Most of us have felt the hunger pangs that can lead to low blood sugar, faintness and becoming irritable. But imagine being a parent going without meals yourself in order to feed your children, or having to choose between heating your home or feeding your family so as to survive on a small budget.
This is the reality for thousands of families in England and Wales who depend on Catholic charity the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP), for that extra bit of support to put food on the table.
This month the SVP is running an awareness campaign to let the public know about the work of the charity’s 10,000 volunteers. Entitled ‘Beyond Boundaries’, the campaign focuses on the hidden poor – people often unseen, who receive help every day in the form of practical assistance and friendship.
Week 2 of the campaign is about food poverty, and how the Society overcomes the boundaries of shame and stigma that sometimes accompany not being able to provide for your loved ones. As SVP volunteers visit people in their own homes, they see first-hand the level of need being endured by so many people, often too afraid to ask for help.
SVP National President, Helen O’Shea is herself an SVP volunteer and former president of St Joan of Arc SVP group in Highbury. Helen explains that members of her group had been finding it hard to fund the increasing number of requests for food from the people they visited.
“Initially we looked at established food banks such as the Trussell Trust, to see whether they could help, but found that the system for getting food was incompatible with our needs. We had been giving out supermarket vouchers, but as more and more people were telling us that they could no longer afford to feed their families, we realised that we had to act fast. We couldn’t simply go on buying vouchers, we just didn’t have the money.”
Helen and her members put out an appeal in the church newsletter, asking parishioners to put an extra item into their shopping basket each week and to bring them along after Mass. “We made lists of some of the most useful items including dried and tinned food as well as toiletries,” says Helen.
The response was overwhelming. “Our Parish Priest allowed us to use a room in the presbytery which he fitted out with wall-to-wall shelving. Often people don’t just bring one item – they may bring a few things, so that we can put an entire meal together. The ‘three for two’ offers in the supermarket also provide a great opportunity for people to donate the extra item to us.
“Since the start of the project, we regularly hand out dozens of bags of food each month to people in our community. This helps in a variety of ways. Some of the people we visit are sick or have mental health issues meaning they are on very low incomes and cannot work. Others work full time, but once they have paid their utility bills and rent, their wages are no longer enough to guarantee a meal for their children each day.
“Bringing a bag of food to someone is more than just providing a service. It is a way of helping some of the most vulnerable people in our community to get through the week”, says Helen. “Our members continually report that for the people they visit, a few simple groceries brings them more than just food, it brings them a feeling of connection with the outside world.”
Building such connections is a key aspect of SVP volunteers’ vocation of friendship. CEO Elizabeth Palmer says: “Vincentian spirituality sees the face of Christ in those we serve. Because listening and friendship are at the heart of the SVP, our volunteers really get to understand the anxieties and heartfelt feelings of those they visit. It places them right where they need to be to provide support both practical and emotional. And that makes the SVP’s service invaluable.”
Next week the campaign focuses on how the SVP helps people who endure homelessness.