At home with charity
Paddy and Carol Henderson, founders of the pioneering foodbank charity, the Trussell Trust, talk to Stephen Tomkins
Paddy and Carol Henderson opened the first foodbank in Salisbury in 2001. Seven years later, their foodbanks are a national phenomenon, a focus of political debate and a source of emergency relief for thousands. There are 423 and counting. Last year they fed 913,138 people, including 330,205 children. They won the 2013 Third Sector award for Britain’s most admired charity.
The Hendersons’ remarkable story took them from the army to Armenia and Bulgaria before Salisbury – and has now taken them to work in New Zealand, so the interview was conducted by Skype. Carol was not present for all of the conversation.
You became involved in charity after Paddy was involved in the 1988 Clapham rail crash, is that right?
Paddy: Yes and no. That was the start of a faith journey. I commuted into London and got into the habit of standing on the same part of the platform every day and sitting in the same seat; but that day the toilet in the station was locked, one on the train was broken, and another locked, so I ended up in a different carriage and couldn’t get back to my seat because the train was filling up. I sat there and fell asleep and woke up to find bodies all over me.
Asking why I did not die that day started a huge journey, which led to the faith of a living Jesus. I had been brought up in a Presbyterian manse with a much more black and white Gospel. Carol has been on a similar journey but a different set of circumstances.
Carol: In 1991 we had a real crisis with one of our daughters and that’s how I came to know Jesus, because it was the only way I could go, the only place of dependence.
P: We came from Christian homes, but I don’t think we’d ever known a living faith. These events turned our world upside down.
And led to your going to Armenia with Tearfund?
P: Yes, we left the army, stepped off this ladder of success, and everyone said we were completely nuts. We were the first Tearfund workers in the former Soviet Union. We lived in the slums with the emerging church with whom we were working after the earthquake. We saw massive Christian persecution and were involved in feeding 100,000 people. We never wanted to go back to our old way of life.
C: There was so much fear and danger that we just had to trust God. It was total dependence.
P: My dad’s church in Scotland sent money to buy pigs so an orphanage we supported could be self-sustaining – we saw how little bits of money could be life changing.
What led you from there to UK foodbanks?
P: We worked in Bulgaria on a project feeding street kids and the elderly. To cut a long story short, we decided to return on our own to raise the money needed, and it was reported in the local paper. A lady phoned me and said: “You’re feeding overseas when my kids are going hungry tonight.” It was like a knife in our hearts. To be truthful, we’d gone overseas because we didn’t believe poverty was a problem in Britain. We thought it had been removed by the welfare state. We were totally naive. We went to visit her and realised how bad things were, and from that –followed by huge research – grew the foodbank.
Do you think we have a greater responsibility to provide for the hungry in our own country than overseas?
P: Gosh, that’s a very interesting question. I think a strong community builds a strong country and taking care of our neighbour can be life-changing for a small community. It comes down to basic Christian principles – we have a mandate to care for our own community, but we also have a mandate to care for brothers and sisters overseas. It’s how you get the balance right that is critical.
Tell me about first foodbank.
P: The first one was in Salisbury. We set it up in Elim church, in the centre of the city where poverty was worst. We came up with a model which is still running today: We don’t have the expertise to identify who is in need of food, but there are really good care professionals who do – social services, children’s organisations, doctors and nurses, etc. They interviewed people properly and decided whether to give them a voucher to present at the foodbank. When people turned up without a voucher, we sent them to professionals who could assess their case.
We asked everyone in Salisbury – 40,000 people – to give us one tin. In our first year we collected 46,000. People loved the project because we pledged that all the food collected would be invested locally.
We became really good at collecting food, care professionals identified the need and we started to get a joined-up triangle and made sure that food went to the right people, as opposed to those who were just scamming the system.
It brought churches across the city together, and we went out of our way to show that it was the churches who were feeding and involved in running the foodbank. We also wanted to give Christians a safe way to serve “outside the church”.
I cannot express the awe we felt when, for example, we saw a mother come to the foodbank with two children – with literally what they stood up in – receive food, and feel safe enough to have a coffee with other girls. Eventually they moved into a council house, received household and personal items from our charity shop, and one day came and asked could she work in the shop! That is what we are all about.
So it’s not just about providing, but about bringing community together to do so?
P: Exactly. We had seen overseas how neighbours were critical in sustaining a community in times of great poverty. I remember in Bulgaria, an elderly man queuing all morning at our soup kitchen in the deep snow to bring a hot meal in a jam jar to a sick neighbour. Humbling. That was the only vessel he had and he did that every day until she was well enough to come in herself. These projects were staffed by local Christians as poor as the people they were feeding, but they were following Jesus’ mandate to love their neighbour.
