Food banks in Leeds: The Harehills church offering help to 'everybody in need' without asking for referrals
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Now the church in Harehills has around 500 people all kinds of backgrounds on its food share register. There is no requirement for a formal referral, no fee to be paid – and, most importantly, no judgement.
Mother Andi Hofbauer said: “We come to know our people and that's the wonderful thing – as sad as it is that they have to come. Getting to know names and getting to know stories is really an important part of what we do.
"It is a project that has really grown. We reach communities of Harehills but also further. By not asking for referrals, we are open to everybody in need.”
While the overall number of people on the register is much larger, there between 60 and 90 regulars who visit the church in Elford Place West every Saturday between 10.30am and noon. Among them is Paul Smith, a 50-year-old asylum seeker who is unable to claim benefits and cannot legally seek work.
Paul said the £30 weekly allowance that he receives from the Government is simply not enough to keep him going. The St Aidan’s FoodShare programme is a lifeline, helping him to eat better so that he does not become unwell through a poor diet. He added: “I have been given antidepressants, this food share and a house – that’s it. I am not ashamed anymore to admit that I need help badly.”
Family and friends encouraged 30-year-old Alisha to attend the weekly session, telling her that such help was there for a reason. Having escaped an unhappy relationship, she is now a single mum-of-four with an income that barely covers the rent.
“I am really struggling,” she said. “I never thought I would see myself in this situation. Because I don’t want to go back to my husband, I will do what I have to for myself and my kids.”
It is the fifth week Alisha that has visited the church and she has noticed the lines getting longer. There will be no complaints from her though and she hopes to be able to show her thanks to the church and the volunteers one day soon.
She said: “This makes a huge difference. I am grateful for all of these workers who dedicate their time for people like me. I can’t wait to be in a position to give back and I definitely will – because they were there for me.”
Most Saturdays, regardless of the weather, there will be a queue forming outside the church long before it opens. Stuart Gilchrist has visiting for more than two years on behalf of himself and a friend who cannot stand in a queue. Both have very little income to make it through the week.
The 74-year-old said: “I actually feel a bit humiliated coming to a food share. I think people should stand on their own two feet.”
Finding that he is queuing up for far longer and walking with less each week, Stuart is going to another food bank on the other side of Leeds and said he may not come to St Aidan’s much longer.
The church receives its food through subscriptions – for which it pays £1,200 each year – and supermarkets including Co-op and Tesco Express, which donate food that would normally end up in landfill. Attendees can choose every week from staple foods such as rice or pasta as well picking up some frozen food, tinned items, sausages or other meat, and some snacks.
Items like milk, cereal and oil are not donated in sufficient quantities to be put out every week and it is the same for toiletries including feminine hygiene products. While the church tries to be as accommodating as it can, it needs more donations in order to ensure these items can be provided each week.
With costs rising, many of those who rely on the service have noticed that it is struggling to meet the demand. Salma, 30, has been attending the food share for two months and has said essentials such as bread can be gone if you arrive later. She said: “If you don’t have anything but bread and milk, you can survive.”
Like Stuart, she attends another food bank in the event of not being able to get the essentials at St Aidan’s but also for the wider range of ethnic foods such as lentils and pulses.
In the meantime, the church and its volunteers are determined to offer what they can with the resources available. This includes opening up as a ‘warm space’ every Tuesday, something which Andi hopes will help people out as the temperatures drop.
Andi said: “Besides the worship, weddings and funerals and baptism, we try to serve the local community and their needs to the best of our ability. That is part of our duty, our privilege and our joy.
“I sometimes refer to people who come in here as our ‘treasures’. Being a church, we talk about the worth and dignity every person has. We see them as people worthy of being supported, encouraged and loved and this is really important to us. It is beyond just serving food.”
Donations to St Aidan’s FoodShare can be dropped off at the church on Friday and Saturday mornings, 10am-noon. Visit www.staidan-leeds.org.uk/ for further details on how to support the church’s work in the community.