When our Science Editor Samantha set us the task of thinking up meals to make with the list of goods provided by her local foodbank, our Facebook group took up the challenge. What do you make with a pile of tins and dried food? The suggestions included pasta bake, jambalaya style rice dish, soup, fishcakes (using tinned fish and potatoes), cottage pie (using Smash and tinned mince), bubble and squeak.
One thing that we quickly realised was that without basic herbs, spices, breadcrumbs, oils and other ingredients to make the food more interesting and tasty, the meals would be bland and boring. Not to mention the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables!
We also realised that we didn’t know as much about them as we thought we did, and asked Sam to tell us the truth about foodbanks, how they are run, and who uses them.
There are estimated 800 foodbanks in this country. Of these around 450 are run by the Trussell Trust charity, who supplied 347,000 food parcels in the year 2012-2013. That figure has been steadily increasing, with almost 1.1 million food parcels being issued by the Trussell Trust alone in 2014-2015. I’m going to tell you what it’s like at the food bank I volunteer at.
How do Foodbanks Work?
Food banks are reliant on donations, sometimes from business, churches and schools but often from individual members of the public. Most food banks don’t have the facilities to keep fresh foods and so are only able to store tinned, dried and preserved foods. The donations are weighed and recorded, making it easy to keep track of how much stock there is as well as making the whole process transparent for auditors. The donations are then checked to make sure they’re in date and in good condition (eg not dented, accidentally opened or partially used). They’re sorted into boxes and labelled for storage – many food banks have off-site storage for the majority of their stock. The food bank’s stock room is kept organised and well-supplied so that the staff can make up parcels quickly and efficiently.
When the food bank is open to clients, they will arrive with a voucher issued by a partner agency such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the police, Social Services, a GP etc. They’re made welcome, offered a drink and some biscuits, and asked a few questions. These are about the cooking facilities they have access to, any dietary requirements or preferences they may have and also about whether they need toiletries in addition to food. The voucher and the completed questionnaire are then passed to the staff in the stock room so that the parcel can be put together. Meanwhile the client can relax and chat with staff, often while their children play with the toys we keep handy.
Typically a client can only use a food bank 3 times during a crisis. Sometimes the manager will be able to authorise extra visits if the circumstances require it, but food banks are there as an emergency safety net, not for regular use.
We don’t just provide food, we also provide a friendly face and a listening ear. Our clients are treated with dignity and respect, and if they want to discuss their problems we’re happy to listen. Sometimes a client will ask for privacy to talk about something, and we have rooms available for this. Often we’re able to refer the client to another local agency such as a homeless charity, a Children and Family Centre, the district council and so on. An emergency food parcel is useful but sometimes there are underlying issues or problems that need to be addressed as well, and we help with these where we can.
What’s in a Food Parcel?
As I explained before, most food banks are only able to store dried, tinned and preserved foods. This is partly to make things easier, as they don’t have to keep products that will go out of date in a short space of time, but also because not all the clients will have access to a fridge or even electricity. So the food parcel, designed to last 3 days, will usually contain quantities of:
Baked beans/tinned spaghetti in sauce
Tinned tomatoes/pasta sauce
Tinned meat/tinned vegetarian meal
Jam/peanut butter/other spreads
UHT milk/milk powder/milk substitute
We try to add extra treats when we’re able to. These might be something like a bar of chocolate or some hand cream, and sometimes it’s something seasonal – Christmas puddings, mince pies and advent calendars at Christmas, chocolate eggs at Easter and so on. In addition to this we also offer whatever toiletries we have in stock. These usually include:
Shower gel/bubble bath
We’ll also offer nappies and baby food if appropriate (again, assuming we have them in stock) and at my food bank we offer clients a tin opener as well. After all, there’s no point sending them off with a load of tins if they have no way to open them!
Who uses Foodbanks?
Many people use our services. We see individuals, couples and families. Some clients have just been made redundant, some are searching for work, some already have several jobs but can’t make ends meet. Some are on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of income from one week to the next. Some are disabled, some are ill, some are elderly. Some are homeless, living on the streets or in tents. Some are in debt, some have had to pay for an unexpected expense like a broken boiler or a new pair of school shoes. Some are waiting for their welfare payments to be approved, some have been sanctioned, some haven’t received payments through no fault of their own.
The people who need food banks could be your friends, your neighbours, the parents at your child’s school. One day it could be you.
Unfortunately there are people who need us but who we never see. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know the food bank is there or how to get a voucher, but often people are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they need help.
Who Works at a Foodbank?
Volunteers are the backbone of the food bank. Usually the manager and maybe a second member of staff will receive a wage, but most of the people you see working at a foodbank are unpaid. They might be retired, they might work-part-time or not at all. But they’re all there because they want to help and they’re always kind, friendly people.
How Can You Help?
Food banks rely on donations, whether it’s food, toiletries, time, money or something else – at the moment the food bank I volunteer at is collecting utensils, pans, plates and cups for the increasing number of clients who are living rough. If you don’t know where your nearest food bank is you can search online for “food bank + town” or use the Trussell Trust map. It’s highly likely that there will be at least one in your area – where I live there are 5 within a 12 mile radius.
As well as accepting donations on site, food banks often have collection points in local supermarkets or churches. Generally food banks will not accept donations that contain alcohol, often excluding items as seemingly innocuous as steak and ale pie. If you’re not sure what to donate, contact the food bank and ask what they need. They’ll be happy to tell you!