I HAVE been fortunate enough so far in my life to never have used a food bank.

However, I have now come to the conclusion I have severely underestimated the behind-the-scenes effort that enables hundreds of people to be fed every day.

Behind the beans

Food donation boxes are a regular occurrence when you go grocery shopping.

I have passed the teetering towers of tinned food on many occasions and have previously dropped items in myself, but it was not until I spent a morning volunteering with a Southampton charity that I realised there is much more to the boxes than beans.

Daily Echo: Daily Echo reporter Maya George volunteering for City Mission Daily Echo reporter Maya George volunteering for City Mission

I was up at the crack of dawn on Thursday to lend a helping hand to Southampton City Missions van driver Steve Williams as part of the charity’s Basic Banks project.

This project provides food and clothes to those in need in the city and thanks to the project, nearly 15,600 people were fed last year.

Thanks to the generous donations from supermarkets and members of the public we collected and dropped off, that number increased.

Donations galore

Starting at the charity’s office in Second Avenue, Southampton, Steve showed me the ropes and we began pilling donations into the van.

The first stop for donation pick-ups was FareShare followed by Sainsbury’s in Portswood.

READ MORE: This is what happened when we spent the morning volunteering at a city foodbank

We added large punnets of tomatoes, courgettes, and other fresh items to the van before heading to Shirley.

Lidl and Sainsbury’s were next on the list and this is where beads of sweat began forming on my brow as the quantity of food rapidly increased.

Daily Echo: Steve Williams with donationsSteve Williams with donations

Piles of pastries, fresh bread, and food were carefully packed and balanced onto our crates and back into the van, after lugging it all through the shops and into the car parks.

(Another perk of this amazing volunteering opportunity was to have a quick nosey in the back stores of the supermarkets – it’s the small things).

'Desperate for food'

The next stage of the operation was probably the hardest of all – unpacking everything from the van and into the food bank set up at Shirley Baptist Church.

Just when I thought the towers of food were decreasing in size, more seemed to appear from behind them.

After about 15 minutes the van was finally empty of everything Steve and I had collected, and we sat down for a quick break.

Daily Echo: City Mission volunteers at Shirley Baptist Church City Mission volunteers at Shirley Baptist Church

“Our busiest times are usually around Christmas, but at the moment because of inflation and increased prices we are seeing more people use the service this summer”, Steve explained to me.

“As a driver, I don’t see quite so much of people using the food banks, but some people who come in are really desperate for food and they are so grateful to be able to feed their families,” he added.

Steve, along with all the other volunteers at the food bank on Thursday, hope that by using the service people can get themselves back on their feet.

Once people started arriving Steve and I set off again back to two supermarkets – Sainsbury’s in Shirley and Sainsbury’s in Lordshill.

Daily Echo: Volunteers Helen (left) and Julia Volunteers Helen (left) and Julia

Now that the van was suitably empty it seemed fit to fill it back up again with donations from members of the public.

We emptied the brimming (no exaggeration there) donation boxes at both stores and filled the van once more.

The last stop of the day was City Mission’s office where I helped unload donations for the final time that morning.

Thank you, food bank volunteers

City Mission volunteer Helen Willis told me most people are embarrassed to use food banks.

“People are embarrassed to come in so it’s about being calm and caring and letting people know that life is alright,” she said.

For me, this is the saddest part of my experience. Since when did we frown upon people seeking support?

I know the handful of food bank users I saw during my time there are only a small fraction of people who are struggling – and it’s not only one group of people.

What struck me was the number of ‘normal’ people using the food bank.

I agree that normal is a ridiculous word and frankly cannot be applied to anyone, but when you hear about food banks you, rightly or wrongly, make an assumption about who uses them.

The reality is this could be any of us. The world could spin on its head again and we could be sitting in a food bank waiting for our food parcels.

And if that did happen, where would we be without the hard-working volunteers and staff behind the food banks?

Nowhere.

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