A Civilian instructor with the Royal Air Force Air Cadets is recognised for her dedication by winning The Guardians Public Servant Award 2018.
CI Annette Smith of 2246 (Carnforth) squadron, Cumbria and Lancashire Wing. Was recognised for her fantastic work setting up and running a local Food Bank.
To know which of her many qualities really typifies Annette Smith, who has been voted by Guardian readers this year’s public servant of the year, you could do worse than look at the deal she did with a local bus company.
Smith, who set up the Morecambe Bay food bank in 2012 when she became aware of the number of people in the community suffering hardship due to benefit changes, is not someone who tackles just one problem. When another appears, she takes it on. Smith realised, a few years in, that the cost of public transport was stopping some people coming to the food bank to get essential supplies.
In typical style, she did not simply do a deal with the local bus company to get free tickets; she also ensured the whole process is handled with discretion, so other passengers would not even notice. “The company really stepped up and responded in a way that doesn’t show anyone up,” she says. How did she persuade a commercial company to do all this? Smith laughs and says she was “tactical” and may, perhaps, have mentioned a rival bus firm being associated with the good work of the food bank.
It’s just one telling example of Smith’s sensitive approach to supporting local residents. At Christmas, for instance, when the food bank puts together special parcels for local families, the families themselves don’t have to go and collect them from the food bank; instead, the parcels are distributed through schools and children’s workers. For those people who do come to the food bank at Christmas, there’s a special team of listeners. “We see the smiles and the tears,” Smith says.
Over the past six years, Smith has come up with ideas that have been adopted by other food banks, such as working with local domestic violence charities to create boxes for women who have to leave home suddenly. These startup boxes are also available for care leavers and for others having to set up a new home: they include such basics as a tin opener, washing-up liquid and salt and pepper.
Smith started the food bank from a cupboard in a church. It now provides food for almost 3,000 locals, nearly half of them children. Some people would be brought to the brink of despair by this level of need, but Smith remains resolutely practical, even in the face of realising, for instance, that some people couldn’t even afford to heat food up.
“We were absolutely astonished when this started to happen, and we were also really upset,” Smith told the Guardian in 2014, when she was interviewed for an article on food banks. In response, Smith and her team have developed two ways to help: a kettle box, which contains foodthat only needs to have boiling water added, while a “cold box” is for people with no electricity, containing three days’ worth of mainly tinned groceries that can be prepared without heating or hot water.
Smith continues to think of new ways to help. The food bank works with the fire service to distribute blankets and torches to people with no heating or lighting in their home – another example of Smith’s ability to set up working partnerships with a wide range of local organisations. More recently, the team has set up a uniform bank, on similar lines to the food bank, providing school uniforms to families that need help with buying them.
Smith has achieved all this in just six years, despite her own health issues, including an earlier bout of meningitis. “I have had health issues that has meant I’m unable to work, so when we started the food bank I had to work within my capabilities,” she says. “The great thing is that I can work from home. In fact, I can work many hours from my bed at home.”
Until January, Smith took no pay from the food bank, working as a volunteer. She has now accepted a part-time wage, for what is effectively a full-time role.
She was nominated for the public servant of the year award for her tenacity, guts and grit, and for creating a well-organised, stable local organisation.
Why does she do this? As Smith points outs, anybody could find themselves requiring the help of the food bank because of illness, a delay in a benefit payment, or perhaps even an unexpected bill, for example. With the community’s support, Smith says, the food bank is able to provide vital emergency help to those most in need. But what she really hopes for is that one
day there will be no need for a food bank in Morecambe.