Debbie Gee knows how to recognize someone who is hungry.
“It’s in their eyes, the way they look and stare at the food,” she said.
The food bank curator is well trained in subtly taking someone aside and offering them a hot meal.
“They then tell you that this was the first time they had eaten since the day before.”
FoodShare Maidenhead has been supporting families for 12 years but faces the dual threat of eviction from the premises and a drop in donations, though volunteers remain undaunted in the run-up to Christmas.
In addition to the food bank – known as the FoodHub – the team runs a small area where meals are offered to the homeless, and the FoodShare Shop, a social enterprise where people can purchase items at a heavily discounted price.
Millions of hungry families will turn to food banks this Christmas amid one of the worst recessions in modern history.
“We’re all just two paychecks away from a food bank,” Debbie said.
Is corned beef a luxury?
As Debbie gathers volunteers for their Wednesday evening session, a man comes through the door with £670 in donations, including a small pile of chips.
“I was with my family on Saturday and we decided we were fine but others were not. So I called earlier today, asked what they needed and went to Bookers,” he said – he declined to be named or pictured.
While these random acts of generosity are not uncommon, even during the economic crisis, Debbie said donations are still low.
Everyone who comes on December 23 should leave with enough food for a festive feast – from mince pie and pudding to a piece of meat, potatoes and fresh vegetables.
But half of the shelves that are supposed to hold items for Christmas hampers are empty.
“I know when I look at this I don’t have enough for the people who need it this Christmas,” Debbie said.
The team starts planning backup options if not enough festive food is donated: Is corned beef considered a luxury, a volunteer asks. Canned salmon be given instead?
Food that doesn’t cook much
Volunteer Ali Griffin spent the entire week preparing 62 Christmas dinners in the microwave after the team started noticing that people were picking up less food that needed cooking.
“For a week we had free chickens for everyone, and I said to a woman, did you get a chicken? She told me she couldn’t afford the energy to cook it,” she said.
After successfully cooking 30 meals last year, Ali scaled up the effort, despite the impact on her own energy bill.
“My oven has been on all day – but it’s okay, I can afford it.”
Volunteers have also put together packages of foods that require less cooking – such as salad dressing, canned potatoes and sweet corn – to provide food inspiration for those struggling.
Debbie said they would notice families picking up multiple boxes of cereal: “We want to give them healthier options.”
Similarly, the team found that a lot of world food was left behind.
“A lot of times people don’t bring certain foods because they don’t know how to cook them,” Debbie said, holding out packages labeled “Thai,” “Indian,” and “Mexican.”
“So we put together the items for them.”
A ‘many new faces’
As volunteers do their best to get to know everyone who visits the food hub, Debbie said they’ve seen “a lot of new faces” amid the cost-of-living crisis.
“The single people suffer the most,” she said.
“There’s no one to split the bills with, and for people in their 30s, they don’t qualify for much support. They pay it all themselves.”
In addition to the FoodHub, which distributes emergency kits to those in need, the team manages the FoodShare store, which opened in June this year.
The store charges a membership fee of £5 for a single person and £10 for a family, with people choosing between 13 and 19 more premium items (the top end if they’re a family) from the shelves.
“This is the future of food banks,” said curator Lester Tanner.
“It’s much more dignified.
“This reaches people who would never use a food bank.”
And for the first time, many of those who show up have full-time jobs. Among those Lester has seen are an paramedic and school support staff.
The threat of eviction
The independent food bank is based at Nicholson Center in Maidenhead, which is about to be demolished – and soon they will be given just 21 days notice to find a new, and hopefully permanent, home.
Currently housed in an old Tesco unit, the majority of the food remains stacked in crates until the very last second before being placed on the shelves for people to pick.
Debbie said they won’t work out well as the charity could be forced to move in the blink of an eye.
But until the hammer falls, the volunteers keep on working – and for Debbie, this even extends to Christmas Day.
“I’m officially not allowed to open,” she said.
“But I can’t just eat my Christmas dinner at home knowing people are hungry.”
Last year she came by to open the doors and give the waiting hot chocolate and snacks.
“It’s just a very small thing – a Christmas stocking chocolate – but it’s enough to make them feel loved and respected and that’s what we want for them.”