A TOWN project helping people with financial difficulties saw a sharp increase in visitors last year.
At a time when many firms are reducing staffing levels, Bicester-area volunteers have been offering practical support and a friendly ear to people from all walks of life, some of whom have never experienced any kind of financial hardship.
Big-hearted volunteers at Bicester Food Bank distribute supplies of food and other essentials to help families and individuals though tough times, and are supported by generous donations from church congregations in Bicester and nearby villages.
Project founder and manager Janet Ray said: “We’ve found we’ve got different sorts of people are coming forward now, people who have been made redundant and found out the benefits system doesn’t work.
“Some people really don’t want to come. They’ve always had a good income and paid their way, but suddenly they lose their job.
“There have been some quite emotional times with people, but I just say: ‘That’s why we’re here’.
“We’ve seen about a 30 per cent rise. But we’re really lucky in the way the churches support us every week.
“When we started the year we had four tonnes of food. By Harvest Festival we were down to about two tonnes, and I was worried we might not last the year.
“But thanks to the generosity of people from churches in the Bicester area, we were able to collect another tonne. I think people who can afford it have been giving that little bit extra.
“Before this year we were mainly helping people who were having delays in their benefits. Some people who come in say: ‘We have to buy our food first’. I say to them: ‘Pay your rent, pay your mortgage, and get your food from us’.
“We gave out 55 children’s parcels at Christmas, although the snow slowed things down. They all get some chocolate, a book and some toys. I met one man in town who told me his boys were so glad to get the toys.”
It has now been around four years since the food bank, based in the Methodist Church Hall in Sheep Street, was established as an emergency resource for people in Bicester and surrounding villages.
Local voluntary organisations have rallied to the cause, including Bicester Town Council, Bicester Round Table, Bicester Rotary Club and Bicester Lions. Town businesses have also supported the project generously.
Mrs Ray was inspired to set up a local food bank in 2006 after seeing how much good they could do while on visits to New Zealand.
She said: “We’ve now got 12 volunteers representing a total of four different churches. Cherwell District Council also works quite closely with us, and they send someone who will try to help people with things like housing benefits or anything else they might be entitled to.”
Steve Barber, who became the new minister at Bicester’s Orchard Baptist Fellowship in August this year, said the food bank was a fantastic resource for the town.
He added: “The volunteers all put in a lot of hard work and are very committed to it. It’s a practical way of expressing God’s love for the community.”
Mrs Ray said: “Most of us are grandmothers anyway, and we’ll always accept you. We’re not an organisation, just people who are trying to be friendly to everyone. I love doing it because I love meeting people.”
She added: “When people say to me: ‘But Bicester doesn’t need it, it’s an affluent town’, I say: ‘No, it’s only an affluent town as long as you’ve got a job’.
“Now, even more so than in the past, no job is totally secure. Most jobs you look at now won’t be jobs for life.”
A local mother-of-four described how much of a lifeline Bicester Food Bank has been since her family ran into financial difficulties.
“It’s just been lovely. They had Christmas presents for each of the children, and it’s so useful if you need that bit extra to tide you over.
“You can’t keep going to friends and family for loans because it just becomes a vicious circle. This year the charity shops have been heaving with customers, and their prices have gone up. Even fuel for my husband to get to work and back costs about £50 a week.
“This year it’s just been a godsend, and the children loved their bits at Christmas. I’d do anything to help the food bank volunteers, they do a cracking job,” she said.
For more information, contact Janet Ray at Bicester Food Bank on 01869 357181 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.