The St Neots Foodbank will be celebrating five years of supporting people in the town with the launch of an appeal to cope with rising demand for emergency food parcels.

During 2017, the foodbank, which is part of the Trussell Trust, supported 857 adults and 448 children.

The St Neots Foodbank was set up in April, 2013 when a team of ministers from St Neots's churches met to discuss the increasing number of requests for food.

The main reasons for people being referred to a foodbank are changes to benefits; delays in receiving benefit and low income.

Food parcels are for people in crisis and are not an ongoing or long-term means of providing food.

Volunteers at St Neots estimate they are likely to hand out more than 1500 three-day food parcels this year and fear that number could rise further with changes to the benefit system due later this month.

“The number of clients we have helped has steadily increased and we are expecting additional demand when Universal Credit is rolled out in the Huntingdonshire area,” said chairman of the trustees, Dr Roger Peppiatt.

“During the forthcoming year, we are hoping to use this milestone to attract the resources to finance more services. We would like to extend our fresh fruit and vegetables scheme and improve the technology at our distribution centres,” he added.

The foodbank has a warehouse in Eaton Socon where the food is weighed and sorted into food parcels for individuals and families and there are four client distribution centres across the town.

The cost of running the St Neots' operation is £8,500 per annum and this has risen considerably during the last 12 months, mostly due to an increase in the rent for the warehouse. The demand for food parcels, especially summer hampers for families who usually rely on free school meals, has meant using funds rather than using the food supply in the warehouse.

Volunteer Pat Law, from Little Paxton, has been with the foodbank since it opened in 2013, and she said: “It is definitely a job that needs doing and I am just glad that I can do it and give something back.”

The distribution centres are located at churches and community rooms in the town and the volunteers offer a warm welcome to people coming in to pick up their food.

They make sure there are refreshments available. Clients can also find access and support for other services, which may help them to sort out benefit queries and housing issues.

Dr Peppiatt said: “Part of our role is signposting people to other agencies, but also we are there to listen to their story and support them. Some people just collect the food and leave, but others stay and chat.”

Some of the volunteers have been trained to use a website that supports people who are struggling with the benefits system.

They can check to make sure clients are receiving all the benefits they are entitled to. The Moneylife facility is run on an appointment system and information is available at the distribution centres.

Fruit and vegetable vouchers have also been introduced to clients with children. The £5 voucher can be redeemed at Hamilton's in the Cross Keys Mews. The foodbank is unable to store fresh fruit and vegetables so the scheme enables them to provide fresh produce to clients.

Dr Peppiatt and the team are encouraging people to continue to donate food, but regular donations and fundraising can make a huge difference and will allow the foodbank to expand in the months and years ahead.

Dr Peppiatt says improving communication is vital to cope with the increased workload.

They are hoping they can supply the distribution centres with tablets and mobile phones to allow them to improve the information service and also accept e-referrals from voucher holders rather than pieces of paper.

They also want to encourage the general public to be more involved by signing up for newsletters and linking up via social media.

“Taking out a regular standing order or making a one-off donation would really make a difference as it means we can help more people,” explained Dr Peppiatt.

“We can then expand the green grocery scheme and provide more seasonal hampers as well as support people with information about finances and benefits.”

Everyone who receives help from a foodbank will have been referred by a community professional, usually a doctor, teacher, housing officer, Citizens Advice or a social worker.

There are 70 professionals in the St Neots area who are able to issue vouchers, which state how many people need to be fed for a maximum of three days.

The operation to collect and distribute the food is run with military precision.

Food donations come from the supermarkets and are delivered to the warehouse in Eaton Socon where they are weighed and then date-stamped. Food has to be tinned, long-life or in secure packaging such as cereals and pasta.

Volunteers use a 'picking list' to ensure there are adequate provisions for dinners and lunches and a meal planner is included. Other items such as toiletries, baby food and even pet food is offered to help people through a difficult time in their lives.

The foodbank receives support from Tesco, Waitrose and the Co-op and all provide collection bins for food in store as well as extra food supplies during the year.

Once the food has been sorted into food parcels, they are taken to one of the four distribution centres and the number depends on demand.

These are located at St Mary's Church, in Eaton Socon, the United Reform Church, St Neots, Open Door Church, 31A St Neots Road, Eaton Ford, and Berkley Street Methodist Church, Eynesbury.

In 2013, 16 Christmas hampers were also delivered to families in need. The number has steadily increased and last year 209 were handed out. This year, 99 families received food to help them cope with the lack of free school meals during the school holidays.

FACT FILE

* The St Neots Foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust, but run by local volunteers.

* The Trussell Trust was set up in 2004 and has 420 foodbanks across the country.

* There are more than 700 independent foodbanks in the UK.

* Last year, more than 1.3 million food parcels were distributed by foodbanks.

* A third of all the food handed out in St Neots is for children.

* Clients can obtain up to three food vouchers during a crisis period.

The foodbank does not accept out-of-date food.

To check what items are needed urgently at the foodbank, go to the website at: www.stneotsfoobank.org.uk.

INFO: www.stneots.foodbank.org.uk or email: info@stneots.foodbank.org.uk or call: 01480 475426 for information about making a donation.