Stephanie Denning is presenting her research on holiday hunger and volunteering at this year’s Faith in Research conference. In a guest blog for the William Temple Foundation, she shares some of her experiences with us.
Have you ever volunteered? Why did you do it? Why are you (not) still doing it? The voluntary sector has become an increasingly important part of welfare provision in UK society, and so there’s never been a more crucial time to try and understand it. Over the last three years, I’ve been researching how Christian church groups are responding to children’s holiday hunger with the charity MakeLunch, looking at the importance of faith as a motivator in people volunteering, but also how this motivation can be sustained and continually re-ignited over time.
Food poverty is not just about a lack of food. It is also about the affordability, accessibility, and nutritional value of food. The number of people suffering from food poverty in the UK has increased significantly in recent years. In the last year Trussell Trust foodbanks gave over 1.1 million food parcels to people experiencing food poverty, compared to under 26,000 in 2008-2009. The three main reasons for people using foodbanks are low income, benefit delays, and benefit changes. A combination of government reform and low income employment tends to be at the root of the poverty we’re seeing across 21st century Britain.
Holiday hunger is a dimension of food poverty. In term-time, 1.2 million UK children receive free school meals which are means tested, and aimed at the most deprived families across the UK (APPG Hunger, 2017). But what happens in the school holidays for these children? Or to the other 2 million children in the UK who are not eligible for free school meals but whose families are still experiencing poverty? For some children, the school holidays are a time when they are not getting enough food to eat, or enough of the right food to eat – or their parents are skipping meals in favour of feeding them (Kelloggs, 2015). This is holiday hunger. And this is where the charity ‘MakeLunch’ comes in.
MakeLunch is a network of churches and community groups running Lunch Kitchens to fill the holiday hunger gap by providing the equivalent of a free school meal in the school holidays. Since ‘MakeLunch’ was established in July 2011 it has cooked and served over 50,000 meals in more than 100 locations in England, Scotland and Wales. Many Lunch Kitchens also include a time of play, making it more like a holiday club for local children to attend. As part of my PhD I established and ran one Lunch Kitchen over 20 months. This took the form of participatory research – it was important to me that the research also made a practical, positive difference in a community.
With the assistance of MakeLunch’s training and resources, I recruited volunteers to help at the Lunch Kitchen and worked with others to develop a successful project that continues to serve hundreds of meals to families in need. Through this I also researched the experiences of the people who volunteered over this time. Some wrote diaries about their experiences and I interviewed others. Over 20 months I got to know the different people volunteering, some for a couple of days, and others over this whole period. Volunteering can take multiple forms and not everyone at the Lunch Kitchen was Christian, but Christian faith was an important motivator for many of the volunteers.
People’s motivations to volunteer at the Lunch Kitchen ranged from Biblical teaching on responding to hunger, through to anger at political reform and wanting to do something active and meaningful in response. There was no religious content for the children at the Lunch Kitchen, which meant Christians with different theological backgrounds could easily come together over a common cause. A key motivation for volunteers was obviously to respond to children’s holiday hunger, and volunteers needed to feel this was being met, but there was also a hope it would be enjoyable and a rewarding experience. Over time, for someone to keep volunteering it is helpful if they feel they are also benefiting; volunteering can impact the volunteer as much as the ‘recipient’.
Volunteers’ diaries and interviews showed many were anxious about their first day at the Lunch Kitchen. Not all showed this when they arrived, but it was a common experience – approaching the unknown, perhaps with some doubt in their ability. But as volunteering routines and roles were established over time, and the environment became more familiar, people grew more confident in themselves and found joy in the work they were doing. This was key to a person volunteering over any length of time. I asked one volunteer: ‘Was the Lunch Kitchen what you expected?’ She replied:
“I didn’t think it would be so enjoyable! Which is actually always a really good thing… You can do a thing out of a sense of duty but unless your heart is just really engaged and you are enjoying it your heart will just burn out.”
Whilst the aim of a project may be to help others, to keep a volunteer on the team it is important that they enjoy themselves; that they not only see the need they are meeting but feel some benefit themselves. Without this, I would suggest that a motivation of responding to privation is only going to last so long before, as this volunteer suggested, you ‘just burn out’.
It is therefore important that the leader of a team of volunteers takes the time to get to know the individuals in that team, and that each person is valued for what they bring to the experience. This is crucial to maintain a volunteer team over time. As more and more groups depend upon volunteers in order to provide services for society we need greater understanding of how volunteering functions; it is not just the traditional client or recipient that can benefit. To continue giving their time, the volunteer must also feel the benefit too.
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