Lent begins tomorrow. It’s the time of year when Christians give something up – usually food – or else take something on for the sake of others.
Let me tell you a true story for the beginning of Lent about kindness and practical help.
Sohail Mumtaz is a leader of the Muslim Community Association in Sheffield. Last year, during Ramadan, he challenged one of his friends, Lee Ward, to have a one day fast.
Lee fasted and the experience of going hungry for a day made him think of the children in his community who are hungry. These are the people who are regularly helped by the S2 Foodbank. The Muslim Community Association and the churches both provide food and funding for distribution.
Lee and Sohail are taxi drivers. They wanted to do something more to help the children of their community. They approached other taxi drivers across the city. Together they raised the money and gave the time to take 96 parents and children to Cleethorpes for a day at the seaside in September. Many had never been to the coast, and most had never had a holiday
Deni Ennals, the Foodbank co-ordinator, organized the trip. Friends and neighbours donated car seats for children, buckets and spades, sun hats, lotion, items for the picnic and cash for fish and chips. Every family was given some spending money for donkey rides and the fairgrounds. Everything went without a hitch. The day was a huge success.
Deni wrote afterwards to say thank you to the foodbank supporters: “This one day away from the drudge and poverty of their normal lives did more for many of our clients than any antidepressant many have been prescribed. It’s a shame we could not bottle the fun and laughter and bring it home to help them through the winter months, when many will not only experience food poverty but also fuel poverty, where homes will have no heating and cooking facilities will become a luxury”.
As far as we know, there are 50-60 Food Banks across South Yorkshire and the Diocese of Sheffield. It would be excellent if none of them were needed but all of them are. Most of them are connected to churches and to other faith communities who supply volunteers and donations of food. A wide range of community groups support them.
Most clients don’t use the food banks regularly but a very wide range of people have to use them from time to time. Recent research on provision in the Diocese can be accessed in the Feeding Britain Sheffield Diocese Report. The findings link to the All Parliamentary Group on Hunger’s Feeding Britain Report which can be found here.
Why do people need food banks in modern Britain? We have food in abundance – enough to waste in most of our homes. There are many different reasons but top of the list in every survey are delays or errors in paying benefits, problems with disability benefits, or the application of benefit sanctions (where payment of a benefit is delayed or stopped because a claimant has not met certain conditions). People may be out of work, or they may be in very low paid jobs. Most commonly, people use food banks when there is some unforeseen crisis in their lives.
It is important to understand that something can be done about most of these reasons. Next week the General Synod will debate the impact of benefit sanctions. The Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales have brought a motion to debate. Malcolm Chamberlain, Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham, will put a “friendly” amendment to the motion on behalf of this Diocese to strengthen its impact, calling on the government “to initiate a full independent review of the impact and efficacy of the sanctions and conditionality regime”. The background papers for the Synod debate are GS 2019A Impact of Sanctions on Benefits Claimants and GS 2019B .
But back to Lent and giving something up. How can we help, today? All Christians at this time of year are encouraged to fast in some way and offer practical support and help to those around us.
- Foodbanks across the Diocese are looking for support and help: volunteers, supplies, practical aid of all kinds. It may be that your own local church is already supporting a foodbank. If it’s not, can you connect with one?
- Foodbanks are even more effective when they build community, treat people with respect and help and support them in other ways. The Sheffield taxi drivers are an example to us all. What can you and I do to help?
- Recent research suggests that foodbanks help more people when they make advice available within the foodbank on benefits, on money management, on debt. This already happens in some foodbanks in Sheffield (including S2) but needs to spread to more.
- Food waste is a massive scandal in modern Britain. What can we do to reduce the amount of edible food we throw away? If you’ve not seen it yet, I can recommend the excellent documentary by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, “Hugh’s War on Waste”
- Foodbanks are needed because there are holes in the net of welfare provision. It’s important for churches and others to lobby government to mend the nets so that no-one, and especially no child, goes hungry. There is more on that in this report from the Church Action on Poverty http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/safetynet
Lent is a time to pause, to slow down, to reflect on our lives, to connect more deeply with God and with our neighbours. As you give something up this year, take time to help others who do not have enough.