CHERYL Forbes will never forget the day a young family walked seven miles to collect a box of groceries from the food bank she and her husband Gordon Cree run in Darvel, East Ayrshire.
“They were desperate and they couldn’t afford the bus fare – a mum and dad and two wee kids, they’d walked all the way from Hurlford,” she says. “It was like something out of the 1930s.”
Cheryl, an internationally renowned opera singer, and Gordon, a pianist and conductor, have put their musical careers on hold to set up the operation, one of 250 across the UK run under the auspices of the Trussell Trust, in Darvel Parish Church Hall. In the ten months since it opened, they have been staggered by the growing level of need in the area, which has been hit by a series of factory closures including the Johnnie Walker whisky plant in Kilmarnock. Now the fourth busiest food bank in Scotland, its 50 volunteers have already helped around 1,000 people, from young men newly released from prison to families hit by redundancy.
Peter, 22, turned to the food bank after losing his job in a bank just before Christmas. He had worked there since his 18th birthday, but was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being stabbed in an unprovoked attack two years ago. Eventually, his employers told him they could no longer sustain his long absences. “I got my last pay on 18 December – that ran out in mid-January and I was really stuck,” Peter says. “I had never claimed benefits before so I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking about selling some of my possessions, but I phoned the Citizens Advice Bureau who put me in touch with another charity who put me in touch with the food bank.
“When I first phoned, I felt quite anxious. I thought, ‘I’m not homeless, I own some nice things,’ but the volunteers really put my mind at ease. I never thought I’d use a food bank, but when I found myself needing their services I realised anyone can find it hard at times.”
Sitting in the nerve centre of the operation, Cheryl, a mezzo-soprano who has sung in venues across the world, is busy coordinating plans for a fund-raising Burns Supper. Two years ago, her diary would have been a giddy whirl of classical recitals and musical medleys, but now she spends up to 60 hours a week making sure Ayrshire East food bank is functioning efficiently. In the next room, other volunteers are packing up different-sized boxes for single people, married couples and families. Each box contains three days’ provisions. Mostly these will involve non-perishable items, such as tinned food, pasta and UHT milk, but from time to time there will be fresh fruit and vegetables handed in by local farmers. The food bank often supplies pet food too, as experience has taught them many people will feed their animals before themselves.
The boxes are piled up ready to be loaded onto vehicles; unlike most others, East Ayrshire food bank’s rural location means the boxes have been delivered to the door by volunteer drivers (the family who walked having turned up without phoning first). But the opening of distribution points first at St John the Evangelist Church in Cumnock and earlier this month at St Matthew’s Church in Kilmarnock should help ease the situation.
The people who receive the boxes will have been given a voucher by one of 70 government agencies or charities the food bank works with. In theory, any one individual or family receives a maximum of three vouchers, as food banks were set up to ease short-term crisis not to underwrite chaotic lifestyles, but this rule is flexible. “We will help people with addiction if they are in crisis,” Cheryl says. “But we won’t keep on supporting them, at least not with food parcels – if we can see there’s an ongoing problem we will refer them to more appropriate charities.” The biggest problem they face, however, is getting those who are genuinely in need to overcome their reservations. “There is often an embarrassment factor – a Scottish pride that makes it difficult for people to ask for help,” she says. “Many of those who come here have never been in a position where they’ve needed outside support. By the time they get to us they are in dire need because they have tried for so long before realising they’re just not going to able to get by on their own.”
Cheryl knows what she is talking about; she was driven to set up the food bank by her own experience of need. When she was 15, her father suddenly moved out, leaving the family in crisis. “Up until that point, we had been relatively well-off,” says Cheryl, who is originally from Falkirk.
“My grandparents owned a grocer’s shop and we had never gone without. But when my dad left it was really difficult. My mum had never worked, and my grandfather had died. It took a while for us to access benefits because they kept asking my mum where my dad had gone and she didn’t know, so it was left to my grandmother to support my mum, my sister and me.” By this stage Cheryl was trying out for music college and needed money for travel and audition fees. “It was terrible – we’d be coming in from school and there’d often be next to nothing – there would be a couple of slices of bread and some cheese or cold meat and my grandmother would go without so I could eat.”
In the end, Cheryl won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, completed her studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and went on to forge a hugely successful career, working with The London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and The Scottish Festival Orchestra.
But when the Trussell Trust started opening food banks in Scotland it brought back memories of her past and she realised how much easier it would have been if her family had had something similar to turn to. Having witnessed first hand the need in East Ayrshire, she and Gordon, who are members of the church, threw themselves head-first into the venture, little realising how it would consume their lives (although they did take time out to get married in November) .
Now and again they meet with resistance from those who write off the needy as scroungers, but for the most part they have been overwhelmed by people’s kindness. Some of the food is brought into the centre and some is donated at supermarkets which are targeted by the volunteers from time to time. On those occasions, shoppers are asked to buy a few extra goods on their way round the store hand them in at the end.
“We have witnessed the most amazing acts of generosity,” Cheryl says. “One time a man wheeled a whole trolley-load of shopping over to us, having just nipped in to buy a newspaper.” So successful has Ayrshire East food bank been that it has outgrown the church hall and is moving out to another building which has been given rent-free by a local businessman.
One criticism which might reasonably be levelled at it and other food banks, however, is that they are performing a function that ought to be carried out by the state. Should anyone have to rely on charity to survive? And, by stepping in to plug the gap in the welfare state, are people like Cheryl and Gordon absolving the government of its responsibility?
“It’s not irrelevant, the government issue,” says Cheryl. “But for me personally, I can do very little in the short term about government policy, but I can do a whole lot for the people around me.” She points out that many of those involved with the Trussell Trust are working to put pressure on the government over issues such as the bedroom tax. “We have people starving and losing their homes, people who have put money into the system all their lives – that is more than distressing,” she says.
Peter agrees the government should be providing for those in need. Not only was no state assistance offered to him while he waited for his benefits to be paid, but the job centre didn’t even point him in the direction of help. “It was just a case of, ‘Well, you’ll have to get by’.” He says the food bank has given him breathing space. “Now I’m not worrying about where my next meal is coming from, I’m not so miserable. I’m more able to think about sorting out the future.”
• The food bank’s website is www.ayrshireeast.foodbank.org.uk