Where would we be without volunteers?

Bob Bevil on the role of Barnet’s foodbank volunteers

A foodbank with a table full of containers of vegetables. A woman with a bag stand next to a container of potatoes - while a row of volunteers stand behind the table.
Volunteers and residents at Burnt Oak Community Food Bank – (Credit – Burnt Oak Community Food Bank)

Members of the community volunteer at foodbanks for varied personal reasons. Inasmuch as volunteers are unpaid, intrinsic motivation must play an important part which is when we do things because the process is personally rewarding.

In July we ran a feature on Barnet Post which conservatively estimated the uptake of emergency food in the borough. Uptake across the borough’s 22 recognised foodbanks continues to multiply within a system that is cracking amidst increasing reports of volunteer stress.

As the demand for food goes up, so does the demand for volunteer time and expertise and we have analysed this amazing contribution. At Chipping Barnet Foodbank, we have over 200 registered volunteers. The roles that the volunteers undertake are many and varied and include driving, collecting donations, sorting donations, site management, parcel packing, meeting & greeting, serving refreshments, fiscal management, rota management, distributing food in sessions, fundraising, food session leadership, community liaison and social media management. This list is not exhaustive and excludes all the informal activity conducted in the community.

Foodbank work is quite structured, with a routine that includes significant background preparation before the client distribution sessions. There are two distribution sessions per week, and they last for two hours each. Each distribution session requires ten volunteers, and each supporting sorting session requires eight volunteers. Given the structure of the work, it is possible to approximate the value of our volunteers’ contribution if we set it against, for example, the London Living Wage which is set at £13.15 per hour.

When the volunteer hours at Chipping Barnet Foodbank are added together and multiplied by the London Living Wage, the value of the unpaid work comes out at £67.5k per annum to set up and run the twice-a-week distribution sessions.

This is only part of an extraordinary story. The foodbank volunteer register reads like an encyclopaedia of skills, knowledge and diversity; encompassing the empathic skills of those with lived experience, the people skills of qualified teachers, nurses and social workers, and the practical skills of engineers to name but a few. In this context, a figure of £67.5k is a major underestimate. And that’s for just one of the borough’s 22 foodbanks.

It is no secret that the stimulus in the growth of foodbanks was the financial crash and subsequent austerity. They then burgeoned after Covid. Considering that those with the intrinsic motivation to volunteer are starting to feel the pressure, one can’t help but ask a rhetorical question.

To what extent is volunteering at a food bank a compassionate, socially cohesive and rewarding experience and to what extent is it an abdication of governance, either national or local?

Bob Bevil is advocacy and campaigning lead at Chipping Barnet Foodbank

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