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Issue No.117
17 December 2018

Feeding the four hundred

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Patricia O'Neill examines the work and impact of the Oxford Food Bank during the festive season


IT'S A SIGN OF THE TIMES WE LIVE IN THAT MORE OF US LIVE ALONE, in poverty or with stress. It's also a sign of the times that more of us want to reach out a hand to help. But it can be hard to know how to be useful.

In Oxford we have a charity that blossomed from a very simple insight: our society wastes food in shameful quantities, while many people are shamefully short of food.

The Oxford Food Bank's (OFB) volunteers collect food from wholesalers and retailers that would otherwise go to landfi ll and distribute it to charities that turn it into meals for people who might otherwise go hungry. How simple, but how complex, is this social experiment.

The nourishment involved in the process is so much more than the physical. All those involved in this exchange are enlivened by the opportunity to care for each other, to talk, to laugh, to be useful, to spur each other on to ever more imaginative ways to use the extraordinary range of fresh vegetables and fruit that is so unaccountably discarded by our streamlined food-production system.

It's at Christmas that the system goes into overdrive, with an extraordinary amount of surplus food. How to use it? How to reach out to those for whom Christmas is a hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach? Through the vision of one volunteer from the OFB, a beautiful event took place. A Christmas lunch open to all: those without family, without homes, without enough food for a celebration, without company, without heart to celebrate; those with energy to organise, to cook, to host, to befriend, to celebrate.

All these people came together in an enormous community space generously shared by the Oxford Community Church. An army of volunteers was marshalled to work in advance to prepare menus, schedules, decorations, presents for adults and children, surprises and entertainment. On Christmas Day, others worked to ferry food and diners across the city, to cook and serve, to talk and listen, to joke and weep, to wash-up and sweep, to wake the sleepers and escort them home. About 400 people joined in. It was a miracle of the 'loaves and fi shes' variety. The Syrian refugee families stole the show with their singing and dancing. The Big Christmas Lunch has become an institution in just two years.

Find out more at w:


The Queen's Award for Voluntary Service (QAVS) is the highest award given to local volunteer groups across the UK to recognise outstanding work done in their communities. OFB was one of three Oxfordshire charities to have won the QAVS in 2018.