“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
If anyone ever doubts football fans are a special group of people or that football can transcend the game played on the pitch to represent a true community endeavour then a visit to the NUFC Fans’ FoodBank on a matchday is needed.
In rain, hail, snow or shine, Newcastle fans in their hundreds bring bags of food and donate money as they pass the match day volunteers huddled under the NUFC FoodBank gazebo in order to meet a food shortfall in their city before watching Newcastle United play at St. James’ Park in The Premier League.
A year ago, the NUFC Fans’ FoodBank was formed after an emotional screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ brought home the reality of FoodBank Britain to a group of Geordies – fans, supporter groups, community leaders, MPs, NUFC staff alike - who wanted to collectively make a difference.
That the FoodBank portrayed in the Ken Loach film, The West End FoodBank, the largest in Britain by several times, is on the doorstep was a call to action that could not be ignored and football and Newcastle United and her fans were going to be the vehicle to answer it.
The idea originally came from Liverpool, whose community-minded fans of both Merseyside clubs, Everton and Liverpool, had banded together under the ‘Hunger Doesn’t Wear Club Colours’ banner and began collecting food and money on match-days to help their local people in need.
In Newcastle, the problem was even worse – around 1000 people a week, we learnt, relied on the West End FoodBank for survival - many families, women and children, the elderly and the disabled and it was struggling to meet demand and had to travel to London to do so.
This, it was decided, was unacceptable, and a date was set shortly for a first MatchDay Collection at St. James’ Park when Newcastle United played Derby County, ironically sponsored by Just Eat, to give Geordie fans the chance to help those in their community in food poverty and the result was remarkable, and the generosity of local people has astonished us all ever since.
Over 3 tonnes of food and £700+ was raised that first collection and the generosity of Geordie football fans and people of Newcastle has made us proud to be part of a caring football community and city that truly looks after its own.
A year after that first collection and The Trussel Trust tells us the equivalent of £100,000 of food has been raised by Newcastle fans via match day collections, specially-organised football events involving ex-NUFC stars and football journalists, a Donation Station offshoot in the city’s Grainger Market helping meet demand through a long summer without matches and bumper Christmas collections to ensure nobody was forgotten or left out in holiday season.
As ‘Big’ Bill Corcoran, a huge driving force, figuratively and literally, behind the NUFC Fans’ FoodBank, said:
“We couldn’t enjoy match days or Newcastle wins as much knowing that there were people going hungry in our city so we had to do something about it using the power of supporters and its become an integral part of match day now.”
The football club itself has been superb throughout with us from day one from board to boot room helping spread the message through its official social media channels, proving official ‘strips’ for match day volunteers to wear and even club Managing Director Lee Charnley and Head of Media Wendy Taylor have volunteered their time at the FoodBank to help a truly collective club cause.
First team players like Isaac Hayden have visited the West End FoodBank giving a great boost to local people seeing their heroes on the pitch are helping them off it and Rafa Benitez himself has donated generously and surprised the matchday volunteers just an hour before Newcastle beat Stoke City 2-1.
Newcastle United also organised the first Football Fans Supporting FoodBanks’ conference at St. James’ Park last October in along with the Football Supporters Federation and it was illuminating to hear stories from supporter schemes and official club charity foundations from Liverpool to Glasgow, Doncaster to Birmingham and how they help their community in different ways.
Since then, its been encouraging to see Football FoodBanks popping up at many other clubs around the country from Wolves and Aston Villa, Huddersfield and Bristol Rovers, who had their first collection last weekend.
At its heart, like the football club, the NUFC Fans’ FoodBank is nothing without the supporters and it is their generosity every week and every game that has made the project so successful – estimates are Newcastle fans provided 15-20% of the West End FoodBank’s total intake last year.
Nothing ever stands still in life or football on or off the pitch and plans are already afoot for Newcastle United to become more heavily involved as Mike Nixon, who started the West End FoodBank 5 years ago, recently handed over the reins to John McCorry, the new CEO, who hopes to continue and improve the special relationships between FoodBank and football club, fans and city.
Our next challenge may well be to tackle homelessness in Newcastle – the recent snow storm ‘The Beast from The East’ is a reminder of how vulnerable people living on our streets and the inspiring example of Aston Villa supporter Kerry Lenihan in the Midlands is showing the way forward in that area.
We can all do so much together to help those around us and we’ve found that as soon as people realise the problems they want to help in any way they can – one amazing offshoot of the Fans FoodBank was ToonAid which raised £50,000 at Christmas selling black and white strips and was mentioned to Theresa May in Parliament by Newcastle’s Labour MP Newcastle Chi Onruwah.
Football is that beautiful game that unites so many of us that can use its power and popularity for social change and to fight injustice and begin to reverse inequalities in society and we look forward to helping the Million Seater Stadium team with their great project and aim to end homelessness.
Stuart Latimer. NUFC Foodbank