On Saturday, before the Fleetwood match, the whole of Sunderland came together to help support those in need. The Red and White Army in partnership with Sunderland’s food banks received donations of food and money for the charity from their match day base in the Fanzone. Sunderland’s players were the first to contribute with a donation of their own and many fans turned up in their numbers and gave what they could to the cause, which raised over £1800 and over a tonne of food!
We spoke to Kate Townsend, Sunderland Foodbank coordinator to get her perspective and reaction to all of Saturday’s good work.
ALS: Tell us a bit about yourself and how the food bank works?
Kate: I’m currently the Sunderland food bank coordinator, I work with all the food banks in the city and try and bring them together into a network. For the past five years, there’s been a lot of independent projects, but not much cohesion and not a lot of communication. A lot of what I’m trying to do is bring them together to talk to each other and network together. There was a lady named Margaret who was based at Sunderland Minster, for the past four years she has been the central point of contact and she was never paid for it or had been recognised. She was doing an amazing job, but she got to the point where she needed to step back. The timing worked perfectly because that was when I came in and we’ve centralised the referral system, were now working with 60 referral agencies who refer clients into the food banks.
ALS: How do you reach out to people who don’t know about the food banks and help them?
Kate: People tend to be referred in by referral agencies, they sign up with us and we send them vouchers. It tends to be people working on the front line, so GPs, health visitors, Social Workers, Council Crisis support team and Gentoo. Big referral agencies who may meet someone who is in need of food and they’ll refer them to a food bank. That person will turn up with the voucher at the food bank and someone will talk with them, give them a cup of tea and give them a parcel. They’ll try and sign post them to other agencies who might be able to help as we don’t want to see people stuck in their situation. We see the food as emergency food to get you out of a crisis, but it’s not sustainable. Someone may be in debt and whilst they’re struggling, they’re not able feed themselves. If we can refer them to an agency who can help them with debt issues and money management then that’s solving the actual issue rather than just placing a plaster over the wound. We want them to engage with help and not just the food.
ALS: You must come across all kinds of different folk with different needs using the food banks?
Kate: It’s everyone nowadays, there are asylum seekers and refugees. You see a lot of families coming in, because over the summer you don’t get the free school meals. Thankfully, the council this year funded a lots of summer holiday projects which supplied free food. The main three reasons we see people coming in are: benefit changes, benefit delays and low income. We’re seeing more and more people with jobs, however, the money they’re getting isn’t enough to make ends meet. Even though the government would see them as employed it’s simply not enough money to support them.
ALS: How did the connection with the football side of things come about?
Kate: We got in touch with Dave Rose from FSF and Red and White Army. Me and my college Stuart, met with Dave last December. We really wanted to start collections in February, we even had a date in the diary, but Sunderland’s performances went from bad to worse, so we decided it wasn’t the best time to start doing collections because the fans needed a voice against Ellis Short and they needed to be unifying against the plight of the club. So rather than setting up a foodbank, the Red and White Army had different priorities. Given how last Saturday went it was really good that we had waited. There seems to be a lot more positivity around the club now than there was six months ago.
Saturday was just overwhelming, it was incredible to see how generous people were. They were bringing bin bags full. For instance the Coxhoe Branch brought two big bags that they collected on their bus. Someone came with three sacks of beans. BBC commentator Nick Barnes was our first donor. We collected around a ton of food between that day and the Beacon of Light collection during the week. We had received just over £800 on the day and we’ve also had £200 from the players themselves. Also, receiving a surprise donation of £700 from someone who wanted to donate for the equipment costs, but it went through twice and instead of asking for it back he said just keep it. That completely funded all the equipment, it was incredible! In total that was £1800 which for us, as we run on fundraising was huge! The generosity of people means we can keep going and helping people.
ALS: Where does most of your funding to pay wages and rent come from?
Kate: We are funded by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and we’ve had funding from the Community Foundation. Those two big grants got us started. We’ve had enough to do my contract for a year however, the funding comes to an end in December. We are looking for new pots of funding and we’re try to get that started now. Hopefully we will be okay.
ALS: Are the food bank collections likely to be repeated at future Sunderland home games? Can we not do it every home game?
Kate: We would really like to return, every home game is the dream, and given how well Saturday went, it’s looking like a possibility. We’re doing it again at the end of October, we just need to set up a fixture with the club and the Red and White Army. We’ll see how that goes and maybe start monthly, but we really want to do every home game. We want to raise awareness, but it’s still gaining traction, we had loads of people asking on Saturday if we were doing it again? Is it going to be a regular thing? To do it every home game we need volunteers who are going to come and help. It depends on the Fanzone, as it’s only open on Saturday games I believe. Underlining how much we appreciate it, it never gets old seeing the generosity of people. We do a lot of collections and we’ve got a lot of food. Seeing people going out of their way to give food and money, it bowls me over every time, I never ever want to get used to it. We appreciate the support of Sunderland fans so much!