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Food banks have existed in the United Kingdom for over 20 years. Approximately 2.5 million people used a food bank in 2020/21 in the UK, over 600,000 more than the previous year. This compares with 1,110,000 food bank users in 2015/16, an increase of 128% in a five-year period. These figures were compiled by the Trussell Trust, the largest food bank organisation in the United Kingdom. The Trussell Trust’s research established that 5.8% of UK households in July 2020 reported food insecurity in the previous week, and that the risk of being food insecure was higher among:
- Younger people.
- Single parents.
- Social renters.
- Ethnic minorities.
- People in poor health.
In 2019/20, 2.5% of all UK households were supported by an independent food bank or a food bank in the Trussell Trust network. Of the people referred to food banks in early 2020, 95% were destitute, meaning they cannot afford the essentials for living such as heating and food. The average household income for people referred to food banks was just 13% of the national average weekly wage of £578. Of households referred to food banks, 86% were in receipt of social security. Just 16% of households referred to food banks had someone working.
The COVID pandemic is thought to be having an impact on the use of food banks; the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), reported a 62% increase in emergency food parcel distribution in October 2020 compared with October 2019, and 658,048 three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis by Trussell Trust’s food banks in April–September this year. There is anticipated to be an increase in the number of households being referred to food banks as the fallout from the pandemic continues.
Some of the main reasons that people need to use food banks include, but are not limited to:
- Benefit penalties causing financial hardship.
- Cuts in jobseeker’s allowance.
- A sudden loss of income.
- Benefit delays.
- Sudden unanticipated bills or costs.
- A short-term budgetary crisis.
- Domestic violence and or family breakdown.
- Additional fuel costs in winter.
What is a food bank?
Food banks are community organisations that can help people who struggle to afford to buy enough food to eat. The products available in food banks consist of basic items that people need to live, most of which are given to the charities by members of the public or purchased by the organisations with money raised through fundraising activities, donated by business and the public or gained through funding initiatives such as the National Lottery Good Causes (Lotto).
Resources and finances are always limited, and many food banks are unable to support people long-term; often these food banks provide a limited number of emergency food parcels to people experiencing a short-term food crisis.
It is not just food that is available though, other essential items are also available, for example:
- Shower gel.
- Washing-up liquid.
- Sanitary products.
- Baby wipes.
A few food banks offer frozen foods and even pet food, as well as seasonal items like Easter eggs and Christmas puddings, depending on the donations they receive. Some food banks offer hot meals and advice drop-in sessions.
Many food banks offer additional support to help people resolve the crises they are facing; this could include things like debt advice, mental health support, or benefits guidance. People using food banks usually need to get a referral before they can use them. It is important to note that the services provided by food banks may vary from one area to another. Food banks react to the needs of the community to best offer help and support to local people who are in crisis.
How do food banks work?
Food bank users don’t always need to make an appointment, but many food banks do require a referral from, for example, a:
- Social worker.
- Citizen’s advice centre.
- Debt advisor.
- Local council.
- Children’s centre.
- Job centre.
- Health workers.
- Local housing association.
- Drug and alcohol support agency.
You will get asked some questions about your income and your needs. They may be able to help you check what benefits you should be getting if you are not currently claiming them. They will ask whether you need the food for yourself or for all of your family.
When an organisation refers you to a food bank, they will give you a voucher and tell you where the local food bank is. If the food bank is run by a church or other religious group, they will still help you even if you are not religious or are from a different religion.
When you obtain a referral this usually means that you can receive a food bank parcel of three days’ nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food from your local food bank. If you did need a referral to use the food bank, you will need to get another one before you can go back. If you have been told your food bank has a limit on the number of times you can visit, it is still worth asking if you really need the food or go back to the organisation that referred you.
At some food banks there are no pre-packaged parcels, and no need to rely on a referral. You can simply choose the food or goods that you feel you most need.
How to qualify for a food bank
Food banks are designed to provide short-term, emergency support with food during a crisis. They aim to relieve that immediate pressure by providing food, but also offer additional support so that people don’t need to use the food bank again in the future.
You may get a food bank referral if:
- You have been made redundant or have reduced working hours.
- Unexpected bills have left you with no money.
- A change in your circumstances has affected your entitlement to benefit or has reduced the amount you receive.
- A payment of benefit has been delayed.
There are a number of food banks who do not need a referral and may not ask about your personal circumstances; they rely on trust that you would only use the food bank if you were in need.
How to get food from a food bank
Typically, a food parcel is picked up by the person that needs it. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, some food banks are delivering parcels or allowing them to be picked up on behalf of someone else.
A volunteer will normally discuss any dietary requirements including allergies that you might have while running through what is in the food parcel.
Some food banks will provide shopping bags, but it is recommended to bring a shopping bag or backpack with you if possible, to help you carry your food parcel home.
How to donate to a food bank
Over 90% of the food distributed by food banks is donated by members of the public. If you are thinking of donating to a food bank, check with your local food bank first to see what they need. You can find links to food bank maps at the end of this article or contact your local council for details of food banks accepting donations in your area.
Many supermarkets across the country have food bank collection points, usually positioned at the entry and exit points.
You can organise a collection at your school, college, faith group, workplace or business and donate to your local food bank. Food donations are absolutely vital to enable food banks to help those most in need.
What to donate to a food bank
According to the Trussell Trust a typical food parcel includes:
- Tinned tomatoes.
