Feeding a need in our community: Exeter Foodbank

In 2019, Foodbanks are sadly rife in the UK and Exeter is no exception. I spoke to manager Mark Richardson about how Exeter Foodbank has changed in the two years that he has been at the helm and his fears for its future usage.

It’s a sunny afternoon in half term, and I’m sitting in Mark Richardson’s conservatory trying my hardest not to be distracted by the fluffy house bunnies running around my feet. Mark is warm and welcoming as you would expect from a man whose previous post was Church Minister. He and his wife Claire, moved from Winsor to Devon; “We came down thinking I would be working for the churches, but they hadn’t sorted their funding, and I was without a job when one of my friends said; ‘why don’t you apply for the Foodbank job, its the most loved charity in devon.. and so I did.” Mark has a track record of running community projects, and his eyes light up when speaking about it. In Windsor, he worked with the homeless at Windsor street angels and Windsor Food Share, he also set up a community cafe and an arts and music project.

I met Mark when I volunteered at the Foodbank over Christmas, and he runs a tight ship of dedicated volunteers with a kind hand. In the two years, Mark has been managing Exeter Foodbank it has grown from being a small charity to a medium sized charity.

When I started we were giving food to 93 clients a week (on average), last week there were 157 people, which is a fairly normal week now, so it’s grown massively in two years, more volunteers, more opening hours, a lot more fetching and carrying… If we were a business, you would say we were doing well – but we don’t want to be doing well do we?” he said sadly.

Most Foodbank donations come via the supermarkets from people in Exeter. Certain times of the year they receive donations from schools and the university (Christmas and harvest festival).

Like a lot of local charities, Exeter Foodbank have harnessed the power of social media. “We put out requests for things we need, and people bring them in. A couple of years ago we ran out of coffee completely. We had a phone call from Morrisons, someone had been in and bought us 45 bags of coffee and left it at customer services because they had seen on our social media that we needed coffee.”

He went on to say;

We get a lot of support from the people of Exeter, they are extraordinary, when we need stuff, we ask, and it just comes in.

Feeding a need in our community: Exeter Foodbank

I asked Mark about his favourite stories he said:

There was a little girl whose parents were struggling. It was at the time when Lego cards were the big thing. She didn’t have any, but everyone else at school did. So I put out a little shout on social media people set us 1000s of Lego cards that I was able to put in the post to her… It was a real sign that people care about what we do, and they care about families that are struggling.

Exeter foodbank is not a walk in service; all the clients that use it get referred through one of the 150 agencies in the city. For example; Exeter Council, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, GPs or housing associations. The client is given a voucher. The referer writes how many people are in the family and why they are using the food back (these statistics are for the Trussell Trust to share with the government).

Feeding a need in our community: Exeter Foodbank

According to the statistics they have collated, the main reasons people are using the Foodbank tend to be changes and delays in benefits, Mark explains;

We have seen a definite increase since September/October, in September Universal Credit was fully rolled out in Exeter. However, last year there was a tipping point of people using the Foodbank who are working, but on low wages, this group includes Teaching Assistants, NHS workers, “people who shouldn’t need to use the service, people who are in well-respected jobs, with high rent and high childcare costs.

Mark explains that this group is growing;

Each year the cost of living goes up, but wages have stagnated for a decade. My big fear is that if that group continues to increase, rather than giving food to 150 clients, I have a genuine concern that by this time next year we could be giving food to 225-250 people per week.

Unlike most organisations, the overarching aims of Exeter Foodbank isn’t to grow, it is to close… “We are the opposite of Del and Rodney, our aim is always that this time next year we’ll be shut – there won’t be a demand for us until then we manage the crisis as well as we can. We are opening for more hours, and we offer digital support for people on universal credit.”

Feeding a need in our community: Exeter Foodbank

Finally, I ask Mark what he would say to people that need help in Exeter, his response is simple;

Please come to us before you are desperate, go to the council, the CAB, talk to people and ask for help.

Exeter Foodbank Statistics

  • In 2018 emergency food was distributed to 5530 clients including 1610 children
  • In total, 74,870kg of food was distributed
  • The Foodbank have 150+ volunteers and over 140 referral agencies
  • One hundred eighty-seven more people used Exeter Foodbank in January 2019 than in January 2018.

How you can help

Look at the priority list on the website and donate at your local supermarket or drop it in. At the time of the interview earlier this year Exeter Foodbank weren’t short of volunteers, but with plans to extend current sessions, there is always room for more. Everyone wants to meet the clients and distribute the food. We need restock volunteers; it’s heavy work transporting the food from Kenford to the warehouse.

Our volunteers are awesome. They are the nicest people you will ever meet.


This article was originally published in Exeter Life.


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