As the UK treads a careful path out of its third lockdown, what does the future hold for the food banks that carried us through the pandemic?

In April 2020, The Trussell Trust, who support over 1,200 food banks across the UK, saw an 89% increase in the number of emergency food parcels their food banks were distributing. This was on top of a year-on-year increase in the number of individuals using food banks. The result, was a record 2.5 million food parcels distributed between April 2020 and March 2021- equivalent to two food parcels every minute.

Research by the Heriot-Watt University showed that in 2018 94% of food bank users were destitute, meaning that they could not afford the essentials to stay safe and well. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimates that by 2022, 3,249,120 UK adults will be destitute. Sabine Goodwin, Director of the Independent Food Aid Network, predicts that the need for food banks will only get worse, “What we’re seeing is a lack of understanding in terms of the obvious impacts of the furlough scheme ending, or the universal credit uplift being taken away, or just generally so many people now having to rely on universal credit which, even with the £20 uplift, is not enough to match the cost of living.” 

Food poverty is not just something that is present and existing, but it’s a growing issue

Ellie, Advice Centre Co-ordinator

Not all food bank users are destitute. The need to use a food bank is generally caused by a combination of inadequate or reduced benefits, a challenging life experience, and a lack of information and/or formal support. In 2015 Ellie, Advice Centre Co-ordinator at Oasis Hub Waterloo, was unemployed. “I was unemployed for 2 months, and it only took those 2 months before I couldn’t afford food again.” With the furlough scheme ending in September 2021, and, as of March 2021, 6,040,327 UK adults claiming Universal Credit, the future very much seems to rely heavily on the need for food banks. “Food poverty is not just something that is present and existing, but it’s a growing issue,” Ellie comments. 

The COVID 19 pandemic has put an immeasurable strain on the UK’s food banks. Not only have they had to distribute more emergency parcels than ever before, but they have had to completely shift the way they operate to keep their staff, volunteers, and clients safe. “Our partner charity, The Trussell Trust, gave us tremendous support,” Christine, Projects Manager at Hart food bank says. “They sent me all of the  COVID guidelines I had to install to keep my volunteers and clients safe- safety came first.”

Pre-COVID, to use a food bank you would need to be referred by either Citizens Advice or an organisation you were already receiving help from. You would have to attend a meeting to be granted a voucher, which would be handed over at you local food bank in exchange for your food parcel. When the pandemic hit, The Trussell Trust stepped up their E-referral system so people could be referred to their local food bank without a face-to face meeting- in April 2021 68% of food bank referrals were E-referrals.

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Alongside the pressure to facilitate the increase of referrals and keep clients safe, food banks also had to think about the safety of their staff and volunteers. Roughly 51% of regular Trussell Trust food bank volunteers are 65 and over, so when the pandemic hit, a large proportion of food bank volunteers were shielding. To recruit new volunteers, Christine took to social media, “I went onto social media and asked for people who had never volunteered at the food bank before to come forward. I was very pleased by the number that came forward.” At Hart food bank alone, there was an increase of 115% in referrals. A demand that never would have been met were it not for the help of their volunteers. 

“I heard about my food bank because I’m a member of my local council WhatsApp group. They are always asking for collections, so I wanted to go down and see what it was like to volunteer.” Sarah, from South London, volunteers at her local food bank every Friday. “I want to give something back and do something that adds value,” She says. “There’s a wider sense of wanting to make a positive impact and give something back.” 

Volunteering at your local food bank is not limited to handing out food parcels. “At the beginning of the pandemic I had two lovely guys who volunteered to run our Twitter page,” Christine says. Hortense, otherwise known as the Bank Cook, used her love for food to create a cook book for food bank users. “I am passionate about food, I love food, and I have always been really creative with food, so the idea was to take the baked beans, for example, and be creative with them,” she says. Hortense cook book is free to download, but she made it so that companies and food banks could get it professionally printed, “I designed it to be professionally printed so that the people who receive it will feel like they have received something worth while. Somebody who’s already down deserves to be given something of good value.” 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Similarly to Hortense, micro bakeries, independent bakeries that operate locally and are often run from individual homes, across the UK have been using their baking talents to bake fresh bread to donate to local food banks. Liz runs Ma Baker in Hammersmith and Fulham. Every Friday she takes 50 freshly baked loaves of bread to her local food bank. “I was overwhelmed by the support from my customers, because I thought that I would be taking 5 loaves down there on a Friday, and I was doing 50 from the off, because they just got totally behind it,” she explains. Since she has begun this venture, Liz has donated over 1,000 loaves to the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank. “It’s simple but it just works so well,” She says. In terms of the longevity of her food bank loaves, “I will continue this”, she assures, “it’s a no brainer, and my customers are completely behind it.” 

