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Cardiff character: Ian Purcell

Cardiff’s Good Samaritan talks faith and
feeding the 3,000

Cardiff Foodbank founder Ian Purcell unloads a food donation from a local school

 A car, overloaded with tins of food, grinds to a halt in front of a low, red building where the tall figure of Ian Purcell is waiting. Ian, the project manager of Cardiff Foodbank, unloads the food into crates then trolleys them into the warehouse before running back into the rain for more.

The delivery from St Peters School is the last of over 40 schools across Cardiff to have donated to the Foodbank this Harvest Festival and the shelves in the warehouse are straining under the nine tonnes of food collected in the past two months.

The food is stored and sorted here in the old brewery workshop in Ely and then distributed at four churches across the city. “It’s for families going through short-term crises in Cardiff, just Cardiff, nowhere else,” Ian says.

A leap of faith

Ian weighs the delivery (172 kg!) and then catches his breath in his small office. Sitting at his desk, he says founding Cardiff Foodbank three years ago was a leap of faith and for several months, he and his wife and business partner Karen were storing food in their lounge. They rent the warehouse on a monthly basis and rely entirely on donations, grants, volunteers and the kindness of strangers.

Their first supermarket collection was over a weekend in April 2009 at Sainsbury’s in Thornhill. “The first time around, obviously, people looked at us strangely,” Ian laughs.  “We stood outside the supermarket and asked shoppers if they would be willing to buy an item of food on behalf of
the Foodbank.

 “We had warned Sainsbury’s we might clear their shelves and come Sunday afternoon, there were four or five product items with nothing left on
the shelf.”

1.8 tonnes of food was collected in two days – a Foodbank record.

A life of service

Forty-six-year-old Ian has spent most of his life helping others. The father of two young daughters worked for a family charity in Cardiff for 10 years and with NGOs and churches rehabilitating prostitutes in Thailand.

Twenty years earlier, when Ian moved from Wrexham to Bristol to study accountancy at university, his life was taking a very different course. “My motivations for being an accountant were slightly askew and the older I got the more I realised it wasn’t for me,” he says, his words always measured and softly spoken.

The year after graduating, Ian found a higher calling. “I became a Christian at that time so my whole values, outlook, expectations and direction in life completely changed.”

Continent hopping from America to New Zealand to Southeast Asia, it was in California, while working as a counsellor on a Salvation Army camp, Ian found Christ. “Their love won me over,” he recalls. “I realised I could not love like these people and they put it down to a relationship with Jesus.”

Ian still finds use for his accounting degree; he keeps the books and sees to the everyday management of the Foodbank while his project director wife looks at the bigger picture.

Feeding the 3,000

Cardiff Foodbank has fed over 3,000 people, all with a story to tell. A woman in her 20s with chronic fatigue syndrome stays in Ian’s memory. “If it wasn’t for the food parcel, she would have carried on eating Tesco-branded biscuits as her main meal of the day,” he recalls. “What a sad position to find
herself in!”

One of his first clients, a referral from an assembly member, was a mother on benefits unable to feed her family. “She lives not far from the warehouse and has a daughter a similar age to our eldest,” he recalls. “The daughter came home full of sheer joy and exuberance to be able to cook something at home and then know what was for breakfast in the morning. In her teenager’s language, you could sense her thrill and pleasure.”

He reads her email, “I am cooking pasta as we speak. You guys are the best! I know what I’m having for breakfast in the morning. Thank you again. You guys are amazing!”

It is these human touches that make it all worthwhile for Ian. “I find satisfaction in providing a service that benefits individuals and, because of my faith, I believe I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing at this particular time.”

There now are 15 Foodbanks across Wales, a new one opened in the Vale last month and another will start serving Abergavenny early next year. Ian says there is a desperate need in Wales and recently he has seen an increase in working people referred to them. “They have jobs but the cost of living, utility bills, fuel and transport costs, housing and food bills are such that they’re finding themselves in perilous situations.”

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