‘It’s very hard to say ‘I need food’’

Volunteers Deborah Rodden, Christine Murphy, Sandra Taylor, Emer Curran and Damien Fagan at the food bank in Boyle. Photograph: Brian Farrell

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It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late October, in Boyle, Co Roscommon, and I’m being shown a frozen birthday cake. It’s a pretty cake with pink icing. “We have been keeping this for when we get a family who has a birthday coming up,” explains Louise Moran, handling the box carefully, and gently putting it back into the freezer again.

Moran is the manager of Boyle’s Family Resource Centre, which has been serving the local community for 30 years. The town recorded a population of 2,588 in Census 2016. The centre, which is in a lovely period building, is on the edge of the town. There are a number of services on offer, ranging from parenting and bereavement support to basic first aid, English classes and computer skills. There’s a drop-in library, which is housed in a beautiful room, with comfortable sofas and armchairs, William Morris-patterned curtains, and salt crystal lamps that glow warmly in the dim October light.

But it’s not first aid or English classes or computer skills that members of the public have been coming to the centre for on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons during the last couple of months. From as far away as Castlereaand Carrick on Shannon, people have been quietly presenting at the back door with shopping bags to avail of the ad-hoc food bank that has been operating since late August.

The centre had already applied for, and received funding from FEAD, a European initiative to distribute basic foodstuffs to those in need in their community. FEAD is the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. Since successfully applying for FEAD, the centre has had two deliveries of non-perishable food. I’m looking at what remains of it: the second delivery was meant to last until Christmas. It’s October and there is very little left of that delivery, except breakfast cereal.

“There was pasta, tinned tuna, teabags, pot noodles, beans. They’re all gone now,” Moran says. What is left are several boxes of Weetabix, Rice Krispies, Cornflakes, bags of porridge, a small box of bags of rice, a few jars of coffee, a few tins of vegetable soup, corn, peas and four packets of Cup-a-Soup.

Sell-by dates

The storeroom is at the back of the centre, and along with remaining FEAD supplies, which are piled up in boxes on the floor, there is a fridge and freezer in the room. Both of these were donated by two local businesses: Moran is reluctant to name them, but they deserve to be named. Without them, it wouldn’t be possible to have a crucial second element to the food bank, perishable food just at its sell-by date.

Tony Scanlon is a retired social worker who lives outside Boyle, who created a Facebook page earlier this year called Poverty and Homelessness. He posted on it that he had become aware anecdotally that there were people going hungry in various midlands counties on a weekly basis. He wanted to gauge what levels of need there might be, and how he might be able to help in some way.

“I just happened to see that Facebook page,” Moran says. At that point, the centre had already applied to avail of the FEAD programme. She got in touch with him, and a public meeting was held some time later, with various members from the community attending, including the St Vincent de Paul.

We have cut down hugely, but there are weeks when there is just not enough in the house, and we live on bread and soup for a few days

At that point, Scanlon had approached FoodCloud, the inspired initiative that sees various supermarkets making freely available to communities foodstuffs that have just reached their sell-by date. There are a number of FoodCloud hubs around the country, but so far, these tend to be mainly in urban areas. Scanlon approached Tesco in Sligo, and Aldi in Roscommon, and they agreed to contact him on a weekly basis, should there be food at a sell-by date about to be taken off the shelves. Lidl is now in the process of joining up.

After the public meeting, it was agreed that the best use of shared resources was to distribute whatever perishable food would come from supermarkets, along with the FEAD supplies, through the Boyle Family Resource Centre. Ads were put in local papers, in church newsletters, on local community websites, and on the centre’s noticeboard; that food would be distributed there, beginning on a certain date.

“We had no idea what the demand would be like,” Deborah Rodden, the centre’s administrator says. The first afternoon they opened, at the end of the summer, more than 100 people turned up. Now they split the food distribution over two afternoons a week, and Moran knows that people are coming from within a 20-mile radius.

Working together

On the afternoon I visit, Scanlon has been on a run to Tesco in Sligo the evening before. If there is food to collect, he receives a text message. He drives there and back on his own time, and pays for his own petrol. He was in this store room last night, putting what he collected in Tesco into the donated fridge and freezer. Whatever can be frozen goes straight into the freezer.

Volunteer Christine Murphy brings newly donated food to the centre in Boyle. Photograph: Brian Farrell
Volunteer Christine Murphy brings newly donated food to the centre in Boyle. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Each time Scanlon goes to Sligo or Roscommon to collect the perishable food, what he brings back is different. It depends on whatever products are at their sell-by date at that time. A few weeks previously, he came back with several bags of celery and turnips. Even after distributing some the following day, they still had a large surplus of vegetables.