FATHER Christmas may only make his rounds once a year, but the task never ends for the Oxford Foodbank.
Six-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year, volunteers pick up food past its sell-by-date from suppliers, and deliver it free of charge to charities feeding Oxford’s most needy citizens.
Yesterday I joined the daily drop-off to find out how the innovative project praised by Government ministers works.
On the 9am round was food bank trustee Riki Therivel, an Oxford Brookes lecturer who started volunteering a year ago, and first-timer Alice Harberd, 17, an Oxford High School sixth-former, who hopes to volunteer during free periods in her weekly timetable.
In three hours, we visited 13 Oxford charities, unloading hundreds of pounds worth of fresh food from the Foodbank’s regular suppliers Sainsbury’s, Booker and Fresh Direct.
Packed into the van were piles of carrots, parsnips, potatos, bananas, kale, chillis, okra, gorgonzola, fresh herbs, blackberries, coleslaw and bread.
Piled on top, a Christmas treat – 200 tins of chocolates donated by a market research company testing their new packaging on behalf of clients.
All of it would have been thrown away. Now it is feeding vulnerable people including drug addicts, ex-offenders, homeless people and deprived families.
“The enjoyment comes in dropping food off and making people happy,” said Dr Therivel. “It makes you feel like Santa Claus.”
At Donnington Doorstep, cook Sandra Ruge took in the fresh vegetables to be served for the children centre’s Christmas lunch for 120 children and parents.
“It means everything to us, and it is so much help for us,” she said.
And at the Steppin’ Stone cafe providing support for homeless people in Magdalen Road, project worker Mike Cunningham added: “We feed on average 50 to 60 people a day, and the food bank is vitally important.
“We have quite a limited budget for food, and without it we could not get by. We would be serving the basics.
“The fresh vegetables mean our members get a nourishing meal, and some of the extra goodies mean that we can make this time of year a bit special for them.”
At New Marston Children’s Centre, carrot and coriander soup was on the menu, after manager Shilpa Bhatt took vegetables and fresh herbs.
“We promote healthy eating and the children get to try things they have never had before,” she said.
“Our volunteers cook whatever comes in, and whatever is left over we give to the families most in need.”
Oxford Foodbank is riding high after Rotary Clubs in Oxford and Abingdon funded the purchase of a new delivery van, while the Gannett Foundation, the Oxford Mail parent company’s charitable arm, gave a £10,000 grant for a new refrigeration unit at its West Oxford headquarters.
Dr Therivel said: “Before I joined the foodbank, I knew a lot of the places we deliver to existed, but I had not stepped into a single one. It makes you feel really good about them.
“Environmentally, socially and economically, this is a win, win, win.”
And Alice added: “This is helping in some of the areas that most need improving in Britain – homelessness, poverty, people who lack food and the environment.”