- Pasta sauce.
- Lentils, beans and pulses.
- Tinned meat.
- Tinned vegetables.
- Tinned fruit.
- UHT milk.
- Fruit juice.
Alongside the standard food parcel, food banks try to provide other essential non-food items to adults and children in crisis. This list sets out what food banks generally need the most, but please always check with your local food bank before donating to see what supplies they are currently most in need of.
Items generally needed include, but are not limited to:
- Toiletries – Deodorant, toilet paper, shower gel, shaving gel, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hand wipes.
- Household items – Laundry liquid detergent, laundry powder, washing-up liquid.
- Feminine products – Sanitary towels and tampons.
- Baby supplies – Nappies, baby wipes and baby food.
- Face masks and hand sanitiser.
Some food banks can also provide fresh food if they have the facilities to do so; get in touch with your local foodbank to find out their specific requirements.
If you prefer you can donate money to help the food bank purchase the food and products they need. This can be done as a one-off donation or a regular direct debit payment. Contact your local food bank to find out more and remember that your donation may attract Gift Aid. Donating through Gift Aid means charities can claim an extra 25p for every £1 you give. It will not cost you any extra.
Food banks are largely run by volunteers, so you can also donate your time, from a few hours a week. Contact your local food bank organiser for details of their specific needs or visit the Trussell Trust volunteer web page.
What do food banks need?
Most food banks will only take longer life products that they can store for those in need. Fresh food can spoil quickly and not all banks have chiller facilities – check with your local food bank.
The top ten items that food banks have identified as always required are:
- Cereals – These are popular with all ages; cereals are a great donation to help make sure those in need get a good breakfast to start the day. It is recommended that you choose varieties that are low in sugar and high in fibre.
- Tinned soups and stew – These items provide a warm and nutritious lunch or dinner, and often can contain three food groups: protein e.g. meat, carbohydrates e.g. potatoes, and vegetables. Most vegetable soup will provide one of their five-a-day but, where possible, try to donate lower salt options – look out for the green traffic light.
- Pasta, rice and pasta sauce – Pasta and rice can be great accompaniments to a meal and provide a source of carbohydrates and often very little fat. Look out for whole grain / brown pasta / rice options to help support fibre intakes.
- Tinned meat and fish – These provide an excellent source of protein. They can easily be added to stews or soups to help support a balanced diet, so they make a useful donation to food banks. Choose tinned fish in spring water over oil or brine.
- Tinned beans and vegetables – Vegetables are a vital part of a nutritious diet, but fresh ones are seasonal and can easily spoil while in storage at a food bank. Tinned vegetables are a great and versatile choice; if they are low-salt tinned vegetables, even better. It takes no time to add extra vegetables to pasta sauces and soups to decrease their energy density and increase their nutrient density.
- Tinned fruit – Tinned fruits make a great, non-perishable addition to a food bank’s snack or dessert offering and contribute to the five-a-day intake. Always select ones in juice over syrup to reduce consumption of added sugar.
- Condiments and spices – Mayonnaise, ketchup, salt and pepper go a long way in improving any meal and will store for a while, so they make a good donation that may get overlooked by many when giving to a food bank. Where available, choose reduced salt, sugar and/or fat versions.
- Canola and olive oil sprays – Cooking oils are always in high demand at food banks. Canola and olive oil – it doesn’t need to be extra virgin olive oil – are good options because they are the highest in monounsaturated fats and have a relatively mild flavour. Being fats, they are naturally high in energy so spray options can be an excellent choice, as well as safer for food bank storage, and ensure they are used sparingly.
- Broth and stock – Tins of beef, chicken or vegetable broth and stock are some of the most versatile foods out there because they can be used as foundations for many recipes, from soups to casseroles. Try and opt for those low in salt to create the healthiest soup foundation possible.
- All-natural juice – Long-life 100% fruit juice can contribute towards five-a-day intakes and certain juices such as orange can provide a source of vitamin C, but make sure you choose 100% fruit options and the sugars are only those occurring naturally.
Food safety for food banks
- Food provided for community groups must comply with food law and be safe to eat.
- If you are providing food on a regular and organised basis, or are setting up a food bank or a community operation, you may need to register with your local authority.
- Donating prepacked food products will make sure that the foods are properly labelled with instructions such as use-by dates, allergen information and storage guidelines.
- Food cannot be sold, redistributed or consumed after the use-by date. Food should not be donated to food banks after the use-by date.
- When donating to food banks, businesses should carry out assessments on whether products past their best before dates can be redistributed.
- Food banks and redistributors should work with retailers and manufacturers to agree:
– The acceptable duration beyond best before dates for different products.
– That the necessary checks have been carried out to ensure products are of sufficient quality and free from damage.
- It is an offence for a person to sell or supply food which does not meet food safety requirements, or which is not of the ‘nature, substance or quality’ expected by the consumer. Food redistributors should have a system in place, based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles, so that food is disposed of if it is no longer of the nature, substance or quality required.
How many food banks are in the UK?
In February 2021 there were over 1,300 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK, in addition to over 1,000+ independent food banks run by, for example:
- Religious groups.
- Community groups.
Where is my local food bank?
The number of people in need of emergency food parcels to feed themselves and their children is shockingly high. We can all make a difference by donating food, household and personal hygiene items or money or time as a volunteer. The need to rely on the help of food banks could happen to anyone at any time, and generally the circumstances are beyond the individual’s control.