Churches band together to open food bank in south Belfast

Food bank volunteers in the store room at Mornington Community centre
Food bank volunteers in the store room at Mornington Community centre

Tonight at the Mornington Community centre along the Ormeau Road a group of staff and volunteers gathered to open up south Belfast’s first food bank [first Trussell Trust food bank in south Belfast]. The atmosphere was calm. Bruce Gardiner-Crehan, who helped develop the food bank and now acts as one of its lead coordinators, watched the door, waiting for the first person to arrive. “I’m actually a bit nervous. We’ve been working towards this for a year.”

Those that use the food bank must be referred by charity agencies, GPs, or other support and health services.They receive a voucher which they then bring to the centre. The volunteers and professionals involved in this project recognise that it will take time to embed into the local community, gain trust, and build up connections with referral partners. No one expected a quick start, and a half hour after opening the doors, they were still waiting for their first visitor.

The food bank has thought hard about how to combat negative perceptions associated with food charity. “We need to get past the stigma of using food banks,” Bruce told me. Because of this stigma, many people who need the service may decide not to come forward and receive help. Anticipating problems of negative and shameful attitudes about food banks, the organisers have created a café-style format in the centre, with soft lighting and nice tables and chairs. “Those in need of the food bank may be stressed, embarrassed, and of course hungry,” Bruce said, which is why, upon entering, they will be greeted warmly and offered tea, coffee, and a bite to eat. As a café, it feels like a place you would want to go, no matter what’s happening in your life.

The South Belfast Foodbank, a partnership of several local churches and organisations, operates as part of the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that works across the UK fighting poverty and marginalisation. Bruce is employed by City Church on University Ave, just up the road from the Mornington Community centre. He works closely with members from more than a dozen other churches in the area.

Bruce Gardiner-Crehan, centre, with fellow South Belfast Food Bank workers
Bruce Gardiner-Crehan, centre, with fellow South Belfast Food Bank workers

The Trussell Trust reports that nearly a million people received an emergency three-day food parcel from the organisation in 2013-14. According to the  website, “83 percent of Trussell Trust foodbanks surveyed recently reported that benefits sanctions, which have become increasingly harsh, have caused more people to be referred to them for emergency food. Half of referrals to foodbanks in 2013-14 were a result of benefit delays or changes.”

The food bank is an emergency service not intended for repeat use. “We will try and signpost people to other organisations so that they can get the help they need to get out of whatever situation they are in which has led them to us in the first place,” Bruce said. “We don’t want to create dependency.” In addition to needing a professional referral, visitors can only use the service three times over a six month period.

The food bank led a food drive in July at local Tesco stores around Belfast which brought in four and a half tons of dry and tinned goods. This food is now stored at Mornington Community centre, which can only house the high volume of food until the end of the year. And there is more food coming in. If you are able to help identify a space in which five tons or more of food can be stored—no refrigeration needed, it’s tins, boxes of cereal, and other non-perishables—please contact Bruce.

Bruce Gardiner-Crehan:

I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.