This year for Agents Giving Day we wanted to do more than donate. We decided to volunteer at our local food bank, the West Hampstead Community Food Hub, to meet the guests that use their services. Having only just celebrated their 1-year anniversary of serving our community, the Food Hub now supports about 150 families in our local area - that's over 300 people in total.
We wanted to learn more about their challenges and what items they needed most. And some of what we learned surprised us.
On Friday evening Spencer helped put together the food parcels that would be handed out to guests the next day. He assembled halal and family halal bags, as well as mixes for different dietary needs.
"It was all very organised and there was no time to waste. You grabbed a bag and went around the stations they had set up, adding an item from each category, and then you started again. There were a lot of bags to fill."
The next day, Emma, Leighton and Leisa with her 5 year old son Ben volunteered to deliver food parcels to those who couldn't travel to pick up their items. I spoke with them afterwards, and it was clear that meeting the guests had made an impression.
Leisa said "No one knows your story or what you may have had to go through as to why you may need a little help every so often. Being a single parent I don't have much 'adult' interaction, so I valued even the fleeting greetings and quick conversations we had during the drop offs. I think that was part of it for many guests, the chance to have a conversation with the volunteers. My son Ben really enjoyed waving and saying hello, and I think people liked meeting him too!"
While Leighton, Emma, Leisa and Ben were out delivering bags of food, I was back at the community centre learning the ropes from their wonderful volunteers. The gym had been set up to receive guests, with all food bags labeled, and special items like oil and sugar ready to be handed out upon request.
There was also a table of books that had been donated, many from West End Lane Books, for the guests to borrow from every week. The volunteers got to know guests' interests, and would point specific books out to people they thought would enjoy them.
Later it was clear to me that this added to the sense of community and connection that some of the guests were looking for as they visited the Food Hub. In pre-covid times, Saturday was about more than picking up food for the week. It was also a time to enjoy a coffee or tea at the community centre and meet with other people. The Food Hub says they will be bringing this back as soon as they possibly can.
From the time the doors opened at 9:45 am, the stream of people coming in to pick up their items was constant. Everyone received a bag of dried goods and a bag of produce, the latter mostly consisting of donations from the Felix Project (click here to find our more about what they do). Below is what an average single bag contained, with the green bag containing a loaf of fresh bread.
I noticed that many people were requesting additional items like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, feminine products, nappies, baby food, cat food and dog food that just weren't available to hand out. Tinned fruit and peanut butter were also frequently asked for. The Food Hub finds that these items aren't often donated, and when they are, they go very quickly.
I also learned that there were quite a few homeless guests that didn’t have access to cooking facilities. Every person's circumstance was unique, but in general their bags needed to contain high-protein and nutritious items that were ready to eat. Uncooked pasta and rice are commonly donated to food banks, and while they're an important staple, they're often not useful for those who are homeless.
A couple days later on 17 June my colleagues Kyla, Shannon and I were on our way to Sainsbury's to purchase food to donate to the food bank in the spirit of Agents Giving Day. We focussed on the items that I had learned were most needed. With some strategic shopping we were able to collect 255 items in total!
If you'd like to join the wonderful volunteers at the West Hampstead community Food Hub you can find their contact info here. If you'd like to donate to the Food Hub you can do so directly on their website, or you can drop off in-date nonperishable items to our office at any point during business hours.