by Jim Paterson Treasurer of Food Facts Friends.

Charity organisation, Food Facts Friends moved to 42 John Street, Penicuik the old RBS bank branch, in September. It was not a moment too soon. Barely had the team got the place refurbished, painted, new fittings installed, and the shelves stocked with food, than the pandemic we have grown to hate, Covid-19, returned with a vengeance.

The return of lockdown, in its various forms across Scotland and the Lothians brought back memories of the misery experienced back in March. Visitor numbers to the foodbank started to increase, as those who had only recently managed to return to work found themselves back, or even farther back than they were in March.

Mark Wells and his team of volunteers, some from St. Mungo’s and the churches across Midlothian, or indeed no church, piled in to help.

It was obvious, even in September, that Christmas would be tough for many, particularly families, with stretched finances. The decision ‘heat or eat’ is high on the list and winter pushes up the energy bills, competing with rent and rates bills.

Christmas planning started early with supermarkets signing up to help us on Christmas Eve with ‘left on the shelves’ stock. Bishop’s Move helped transport the supplies back to John Street, as did Clark Commercials Van Hire in Bilston who loaned us a large van for the Christmas season to collect food.

Sister Rita and Max from Manchester have been great supporters of Mark and his operation. They offered 133 bags of children’s toys, each worth £50, made up into age and gender groups. Mark and volunteer Garry McDermott drove down to Manchester in a van hired from McNicoll Dalkeith to collect these. With lockdown it was straight down, load and straight back, 450 miles in one, very long day.

Other toys and gifts for children were donated by RBS, with many being handed out at Santa’s Grotto, just before Christmas. Santa had to remain in the glass room (where the bank cash dispenser used to be) to comply with the now strictest of Covid restrictions.

The annual Christmas Lunch that has been a feature of the food bank, where each year around 70 families and individuals met in St. Mungo’s Hall to tuck into a traditional Christmas meal, followed by a range of entertainment, was no longer possible.

Food Facts Friends are grateful and thank all the volunteers who give up their time to help those less fortunate than ourselves in their time of need. Without the support of those supermarkets, M&S, Tesco, Lidl, Morrisons, Costco, RBS, and local businesses supplying food, the van hire companies for the vehicles to collect food, and the transport companies for their help, the charity would not have been able to meet the significant increase in demand.

Hampers were made up and handed out on Christmas Eve from 8pm to 11pm in the evening, to those who would have attended, so they could make a meal at home.
Christmas Eve afternoon and a German Market sausage stall set up offering free sausage snacks to anyone in the precinct, with a hot drink from the food bank. Another festive idea from Mark Wells and Landlord Catering who had no German Market in Princes Street this year, and who offered their stall for free.

For those unable to make Christmas Eve the food bank opened on Christmas Day from 10am to noon to provide hampers to anyone who made it along.

While much of the food received is donated by the companies listed above, much more has to be purchased and paid for. Those who donate, individuals, regularly and those simply passing our door, other charities, grants and business donations are a vital part of keeping the food bank operation ahead of the curve.

Midlothian Council supported the charity with Covid-19 special grants of £15000, and grants from other businesses and charitable organisations £10000 have enabled Food Facts Friends to keep ahead of the demand curve. Any donations can be made by bank transfer to Food Facts Friends Project sort code 83-26-10 Account number 00709837.

The Penicuik Community Development Trust have supported the food bank, helping to cover food and Covid equipment and consumables costs for the past eight months. From May until Christmas Eve they have covered £27,900 of food, PPE, and cleaning/disinfectant purchases. Without this help and assistance, the charity would have run out of cash many months ago.

Food Facts Friends, while a not for profit charity, with no permanent staff, still has to cover premises costs, heating and lighting, food collections and purchases, as well as meet normal Environmental Health regulations plus the additional Covid-19 requirements, volunteer training, procedures and storage equipment, catering size fridges, freezers etc.

Not for profit does not mean no cost. Food Facts Friends keeps a tight rein on its finances, and in financial terms ‘sweats its assets’ to get the most out of every penny it spends.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, Food Facts Friends has supported 2,550 adults and 1,918 children, some 4,500 mouths to feed, if you include ‘blessing bags’ to people in immediate distress.

The charity has supplied over 20 tonnes of food, tinned, packets, bread, milk, sugar, and fresh foods, meat, poultry, potatoes, vegetables, fruit. Add to this toiletries and essentials like toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, washing powder etc.

How can you start to believe in yourself if you cannot keep clean and healthy. To achieve this, the charity has spent in excess of £53,000 purchasing food, toiletries, PPE equipment for the volunteers, sanitisers, disinfectant and cleaning and protection materials to keep the hub Covid safe. All this in only 10 months.
This is the hidden cost of the pandemic on our society and our community.

The future looks to be tough for many until a vaccine is rolled out to everyone. With a UK population of 68 million people, 5.5 million in Scotland alone, it will take some time to complete, especially if each person needs two injections. Until that happens we may have only further lockdown occurrences, as they appear to be the only tool in the box meantime to fight the pandemic.

The graph below shows a steady rise in figures from March to June presumably due to the lockdown, then a drop during July and August. The move to the new RBS building from St Mungo’s affected the charity’s service and they only provided a skeleton service at that point. Again there is a steady increase from September onwards.

At Christmas Food Fact Friends Community Hub made provision for 108 families with a Christmas hamper including toys for 217 children.  Additionally the Hub provided hampers for 27 families with no children.   On Christmas Eve there were approximately 50 people coming to the Hub to pick up food that was made available by the local supermarkets. On Christmas day the Hub made 49 Christmas meals available for people who were on their own, or who were struggling to make ends meet. 

Food Facts Friends – the facts

Food Facts Friends started five years ago when Mark Wells, who used to work with Edinburgh City Mission, set the organisation up with three volunteers. Mark told The Edinburgh Reporter that he has noticed a growth in demand this past nine months, and that they assist families as well as single homeless people in the area. Now, they are working from a brand new building rather than the church hall which they used to rent.

As well as food, the charity works with Children First, and gives money advice to help those on benefits. They have four computers where people can access information or process their Universal Credit applications.

Usually they have a Job Club – run on a one to one basis but for now that is not possible although Midlothian Council have a virtual job club which they run to help those out of work.

Food Facts and Friends also run a café where people come in for a cup of tea and a chat but for now that is closed while Scotland is under Level four restrictions.