EXTRA help for families in crisis struggling to put food on the table during the school holidays is available from Christchurch Food Bank Plus.

The ‘free school meal top up’ packs contain the bare essentials needed to make an extra meal a day for children – no treats, just dry goods, sauces, fruit and veg.

“Working with the schools we produce vouchers for families whose children get free school meals,” says Food Bank Plus projects co-ordinator Tracy Blick. “They don’t get tea and coffee, or crisps and goodies, they get the basics that can make a real difference to them coping or not, freeing up some money for fresh food or an ice cream.

‘We get a lot of feedback from mums who tell us they can get by during term time, but struggle to feed their children every day during the holidays.”

Since it opened five years ago Christchurch Food Bank has just fed its 10,000th mouth. Most people that use the food bank, 52 per cent according to the most recent research, do so only once to help them in a crisis.

Those using the food bank are referred by a local authority, school, housing officer or other organisation and are given vouchers for enough food to last three or four days.

“Sometimes people just need breathing space while their money is sorted out. We had one gentleman who has his own house and business, but whose wife left him and cleaned out their bank accounts leaving him with three small children and nothing in the cupboards.

“After four days or so he went to Citizens Advice and they sent him to us. He wrote to thank us because what we were able to give him allowed him the breathing space to sort out his business, childcare and make some financial arrangements.”

The crisis help available at Christchurch Food Bank now extends beyond basic food and toiletries. The ‘food bank plus’ service includes a furniture bank to help people who have just been housed to set up a home, money management advice and cooking on a budget classes.

“The cracks that people fall through are getting wider and there isn’t the money or resources to help them,” says Tracy. “People don’t seem to have the skills they used to – we helped teach a young mum to cook and she ended up bringing her own mum to classes as well as because she didn’t know how to cook either.”

Christchurch Food Bank is run by 36 volunteers who collect, sort, package and distribute donations as part of a team.

All of them have stories about people they’ve been able to help. One young homeless man who was given a flat slept on the floor for two weeks before being sent to the food bank where he was given food, furniture, clothes, bedding and domestic appliances.

“Two weeks later he had a job and now donates £100 a month to us because he wants to pay us back and help others; he’s amazing,” says Tracy.

“Another young man whose mother had thrown him out of her home four years ago at the age of 14 came to us to learn to cook. One day he told me he had invited his mum to dinner and then got back in touch to say she had asked him to come over for Christmas and they were on contact again. I had to admit I cried.

“It is about more than just cooking, it’s building confidence and life skills.”

Christchurch Food Bank Plus is a partnership with Christchurch fellowship of Churches and the charity Faithworks Wessex and receives its donations from a range of sources including local churches, supermarket bins, businesses, community groups, schools and individuals.

“Some people are still surprised to find there’s a need for a food bank in Christchurch, but those that give do so regularly and are incredibly generous. We couldn’t do it without them.

“All help is welcome and very much appreciated, but our needs change every week, especially during the summer holidays, so if people befriend us on Facebook we always have an amazing response to specific requests.”

To find out more visit facebook.com/ChristchurchFoodBank/