For my customers that are spending £20, £2 is nothing. But, if 20 of my customers are doing it, that’s an extra 20 loaves for the food bank, and it’s making a difference to 20 families

Sara, Owner of Hen Corner

Sara runs Hen Corner, another micro bakery, and has been a supporter of her food bank since it started. Usually, she would give her food bank cash donations, however, after hearing about her fellow Bread Angels, a baking community, donating bread to their local food banks she decided to follow suit. “Where they [her local food bank] were getting their bread from was leftovers from supermarkets, so they are getting it and it’s a day old, whereas with my bread I’m really strict on giving it the day it’s baked, sometimes it’s still warm,” she explains. Each week Sara donates 8 loaves from herself, which she adds to any loaves her customers have bought for the food bank, “My food bank loaf is just a £2 loaf”, she continues, “so for my customers that are spending £20, £2 is nothing. But, if 20 of my customers are doing it, that’s an extra 20 loaves for the food bank, and it’s making a difference to 20 families.” Sara has the same mindset as Liz when it comes to the continuation of her food bank loaves, “as long as the need is there for me making them, and if my customers keep buying them, then I will continue to donate.”

For Bunty, it was his eight-year-old son that inspired him to get involved with his local food bank. “He came home, and was very sad because he couldn’t understand why people were going without any food,” Bunty explained. “I started researching food banks in the local area, and I came across Potters Bar food bank, which was only 3 months old at the time, and I spoke to the pastor there who kind of gave me an insight into what it was… and I realised, that could happen to me, that could happen to any of us, and that’s the reality of it.” 

After doing his initial research, Bunty co-founded the Navratri Food Bank Collection, a campaign that collected food donations at local Navratri events, Navratri being a nine-day celebration in the Hindu community. “We wanted to make it easier for people to donate, so we thought why can’t that be a collection point [at the Navratri event], so whilst people are enjoying the festivities they can donate, and then the next day, volunteers can take the donations to their local food bank.” 

Since its beginnings in 2014, Bunty and the Navratri Food Bank Collection team have donated roughly twenty-one tonnes of food. Despite the COVID 19 pandemic preventing Navratri celebrations from continuing, the Navratri Food Bank Collection used their platform to encourage people to donate. “A big big issue with food banks is storage, especially when they get a large number of donations, so during the pandemic we were encouraging people to donate food vouchers, and that way they [the food banks] can buy what they need,” Bunty explains. 

Image by aesthetics of crisis

As the UK slowly navigates its way out of lockdown, there’s a sense of cautious optimism in the air. Unfortunately, coming out of lockdown won’t do much for food banks. “Unless there is a real concerted effort to concentrate on the root causes of food poverty, which are the social security systems that doesn’t actually support people to the degree that is needed when they hit hard times, and if companies and corporations keep paying wages that are below real living wage, or don’t provide secure working hours, then we are going to continue to see more and more people impacted by poverty,” Sabine warns. 

Prior to COVID 19, clients of food banks were not just given a food parcel, but long-term help and information. “We’ve joined up with local government and other charities in a recovery plan,” Christine explains. “So at the moment we know people are in crisis so we’re giving them food but not really talking to them. Coming out of this, we’re hoping to go back to signposting, and giving long-term help to people.”

The message we are trying to put out is you are not a failure or a burden, we see you and we want to help you.

Ellie, Advice Centre Co-ordinator

At the Waterloo food bank, their focus coming out of lockdown is to de-stigmatise the use of food banks. “We are actively calling on our community to help erase the stigma with using food banks,” Ellie says. “We really firmly reject the idea that receiving free food is shameful. People are so fearful, and they don’t want to talk about it, but the message we are trying to put out is you are not a failure or a burden, we see you and we want to help you.”

Despite news of the Universal Credit £20 uplift remaining in place for a further six months, this is a short term solution to a long-term issue. “The main cause that comes up over and over again for why people are using food banks is low income. So we need a fair income for people to start off with, so people can pay their bills,” Christine explains. We will not the see end of food banks until everyone is paid a fair and liveable minimum wage salary, and benefits are increased to truly match the cost of living. 

Image by Hammersmith & Fulham Council

Food banks require continuous support, and helping them is simple. “Donate, whether that’s time through volunteering, money, or donating food and toiletries,” Christine urges. “When you get a buy one get one free offer, put the free one in the donation basket,” Bunty explains. “Please consider donating in-date, long life, food to your local food bank. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just one tin makes a huge difference to us,” says Ellie. 

It’s important to also hold those who can do the most help to prevent food poverty accountable. “write to your local MP,” Sabine urges, “and make that point that food banks shouldn’t be needed in the first place, because unless MP’s take this on, we’re going to be constantly stuck on a cycle of filling the gap and never being in a position to close it.”

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