Should the government be doing more to address inequality?
P: All of us need to. The problem is too big for just the government. I think it’s everybody’s problem.
C: I’m not into politics but I see benefits and wages both fall short of the cost of living. Something has gone wrong – the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
P: We have always tried to stay out of politics – the Trust is used as a political tool and a point-scoring mechanism, but our focus is on the work that God gave us to do – feeding the hungry and empowering them. We have huge poverty and a huge amount of the wealth being owned by very few people. We’ve got to start bringing change, but also change our education system; it’s actually everybody’s problem.
But if the welfare state is not fulfilling its role to provide for those who are most in need, that seems like a failure of the government to me.
P: Yes, but there are also other factors – education, a breakdown in our society. All these need to be looked at. The ones who suffer most are the children, and they don’t have a voice. It’s by giving them a voice that we can start to bring about long-term change.
How did you respond to the Daily Mail article that alleged that people use foodbanks “if they have been out on benders over the weekend and spent all their benefits”?
P: I smiled in a way, because I thought there’s always a degree of truth in it. But when we were on the front line, the number of people abusing the system was really, really small, and, taken against the number we were feeding, in many ways really irrelevant. I think that whatever the system, whether it’s a mobile phone or the internet, someone will find a way of beating it. Do you make your system so strict that it’s watertight but you weed out those who need the food, or do you accept that you might eventually catch them and deal with it? We went to that latter camp; it will be abused, you catch the abuser, then you blacklist them. Otherwise you throw the baby out with the bathwater. We saw that overseas, where some programmes were so strict that people died while food was just being wasted. So yes, the guy had a point. I think it’s sad to put it that way but that’s his choice, isn’t it?
C: I have come to the conclusion that in some cases God may have sent those people to us for his purposes and they may therefore be a gift.
How do you avoid creating dependency?
P: The average use of foodbanks is 2.5 hits. That allows the problem that has caused them to go hungry to be addressed. Foodbanks are designed to be holistic – by meeting people face-to-face we learn the reasons for their need and build a care package to address the issues. We call it “wrap-around care”. Some people will come back later in life because they’ve hit another crisis. The sadness for me is that there are now so many people in such a tight financial position that it only needs the washing machine to go wrong or the car to break down and they don’t have that £40 to do a repair and suddenly they’re in this debt spiral.
That led us into another project. Identifying that white goods are a huge issue for poor families, we collected old washing machines and fridges, repaired them, and sold and installed them at a very low price.
A Guardian journalist a few weeks ago tried living on benefits and had to make the choice between walking to work or going without food, because the cost of public transport is so high. That was a more balanced article. It shows if you’re on a low income it’s all right until something goes wrong, then you’re stuffed.
Is there a danger that, with foodbanks directing our attention to need in the UK, people will give less to overseas charities?
P: My experience is that people put their money where their heart is. And foodbanks are getting food rather than money. Our research showed that when people gave a can they did not relate it to their wider financial giving – most just bought an extra can and dropped it in the collecting points. In the early days, there would often be another charity collecting cash at the supermarket, and they welcomed us being there as they felt giving went up.
I don’t think that we detract. That’s why we set up our social enterprises – to raise our own core running costs, and to offer desperately needed “sheltered work” opportunities for our supported volunteers to learn work skills.
The Trussell Trust won the award for Britain’s most admired charity last year. Why do you think that is?
C: I think it is purely and simply love of people. The Bible tells us God is love, and I think when you genuinely care about people, people feel it and know it. I think that filters right through the Trust. That’s in everybody.
How do you feel about the fact that the Trust is feeding 300,000 people in a year?
P: It’s a hugely mixed emotion. You see a project that’s been really successful during this huge economic downturn, juxtaposed with a huge sadness. It’s a total travesty – we’ve seen poverty in Britain equal to poverty we saw overseas. For a country that’s supposed to be one of the leading countries in the world, I find that really difficult to get my head around. I think we’ve lost our way.
C: I think of these as the Joseph years; when we started off we were building up for a time such as this, where one person’s plenty contributes to another’s poverty. But I hate the numbers because to me they are a failure. They’re not something to be proud of, we should be concerned as to why the numbers are so high.
What difference have your experiences with the Trust made to you personally?
P: Oh, it’s been life changing, both working with the public and working hands on. Many people who work in the foodbanks either come out of a food crisis themselves and want to give back or are supported volunteers with mental, physical or social conditions who are making every effort to rebuild their lives. These are amazing opportunities to see how people really want to move their lives on when given the opportunity.
C: It’s been an amazing rollercoaster. We just knew it was something God wanted us to do. Our biggest passion is to empower people to be the people that God has enabled them to be, and to give them hope.
This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Reform.