Beyond beans

By David Bull 27 September 2013

Every day, it seems, a new piece is written on food banks. At the heart of the debate is a fundamental problem: Food banks are a vital frontline service on which many thousands rely—but in acting as a pressure release for an overburdened welfare system, are food banks depressing the demand for reform? If you support food banks, are you a part of the solution, or advocating a short-term fix that distracts from the cause?

As much as the arguments against food banks make sense in the long term, we simply cannot do without the services they currently provide. Because at least one thing’s clear:  the growth of food banks suggests that there’s  something stirring– something that we need to act on if we want to curb spiralling food poverty in the UK.

We have produced a short briefing on food banks based on research and interviews with leading food poverty charities. It’s designed to give a neutral take on the state of play, and provide suggestions on where things are headed and how people can help.

In speaking to those that work as part of the food bank network, something that continuously crops up is the idea that they’re about more than just food. And so, heated debate aside, it’s important that we pay attention to a growing need to support some of the UK’s most vulnerable individuals who have found themselves in a time of crisis—whether due to poor health, domestic violence, debt, long-term unemployment, access to benefits or a host of other problems.

So, what is it that food banks actually do?

Provide food. This is their raison d’être and central to the operation of any food bank. Food banks rely on the donations of people from the community, and pass this directly on to people in need.

Liaise with authorities. Food banks often take up queries or complaints with the council or the local Jobcentre Plus that would otherwise go unheard.

Signpost people in need of more help. Food banks can also spot when somebody’s problems move beyond a short-term crisis. They are in contact with a network of frontline professionals—including advice centres, social workers, doctors and councils—and can flag people up to get the support they need.

Offer support. Food banks are sometimes the only place the UK’s most desperate and vulnerable individuals can be reached. Food banks are evolving to meet this demand and trying to provide help at the point of need. The Tower Hamlets Food Bank, for example, stations welfare advisers in its Poplar food bank, to support people in making sure that they’re getting the right benefits.

And what can be done to help?

Give food. This is the obvious one. Community donations are what keep food banks going. The main thing to remember is that food should have a good nutritional value. It’s also important not to overwhelm food banks with large donations, as these can be a logistical nightmare.

Give skills. The ever expanding role of food banks means that they need a variety of skills under their roof. It’s important to think about what you could bring to a food bank, beyond food, money or time. Businesses, councils and individuals can all play a part (see Beyond Beans for more information).

Give time. Food banks rely on volunteers who provide administrative support, work in the depots and warehouses and help coordinate volunteers.

Give money. Running a food bank is expensive. From hiring the warehouse, to employing core staff, funding can have a hugely positive impact. Money enables food banks to provide the right mix of skills in their staff and to pin down the complex logistical functions that their organisations carry out. Ultimately, if food banks have to concentrate less on survival, they can focus more or tackling the problems that bring people through their doors. Their evolving role is a positive sign in terms of the impact that food banks can have, but it’s creating a bigger financial strain than ever before.