Profile by Twinkle Troughton: Behind the scenes with Margate Independent Foodbank

John Finnegan Photo Twinkle Troughton

Twinkle Troughton is an artist and writer who lives and works in Margate. For the last four years she has been Art & Culture editor for local magazine Margate Mercury, as well as a contributing writer.

Here she meets John Finnegan of the Margate Independent Food Bank to see what it is like to run this service during the pandemic in one of the UK’s most deprived towns:

When I meet with John Finnegan, founder of Margate Independent Foodbank at Union Church Margate, he tells me he is exhausted. The 65-year-old has just finished another intensive shift with his team, ensuring 160 families are given food bags in just a few hours.

“It’s been a hell of a morning,” John tells me, “because we should have had 8 drivers, but 3 of them, their children have had to come home from school to self-isolate, so we only had 5 drivers. They took out 100 parcels between them. They came back a bit tired.”

When the food bank first started in June, they were giving out 105 bags a week, but as the COVID crisis has continued, there has been a significant increase in the need for their support. John says: “When we first started, we would spend £1200 a month on food. It’s now up to nearly £4000 a month. We need every penny.”

Currently each week, 60-70 food bags are given directly from the church, and a further 100 food bags are delivered by volunteer drivers to some of Thanet’s most vulnerable, which includes those who are self-isolating and unable to afford online shopping, or who struggle with mobility or mental health issues. During half term they also gave out 100 lunches for school children, which were donated by Changing Minds Kent.

John, a part time book keeper, runs the food bank with Darryn de la Soul (pictured above). He said: “We met back when were both members of the Lib Dems, and she joined me in the beginning of May.” He says the pair work well together: “I do the stock, get the grants and do the day to day running, and Darryn oversees the logistics for the deliveries and drivers.”

On average, the food bank has 10 volunteers working per shift, both behind the scenes and on the front line. But there have been recent shifts where that figure has exceeded 20 volunteers, some of who are people the food bank helps, or who have helped in the past. John tells me that they have come back to ‘give something back to the community.’

Support for the food bank is shown in a variety of ways, from both those they help and from the wider community. He tells me that some drivers come back with small donations from those they deliver to, saying: “We have one 93-year-old woman that every two weeks gives £5 back to us.” They are also helped by people fundraising for them or bringing donations to the door. Tag Pet Rescue donate pet food, Wild Bakery in Faversham donates fresh loaves of bread and Tesco, Asda and Morrisons regularly donate food.

Foodbank volunteer

I ask John to tell me a little more about the people they serve in Margate; as one of the UK’s most deprived towns, the majority are people receiving Universal Credit. But John tells me that they are also helping people who a year ago wouldn’t have considered going to a food bank. “We’ve had NHS staff in the past, and other front-line workers who were so busy they struggled to get to the supermarkets. Some people have been sanctioned and are not getting any money at all, and we’re helping more homeless people too now they are back on the street after the first lockdown came to an end.”

But the list doesn’t stop there, he goes on: “We’re also helping self-employed who haven’t qualified for any help during lockdown, like taxi drivers who don’t qualify for government support.”

People are referred to the food bank from charitable organisations such as Porchlight or Thanet District Council which, at the time of interviewing John, had just referred 8 shielding families.

Recently the food bank had to take some difficult decisions in removing help from some people. John tells me they’ve had to start getting firmer with deliveries, as they discovered a handful of recipients were capable of collecting the food bags themselves. John tells me: “It costs the volunteers time and fuel. We’re there to deliver to the people that really need it.”

Volunteer Martin who gives out food bags at the door

Another challenge they are currently facing is that their services are now being required further afield. There isn’t currently a food bank that provides a delivery service in Ramsgate*, and some recent referrals from Thanet District Council are Ramsgate residents who are shielding. Unsure of how to cover travel costs, John is aware of their own limitations, saying that they are unable to feed the whole island. But it’s clear he doesn’t like to turn people away.

John, who has lived in Margate for 44 years, ended up working with a food bank thanks to his wife. She volunteered to help out at the St Austins & St Gregory’s food bank but, in her late 70s, she found the workload was too heavy and suggested John took over. “I started helping out Basil, the dear old boy that had been doing it for 5 years who is now 82. But in November last year, Basil decided he wanted to step away, so I took it over.”

John and the church had different ideas about how to continue their work. John wanted to ensure that the food bags they gave out would be sufficient for people during lockdowns or who are shielding. So, he decided start his own food bank with advice and support from Sharon Goodyer, who runs Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet, and Barry Lewis, the Kent County Council councillor for Margate.

Working three to four days a week on the food bank, a typical day for John starts at 8.15am to do the shopping, after which he’s at the church for the distribution of packages until 2pm. He then heads home to do the food bank’s accounts and organise the next shopping list which he shares with volunteer Sue who also helps to buy supplies. They also get a lot of their supplies from Fareshare, which ensures surplus food from suppliers goes to frontline charities and community groups. Currently one tray of any food is £2.90, meaning financial donations to the food bank go a lot further than donations of food.

I ask John what the future of the food bank looks like to him. He says: “When things go back to normal, we’d like to run like they do in London, where people come in and pay £3-£4 for a bag of food and pick what they want themselves. It’s set out like a shop, but at a massively reduced price. The need for food banks is not going to go away, even when COVID is over, unless something miraculous happens from the powers above and poverty is wiped out. But I can’t see poverty ever being wiped out.”

I finally ask John why he does what he does. Quiet for a moment he replies: “They’re finding it hard to pay their rent. They’re finding it hard to even feed their children. If I don’t do it, then who will? I don’t do it for the praise.”

Food bank facts

In an average week, Margate Independent Foodbank gives away 225 litres of milk, 220 tins of beans and 220 tins of soup.

Every week, Fareshare provide enough food to create one million meals for vulnerable people

Thanet came 9 / 324 of the UK’s most deprived town in an investigation carried out by Mirror Online in 2019

Margate Independent Food Bank is based at  Union Methodist Church, Union Row, Margate and is open on Tuesday and Thursday 10.15am to 12.45pm

Thanet council deputy leader Helen Whitehead, who has responsibility for the Housing portfolio, volunteers at the foodbank. She runs a housing surgery for those who are homeless/at risk of becoming homeless each Tuesday morning from 9.15am – 11am, and the RISE homelessness team run the same surgery on Thursday mornings.

Donate to the foodbank

Donating £5 will help feed two families for one week.
Donating £10 will help feed four families for one week.
Donating £20 will help feed eight families for one week.

Starling Bank.

Margate Independent Foodbank Community Interest Company

Account Number: 99608188 Sort Code: 608371

Contact the foodbank

Email mifoodbank@aol.com or text 07443890082

Find Margate Independent Food Bank on facebook here

*Help is also offered in Ramsgate by Newington Big Local.

The Community Food Club run by Newington Big Local offers food and provisions to households across Newington, Margate, Ramsgate and Westgate.

Cara and her team offer food bags for £5 twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) and encourage collection if possible. People are given a collection time to facilitate social distancing and to ensure that the operation is Covid-secure.

NBL are still doing some deliveries predominantly in Newington.

Find out more on the facebook page or call the  community centre on 01843 607079 (between 9am and 10am on Monday or Thursday).

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