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Canterbury Food Bank supports residents through Christmas period

From the satsumas in our stockings to the turkeys on our tables, we take much of Christmas for granted.

Reporter Lydia Chantler-Hicks visited one of the many food banks in Kent to meet some of the people who are relying on donated food to see them through the festive season...

Volunteers hand out extra items from the "bonus table"
Volunteers hand out extra items from the "bonus table"

It’s lunchtime on a rainy Friday, and St Dunstan’s church hall is buzzing with activity.

On my drive over, radio presenters argued about their favourite Christmas dinner items, while supermarket signs advertised deals on frozen party food, and shoppers dashed about with bulging bags of gifts and groceries.

But the room before me is a sobering reminder that not everybody is so fortunate at this time of year.

Volunteers are arranging jars, packets and tins on a long table, while all around the room people - some with partners or young families - sit around enjoying cups of tea.

About 60 people have visited the church hall today, where Canterbury Food Bank is holding one of four distribution cafés it runs weekly across the city, Herne Bay and Whitstable.

Children's food parcels at Canterbury Food Bank
Children's food parcels at Canterbury Food Bank

Here, they pick up bags of essential food items, like tinned vegetables, pasta and juice, containing enough for about nine nutritionally balanced meals.

They can also speak to staff from other services, like the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Non-essential items - boxes of chocolates and jars of olives - go on the “bonus table”, on which there now lies a stack of children’s advent calendars.

Nappies, loo rolls and sanitary items are piled in baskets nearby, along with pet food and vegetarian foodstuffs.

In the last year alone, CFB has supplied in excess of 33,000 meals to more than 1,500 people from across the district.

We spoke to some of them to find out more...

Service users can pick up food parcels and access other services at distribution cafés
Service users can pick up food parcels and access other services at distribution cafés

The chef who went bust

As the chef-owner of a hugely popular local restaurant, Paul* spent his days cooking dishes from around the world with the finest, freshest ingredients at his fingertips.

For more than 12 years his business was a roaring success, and he lived with his wife in a three-bed flat he owned.

But his fortune has since taken a turn.

A combination of economic decline and illness has left the former restaurateur relying on the food bank for sustenance, in the form of long-life goods.

“Mine was one of the most liked restaurants in the area, and made good money,” explains the 64-year-old, who is wrapped up in a hat and scarf as he nibbles a biscuit.

“But it went bust in 2008, after the recession hit.”

Paul has now separated from his wife and is suffering from a serious brain condition for which he is awaiting an operation. In the meantime, he is unable to work.

"I've tasted most of the foods of the world, and can cook most of them"

“It affects my balance, continence and short-term memory,” he explains.

“Benefits just cut me off as soon as I wasn’t job-seeking.

“I’ve got to cancel a hospital appointment in London because I don’t even have the money to get there.

“I was really clutching around. Then my neighbours said ‘you’ve got to go to the food bank’.

“They brought me over the first time. Because it’s a bit of a social stigma, isn’t it?”

Paul still loves to cook, but finds it a struggle with limited ingredients and while living in a bedsit in a shared home in Canterbury.

“I’ve lived in Egypt, Libya, France, Germany, Italy - I’ve tasted most of the foods of the world, and can cook most of them,” he says. “I keep trying to get back to cooking. I’ve got kitchen equipment at home from the restaurant, but some of it’s broken now.

“I don’t feel there’s a stigma at all now when I come to the food bank, now I know the sort of people that are going here. I feel grateful.

“Anyway, it’s a necessity."

Volunteers hand out additional items to food bank users
Volunteers hand out additional items to food bank users

The ex-soldier with PTSD

Adam* left the armed forces suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in Iraq.

But the Scottish veteran struggled adjusting to life outside the Army, and soon found himself homeless.

“In the army you have everything there about you - your meals, your healthcare,” says the 46-year-old, who speaks with a broad Glaswegian accent.

“People say it’s a job, but it’s a lifestyle.

"I found it easier living on the street in many ways"

“Then you come out. In civvy street, it’s different.

“I couldn’t settle in my home town. I got a job on the roofs, but it was always snowing, hailstones, raining.

“About a year ago, I moved down here. I thought ‘Kent’s a garden - there’s good weather’.”

But after encountering issues with his housemate in Ramsgate, Adam was forced to make himself homeless and moved to Canterbury, where he had once been stationed at the Howe Barracks.

“I was sleeping in the back of Morrison’s in a tent,” he says. “Then I went to rehab for three months, to deal with my demons.

“When I came out, I was down.”

Homeless charity Porchlight gave Adam a token for Canterbury Food Bank.“When I first used the food bank, it felt degrading,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to do your first time.

“Being an ex-soldier, I thought ‘am I really doing this?’ I felt kind of ashamed.

Donations arriving at the distribution café run by Canterbury Food Bank
Donations arriving at the distribution café run by Canterbury Food Bank

“Then I realised there’s people worse off than me - there’s people who haven’t even got the motivation to come out and ask for food, or who don’t even have the facilities to cook it.”

Adam, who now lives in shared accommodation, has been receiving Universal Credit since last November, but says he relies on CFB because his payments often leave him without enough to cover the basics.

“It’s the cost of living,” he says. “It’s difficult. I found it easier living on the street in many ways.

“But there’s people much worse off than me. I don’t feel as bad now as I did the first time I came here.

“I feel relieved and appreciative, not only for myself but for others.”

Grace Bellis at Canterbury Food Bank
Grace Bellis at Canterbury Food Bank

The single mum with five children at home

Grace Bellis, 47, is visiting the food bank with her young son and daughter, and two baby grandchildren.

“We first came a few years ago when I split up with my ex-husband and things were really, really hard,” explains the single mum, who has five children living at home.

“I was on my own,” she says, bouncing a baby on her knee while the other little ones play nearby. “So the food bank to us was a massive help.

“If I didn’t have the food bank we would really, really struggle.

"We don't have the luxuries at Christmas"

“Luckily the children get free school meals, but I still like to cook an evening meal. The food bank gives me the extra bits I need.

“Anything we don’t use we donate back.”

Thanks to donations, Grace won’t have to worry about how to feed her family over the festive period.

“We don’t have the luxuries at Christmas,” she explains. “I don’t really have much family - my nan died three years ago. She was like our Christmas spirit.

“And now I’m all on my own, so trying to survive with the children and the food and everything else, I think ‘oh my god’. I still feel it’s a little bit embarrassing to come, because we were brought up to look after our own.

“But I’m really grateful for the food bank, and the generosity of people.”

For more information about Canterbury Food Bank and its services, and to find out how you can donate or volunteer, visit the charity's website.

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