Of all the dates to start a new role heading up a busy food bank, March 16, 2020 was, with hindsight, possibly not the one I would have chosen. A possible lockdown was approaching but still, perhaps naively, I was preparing to ease myself in gently, getting to know the organisation during the typically quiet spring season and identifying the key priorities for the year ahead.
On the morning of my second day, however, I took a call from a senior director at MK Council asking about our COVID contingency and found myself hurtling into a very different reality.
MK Food Bank has been supporting the Milton Keynes community with food parcels since 2004. Its founding members realised that food poverty was affecting many people. Their core mission, from the humble beginnings in a church car park and which still stands today, was to provide emergency food parcels to anyone who needed it, regardless of reason.
Gradually, demand increased, and the food bank grew, taking on its own premises and building up a community support network. Relying solely on donations of food and money from the local community, schools, churches and corporate sponsors, it distributed over 11,500 parcels in 2019.
This was the organisation that I had applied to lead – well-respected and community-led but with a steadily increasing user base. The charity had outgrown its premises, and I had a major challenge ahead to find fit-for-purpose accommodation on a shoestring.
A baptism of fire
Then came COVID and the whole world was thrown into chaos. The impacts of the first national lockdown hit the MK Food Bank quickly and hard. Sickness, shielding and self-isolation, along with the loss of so many jobs and financial securities, led to a massive soar in demand. By the end of April 2020, we were distributing more than 1,000 parcels a week, a four-fold increase on the month before.
Added to this was a sharp decline in donations – supermarket shelves were empty, more people relied on online deliveries and our collection points ran low. Other immediate implications included the closure of a number of referral agencies and collection centres, and the decision of many of our 70 strong team of largely retired volunteers to shield.
As a result of that Day 2 phone call, we entered into a partnership with MK Council called Food Bank Xtra, agreeing to work together to respond to this unprecedented situation. Recognising our strong local brand and reputation, the Council committed to give us the right resources to cope with the additional demand, and within a couple of weeks we addressed our most pressing concerns, moving into temporary larger premises in Saxon Court and accessing council staff to meet the increasing demand. A new helpline and collection centres were set up, making access to food quick and simple during lockdown.
To make four times as many parcels as normal, we had to buy food in bulk. We did this through generous grants from MK Community Foundation and MK Council and a great many financial donations from the corporate world and the people of Milton Keynes, which meant we could shoulder our £130,000-plus food outgoings without losing too much sleep.
These combined sources of support, meant that as well as meeting the rising demand, we were also able to directly target harder-to-reach communities such as the elderly, black and minority ethnic communities and vulnerable young people, through partnering with other organisations. Overall, we gave out nearly 30,000 parcels over the year.
On the move
Fast forward a year and it was time to move. Our arrangement at Saxon Court was coming to an end and we needed a new home to accommodate our much bigger footprint, as well as two other charities with whom we share space, Baby Basics and St Mark’s Meals.
MK Council leased a 13,000 square foot warehouse in Kiln Farm and set aside funds to cover the rent and premises costs for five years, which has given us the welcome practical security to reach even more people in need.
We then faced the very real challenge of moving what turned out to be around 200 tonnes of food and equipment in the space of a few days.
We could not have done this without the incredible support of John Lewis, who lent two lorries and a four-strong team of LGV apprentices; M&M Supplies and MK Play Association, who provided moving equipment and people; David Lock Associates who gave CAD design support; MJ South who painted safety markings; Everglow Media who helped with promotional filming; and countless individuals and small businesses who gave up time and helped us lift and shift, pack and stack. This combined community spirit got us in within a few days and meant we didn’t miss a single day’s operations.
Lockdown restrictions may have eased now, but the financial impacts of the crisis are still very keenly felt. As financial support schemes end and the true reality of a post-pandemic world emerges, we expect to experience new levels of need, for potentially even longer.
Increased output and bigger premises also mean, however, that we need to spend more on fit out, equipment, vehicles and other expenses, and we need to focus on raising funds for these costs too.
To do so, we have launched a dual campaign to invite supporters to be part of our new home. Teams or individuals can Buy-a-Box for £5 and receive an exclusive window sticker to promote their support. Or they can Back-a-Rack for £100, £200 or £300 and have a company’s name and logo displayed on the shelf and website.
As I started my new job over a year ago, I couldn’t have predicted how the year would turn out. The one thing that hits me again and again though is how incredibly lucky we are to live and work where we do – in a Milton Keynes that pulls together for its community and mucks in wherever and however it can. Food and money are not the only ways you can be part of our story – if you have been inspired and think you have time, expertise or equipment that could benefit us, please get in touch.
Find out more at the website www.mkfoodbank.org.uk