With need for food banks rising, could 'multibanks' come to the Black Country?

Imagine if you can, comparing Ann Widdecombe to Marie Antoinette. A tough call I know, but instead of thinking of the apocryphal ‘let them eat cake’ phrase, attributed to the French queen, substitute: “Don’t let them eat cheese sandwiches.”

Black Country Food Bank
Black Country Food Bank

One literally lost her head over the comments, while the other has arguably lost hers with such comments.

The former MP, MEP and now Reform Party member told the BBC that families should go without cheese sandwiches if they cannot afford the ingredients.

She added there was no “given right” for low food prices, despite being told families cannot afford to feed their children.

It is perhaps inevitable that people who have fallen on hard times seem to be attracting such open hostility rather than sympathy.

There is a trend that says it is your own fault, being a waster, too idle to get a job and preferring to spend money on phones and giant TVs.

But the stunning growth in food banks in the last 20 years surely tells a different story and the recent announcement of ‘multibanks’ brings the struggles of many families into stark focus.

Food banks play an important role, particularly with the escalating cost of living crisis, and they are not just easy touches for the feckless.

While the odd rogue claimant may get through to access a food bank they will usually need to be referred by an organisation such as Citizen’s Advice, a charity, a school or doctors. Some councils also refer people.

The question is, do the laudable aims and brilliant works of these charities allow the Government to get off the hook by providing the support in place of social security?

More and more they are stepping in to cover cuts in benefit payments with people unable to cope or feed the family, a last line of defence from poverty.

As a rich nation, is it a mark of shame that we have come to this situation?

The so-called third sector has never been more active, with food banks now numbering more than 3,000 across the country as of last summer, according to research for the House of Commons Library. With over 1,400, Trussell Trust food banks are by far the largest.

They have been joined by pantries, community kitchens, swap shops, and now also the emergence of fuel banks, clothing banks, bedding banks, toiletries banks and baby banks.

But now the multibanks are offering a more co-ordinated, larger scale approach.

Pioneered by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his online guidebook describes ‘multibank’ as a food bank, clothes bank, toiletries bank, bedding bank, baby bank, hygiene bank and furniture and electrical goods bank all rolled into one in a huge central distribution centre.

The one near his home in Fife has seen the Kirkcaldy Cottage Family Centre pioneer a partnership with Amazon, PepsiCo, Morrisons and local firms to redistribute nearly £8million worth of unused goods to around 40,000 families.

They are now springing up in other areas, notably Manchester, where with support from Amazon and Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, Wigan and Leigh charity The Brick, it will donate more than 400,000 surplus essential goods to more than 50,000 families in need in Greater Manchester this year.

Amazon helped set up the warehouse operations and provided staff free of charge, together with an initial cash grant of £100,000 to support the recruitment, salaries and training of the team.

The idea has attracted tacit approval from the Black Country Food Bank, based in Brierley Hill. It has a central warehouse in Albion Street, which serves 27 distribution centres across the Black Country.

Chief executive Jen Coleman was impressed with the idea. She said: "It’s a great idea I think, getting the bigger corporate firms involved. We do our best but we really don’t have enough space, even to get a van into the premises to load pallets.

"We deal in food and toiletries, so expanding the range of goods and services to distribute would be great for the community.

“One of our missions is to help get people out of poverty and with the right sponsorship, something like this could take off.”

It could be that the likes of the West Midlands mayor Andy Street and local councils together with the likes of Amazon, could get a multibank off the ground in the Black Country.

“We could well be open to cooperating with anyone that could make this kind of initiative,” Jen added.

Down the road in Dudley at the Provision House Foodbank in Dudley, there was a more cautious reaction.

Emma Crook, community support manager, said: “We would want to see this actually working before committing to any kind of support.

“It looks like a good idea in principle, but we would need to investigate more.

"We already have a large scale operation here, but would not rule anything out."

Provision House is based at the huge former Blunts Shoes building, on the corner of the High Street in Dudley.

It provides furniture, clothes, household items and training and work experience for the unemployed.

With little sign of the growth in food banks abating, it seems inevitable that multilink will arrive in the Black Country.

The question is, should it be necessary?

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