FOR mum-of-five, Katrina Hawkins, Thursdays can’t come soon enough. It is the day she can join the queue to pick up bags of food that have become a lifeline for the people of Red Hall.

Beside her are two of her children – Jaydn, 11, and Harrison, eight – who’ve come to help her carry the bags. “They’re the two strongest,” she smiles, proudly.

This is the reality of lockdown for many families living on one of Darlington’s most deprived estates. Without The Bread and Butter Thing – a pioneering charity that distributes surplus food, mainly from supermarkets – many of them would go hungry.

“While the kids have been off school, the shopping bill has gone through the roof and this has been a godsend,” says Katrina, whose husband, Ian, is a bus driver. The couple also have Makayla, 13, Layla, five, and Alyssya, four, and making ends meet isn’t easy. “The Bread and Butter Thing has taken some of the pressure off,” adds Katrina.

A few places ahead of them, mum and daughter, Pauline Appleby and Angela Catterson, are also waiting patiently to collect their supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables and other basic staples.

“We struggle as it is around here, but it’s been really hard during the lockdown,” says mum-of-four Pauline. “It makes a massive difference and gives you peace of mind that you’ve got some food in.”

The Bread and Butter Thing was launched in Manchester in 2016 and works on the simple premise of collecting surplus food from supermarkets and other producers, before distributing it to communities. The support comes in three elements: a fruit and veg bag; a ‘covered bag’, containing cereal, bread, eggs, pasta, sauces, and drinks; and a ‘chilled bag’ of milk, meat, snacks, cheese, butter and sausage rolls. Families pay £7.50 for what would normally cost £35.

Darlington is the scheme’s first expansion outside of Greater Manchester, thanks to significant financial support from the borough council, Cummins Engines, and Darlington Building Society. And the timing of its arrival in the North-East market town could not have been better.

Corporation Road School became the first community hub on March 25, just as the coronavirus pandemic was forcing the country into lockdown. Since then, two more hubs have been added – at Red Hall, and Mount Pleasant Primary School on the Branksome estate. Discussions are taking place about adding a fourth hub on Firthmoor, and hopes are high that a fifth will be in place by the end of the year.

So far, 42 tonnes of food have been distributed in the town, equating to 100,000 meals, with a retail value of £70,000 but costing £15,000. Around 14,000 Easter eggs were also given out in April.

Seth Pearson, director of Darlington Partnership and Darlington Cares – two organisations central to The Bread and Butter Thing coming to the town – says the scheme has already surpassed expectations.

“It’s been an unequivocal success and is making an enormous difference to struggling families in Darlington,” he says.

In the hall of Red Hall Primary School, Siobhan Brown, community development drive officer for the charity, is overseeing a good-humoured production line as around 70 bags – comprising potatoes, onions, a red cabbage, and courgettes – are packed into bags.

She is helped by a team of volunteers from the school: teaching assistants Charlotte Wade and Katey Waters; family support worker Yvonne Watson; office manager Mandy Denton; and apprentices Kaj Kaur, Eleanor Bradding, and Brooklyn Welsh.

Siobhan, who has driven the charity’s van up from Manchester, says: “The response here has been really good and there is a very clear need. Hopefully, it will continue to grow so we can help more people.”

There are aspirations to spread further into Durham and Hartlepool but, for now, the North-East focus is on Darlington, and the Red Hall packers are like recruits in a well-oiled military operation, with lots of laughs amid the diligence.

Head teacher Julie Davidson is proud of the way her staff have risen to the challenge: “They’ve been amazing, and it helps to remove the stigma when the families see familiar faces from the school getting involved. No one feels uncomfortable and the numbers have increased week on week – it’s making a huge difference.”

Mandy Denton, taking a break from bag-packing, agrees: “We’ve had the capacity to help because there haven’t been so many children in school. We have single parents and lots who are on furlough, not knowing if they’ll have a job at the end of it, so you feel like you’re part of something really important. It’s nice to give something back.”

Charlotte Wade adds: “Even those working full-time have struggled because of the added pressures of home-schooling but this has brought the community together. It’s not just about the food, it’s nice to see the kids and catch-up too.”

It’s not quite what Brooklyn Welsh expected when she signed up as an apprentice teaching assistant, but she’s loving being part of it. “It’s great experience,” she says. “We understand what the families are going through, see how it’s helping, and that makes it so worthwhile.”

That last word goes to Katey Waters as she surveys the scene in the school hall, where the basketball court is hidden by rows of newly packed bags.

“Just think,” she says. “All this would have gone in the bin – mad isn’t it?”

NEWS reached me last week about how dozens of teachers at a County Durham school had signed a letter to the head teacher, seeking an assurance that they would not face disciplinary action should they choose to wear face masks when schools fully reopen in September.

The teachers were duly given that assurance, but the fact that they felt compelled to write the letter in the first place is a clear indication of the confusion and anxiety that exists.

Face masks in classrooms are not recommended by the Department for Education, with some schools taking the view that they will be intimidating for pupils.

With the issue open to interpretation, it seems likely to blow up sooner or later, but teachers surely must have the right to make their own decision.

Imagine what would happen if a teacher, who felt under pressure not to wear PPE, was infected and became seriously ill or, God forbid, died.

Teachers are in the front line and they deserve absolute clarity. As one member of the profession told me: “We desperately want to teach – but we’re not dying to teach.”

FOR reasons that will become clear in due course, we had a film crew round our house the other day, making a documentary that’s due to be broadcast next year.

Before they arrived, my wife and I were promised the crew would be wearing masks and gloves, and would thoroughly clean any part of the house they touched.

Obviously, we tried our hardest to get them into every room.

FINALLY, I’m worried the Covid response may be going too far Down Under, judging by a Tweet  from Business News Australia: “International arrivals into Australia to be slashed in half.”