TALES FROM THE HEBDEN BRIDGE FOOD HUB: PART ONE

Photo cc Helen Baron https://twitter.com/ribboncircus

After even a few hours in the food hub, you can spot the actual flood victims.

You can see it in the eyes. They are the ones with the hundred-yard stare.

Sometimes we need to lead them around gently. So much has happened to them in such a short time that when faced with a mountain of food — and very quickly and amazingly it is a mountain — they are overwhelmed.

We learn to question. And to keep it very simple and matter of fact.

‘Do you have something to eat for tonight? Do you have power? OK, no power. Right, let’s find things that don’t need to be heated. Do you have any way to make tea? No, well, please come back and get teabags once your power is on. Have you had a free cup of tea in the Town Hall café?

Now, how about bread? Brown? White? Great, now let’s get you something to put on it. Jam, peanut butter, sandwich spread? What about breakfast? Yes, you do need something for breakfast. You’ve got your milk, so how about some cereal to go with it?

Understandably, they are completely focused on their most pressing and immediate needs. Many of them cannot think beyond their next meal, which is why we ask about breakfast.

And that’s if they can manage a meal at all. We speak to many who haven’t been able to eat properly for days. ‘I have a knot in my stomach’, they say.

So we asked for donations of crisps. It sounds so frivolous and we know it’s empty calories, but it seems to be something that many of our flood-struck people can face eating. And even empty calories are better than no calories.

We encourage them to go and get the free hot food that is being made in the few remaining venues with working kitchens or being so generously donated by curry houses in Bradford and Halifax. Someone who’s taking food out to the older people reports back that they often don’t like things like curry and pizza; they want comforting and familiar food like sausage and mash. We don’t know how to fix that this time around but we make a note to report it for the flood plan and try to send things like tinned corned beef out in their emergency packs.

Other people come in. They are desperately apologetic. They have not been flooded, so they are sure the food is not meant for them.

Then it turns out they’ve had no electricity for days and all the perishable food in the freezer and fridge has gone bad and they have eaten everything that can be eaten cold.

But they are still sure the food is not meant for them.

Still others come in. They are even more apologetic. They have not been flooded and they haven’t lost power. Often they have been busy shovelling shit-filled mud from our ruined streets all day and they’ve just realised they’ve run out of bread. Or they have no milk for their children and all the shops are closed and no one knows when they will reopen. Or they have no transport to the nearest town.

We reassure. The food is meant for everyone. The whole town has been affected. In the beginning, there are no open food shops and very few of us can get to the shops outside the valley. Even once pop-up shops start appearing, the cash machines are still full of mud. No one knows when the roads will be fully open and safe. In the first few days getting out of the valley can take hours and even if you have a car, it’s not a good idea to get in the way of the emergency vehicles. I read on Facebook, ‘please stay off the roads, every car is slowing the emergency road repairs’.

And besides, we are all incredibly busy. Until you’ve experienced a massive flood, you can’t quite imagine quite how much there is to do and how urgent it all is. Who has the time to even think about shopping?

‘The food is here for everyone. Please don’t feel bad. Just take what you need.’

We have a few who take advantage of course. Someone sagely points out that to some in Hebden Bridge — where we do not yet have a food bank — the flood has bought a welcome bonanza of free food. And in any situation, you will always get the odd anti-social person who is selfishly looking out for the main chance. We use our best judgement and gently question one or two who come back just that little bit too often or seem to be concentrating on higher value items that might have a resale value.

But hearteningly, they are such a tiny fraction.

Mostly it is surprisingly hard to get people to take free food.

The vast majority of people take the absolute bare minimum. They are desperately anxious to leave enough for others, even when we have so much food that we have to stack it under the tables to stop cascades of biscuits, teabags and baked beans.

So they only take that one thing that they have run out off. Or they take just enough for that night. We have one person who has been flooded who apologetically returns the next day, embarrassed that she needs more food…but who has brought back the stuff that she’s decided she doesn’t immediately need, to make sure there is enough for other flood victims!

A few days in, as our food mountain grows, we switch tactics.

‘We don’t want to be left with this massive pile of food at the end’ we say, ‘there’s so much that it will be a real logistical problem if it doesn’t go, please take some.’

‘What about the food bank? You could send it there,’ they almost always reply.

‘I’m sure we will send some there, but Todmorden and Mytholmroyd have as much food as we do and the Todmorden foodbank only has so much storage space. Besides, the fresh food will go off if it’s not used soon. Honestly, we’d much rather you took it instead of us having to throw it out. It feels so wrong to have to throw away this food that people have so kindly given. Please take some food.’

The one phrase we hear over and over again is, ‘I’m sure there are people worse off than me.’

We hear it from people in ground floor flats and boats who’ve lost absolutely everything. We hear it from people who’ve had to throw out shit-soaked furniture, carpets and their children’s toys. We hear it from pensioners who’ve lost a lifetime of memories. We hear it from people whose businesses have been ruined and who might go bankrupt. We hear it from people whose kitchens have just been ripped out by sympathetic strangers. We hear it from people who don’t feel like real flood victims because ‘only’ their basement flooded. We hear it from people who have had to be evacuated from their homes. We hear it from people who have lived in cold dark houses for days.

Somewhere in the Calder valley, there is that one person who objectively has it worse than everyone else. I do not know who that person is but if they came into the Hebden Bridge food hub, I can practically guarantee that person would say it too!

‘No, lass, I won’t take more than my fair share. I’m sure there are people far worse off than me.’

Feel free to share… but if you want to publish it in a news outlet, you can damn well give a large contribution to the relief fund, which is here:https://localgiving.com/appeal/Flooding

P.S. PLEASE don’t send any more food; you’ve all been very generous and we have more than enough.