Jingle Bags: Christmas at East Lothian Foodbank
Since 2012, East Lothian Foodbank has provided emergency food provision in the county. They’ve fed 24,131 adults and 14,675 children. The food parcels they produce have provided a whopping 349,000 meals. Each food parcel contains nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food – cereal, pasta, tinned vegetables, biscuits and more – for a minimum of three days. As well as food, the charity supplies toiletries, nappies and free period products, and adapts the food parcels to the dietary needs of the family receiving it wherever possible.
In 2017, the Foodbank team decided this wasn’t enough. They wanted to do more to support people experiencing poverty and hunger at Christmas. “It’s an especially miserable time of year to not be able to put food on the table, let alone Christmas dinner,” says Lucy Daniels, Communications and Outreach Manager at East Lothian Foodbank. “We knew we wanted to do something to help people have that festive meal together and had the idea to do Christmas dinner in a bag – we call them Jingle Bags.”
Each Jingle Bag contains everything you need for Christmas dinner, and the charity has provided more than 1,500 of these bags since they launched the appeal in 2017. The Foodbank gave out more than 300 Jingle Bags to families in that first year. By the third year, 2019, this has expanded to around 500 jingle bags, including more than 200 via partner organisations. “We couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” says Lucy. “We’re a small team and our volunteers make up all our Jingle Bags as well as ensuring all our standard food parcels are ready for delivery, too. We learned a lot in our first year and we now have a well-established Jingle Bag corner with volunteers dedicated to making up the Jingle Bags.”
The food in the Jingle Bags is non-perishable; tinned rather than fresh. But that doesn’t mean it’s not festive. “We were lucky to have an ex-home economics teacher cook us a Jingle Bag and give us top tips for how to turn your tinned potatoes into roast potatoes, how to turn that tinned chicken into something really tasty,” says Lucy. “She cooked the whole team Christmas dinner in September one year, using a Jingle Bag. It was delicious! We include lots of tips on how to make the dinner a bit more imaginative, and it’s really made a difference. In that first year, I think we all cried when a dad rang up to say thank you and to tell us it was the first time he’d sat down for a Christmas meal with his family since he was a child.”
East Lothian Foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust foodbank network, and is supported by local communities, who donate food and provide financial support. But the charity is also working towards a future without food banks, through initiatives designed to prevent and relieve poverty. They operate from the position of compassion, care and dignity – and through the pandemic, their services have become more essential than ever. “November this year was the busiest month we’ve ever had – apart from March 2020,” says Lucy. “In East Lothian, there’s such a strong sense of community spirit and people willing to help each other. We were really hit in the first two or three weeks, and then the resilience hubs kicked in. We were able to send food out to support the hubs, which then allowed us to focus on our core agency partners and the referrals that were coming into us. We did see an increase in numbers – 500 or 600 more than we’d had the previous year – but not like some of the other food banks, who had a 200 percent increase in referrals. I have no doubt that if we hadn’t had that strong and very quick response from local communities and East Lothian Council, then we would have seen a bigger increase.”
East Lothian Foodbank’s core service is emergency food provision, but, when able, they work in partnership with other organisations across the county on projects and campaigns, aimed at addressing the underlying reasons for food insecurity, providing cooking and budgeting information, combating social isolation, and helping families maximise their income and link up with the right support agencies. “We were very vocal about the recent £20 a week cut to Universal Credit,” says Lucy. “That has been devastating for millions of families already struggling to make ends meet. Low income is still our number one reason for referrals, but we’re beginning to see more people being referred due to benefit changes and benefit delays.”
“Everyone deserves to be able to put food on their table and nobody should have to rely on charity to be able to feed their family. As much as people are more aware of food poverty because of the pandemic, I think there’s still sometimes a bit of surprise that so many people in our community need support. And we’re the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of other community projects going on that tackle poverty and hunger. We’ve always worked with local partners; you can’t work in isolation. Building up trusting partnerships and relationships so people know where to go for help are just fundamental to serving the community.”
Lucy says initiatives by the Scottish Government and East Lothian Council are slowly moving things forward in terms of putting an end to poverty and the need for the Foodbank. “But we want them to use their full powers to fight poverty and to make sure everyone has enough money to live on,” she says. “In some countries, food banks have become an accepted part of the social welfare system and we don’t want that to happen here. If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that any one of us can suddenly be hit by the unexpected, with devastating consequences. It’s going to be a tough winter for people, not just in East Lothian, but across the country. We want to use our Jingle Bags to just try and ease some of the burden associated with this time of the year and make things a wee bit brighter.”
Lucy says the best way to support your local food bank is to ask them what they need and then share it with your friends, family and networks: “If you can give a donation, that’s amazing. If you can’t, then share what your local food bank needs, and maybe somebody you know will be able to donate.” As much as the Foodbank team wishes they weren’t needed, she says that every day they see so much kindness and community spirit – including from those they’ve helped in the past. “The best thing is if we only receive a referral for someone once and then they don’t need our support again ” says Lucy. “At a recent supermarket collection, a lady brought a trolley full of food and said ‘this is for you, you helped me out a few years ago and I’m in a better place now’. It was so wonderful that she was in a better place, we’d helped her and now she wanted to help someone else. It touches you, you know?”
Photo provided by East Lothian Foodbank.