (Chairman of the Council) Fran Chamings (WB Food Bank)

But needs have changed and it is no longer about asking people to donate tins or packets of ambient food, said foodbank manager, Fran Chamings.

With more than 1,000 people supported by the charity each month, it is now in need of financial support to adjust to the changing needs of the people it helps and this includes providing cheaper ways of cooking family meals.

“So many of our clients are working or have a fixed income and just because of the cost of living they’re not able to cope,” she said. “It’s really tough out there. Six years ago it used to be crisis need – we used to look after them for six or eight weeks and then they would go back to living an individual life.

“But now it’s chronic poverty. It’s becoming worrying for us; everyone has gone through their rainy day funds.

“People are coming out of rented accommodation and there’s no housing stock so people are being put in temporary accommodation, which is usually hotels.

“We are feeding families and all they have to cook with is a kettle.

“We cannot just send families pot noodles, that’s not right.”

But self-heating food and pouch meals cost a lot.

“That’s a real change for us,” she added. “We have always had mass donations of ambient foods – I have 3,000 tins of beans at the moment, which is fabulous, but because of the changes that’s not working so well.

“Headlice lotion is no longer available on prescription and so that’s beyond people’s reach now.

“These are working families and headlice lotion is now a luxury. It’s bonkers what we’ve got to buy in.

“There are people with allergies and keeping their children safe is pushing them to use foodbanks.”

Food Bank - Laura Laschi (WB Food Bank) Jeremy Cottam (Chairman of the Council) Fran Chamings (WB Food Bank)
Food Bank - Laura Laschi (WB Food Bank) Jeremy Cottam (Chairman of the Council) Fran Chamings (WB Food Bank)

Special foods aimed at those with allergies and intolerances are generally more expensive and have a shorter shelf-life, Mrs Chamings added.

She said the “last thing I will ever do is waste food” so she is having to buy in specific items for specific families to ensure that everything is used.

It is “all the little incremental rises” – such as petrol and the need to buy plastic bags for the food to be taken away in – that are now adding up too.

Talking about why he felt he needed to launch a campaign to help, Mr Cottam said: “There have been some very successful campaigns but we have still seen a great struggle.

“There are extreme problems that people are facing. It always seems worse at the Christmas season too.

“The cost of living crisis isn’t going to go away because the headlines have disappeared.

“It is heart-rending. People are having one meal a day and have to turn their heating off.

“With Christmas coming up I thought we could help give people a better holiday.”

Another change since Mrs Chamings first started working with the charity nearly six years ago, is the additional support it now offers people.

She said they sit down and go through budgets and try to help people claim as much support as they can. One woman, Mrs Chamings realised, wasn’t claiming child benefit for her two month second child – delving deeper she discovered it was because she couldn’t afford the £11 to purchase the baby’s birth certificate.

With 160 volunteers, five distribution centres, two warehouses and two members of staff, the West Berks Foodbank helps between 700-1,100 people per month, with each person given seven day’s worth of food – 21 meals.

This month that figure has been lower, Mrs Chamings said, because people have received the cost of living payment. But she expects it to rise sharply in December.

In 2021 the charity helped 321 children through its Hungry Holiday scheme. This year they fed 1,490 children in absolute need, thanks to a grant from Greenham Trust and from West Berkshire Council.

Mrs Chamings said she is also now having to buy in mental health support for her volunteers, who are seeing and hearing such heart-breaking stories on a daily basis.

You can donate through the charity’s website – https://westberks.foodbank.org.uk/ and all this money will then come directly to them locally.

Any donations of electrical items, such as slow cookers, air fryers or heaters can be delivered to the Community Furniture Project on Bone Lane, in Newbury.

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