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Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Coping with a tsunami of need and the Government’s £16m aimed at food charities

By Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network

The last couple of months have been tumultuous. From the first days of panic buying to lockdown on Tuesday the 23rd of March, independent food banks and other food aid providers across the UK have faced challenge upon challenge while trying to combat growing hunger in their communities.

In early March, food banks were able to easily access a list of staple food bank supplies in the local supermarket either via donation or by buying food with financial contributions from the public. But after panic buying, supermarket shelves were depleted, donations dropped, and independent food bank teams were left bewildered as how best to cope with the rising numbers of people asking for help. Independent food bank teams found they couldn’t jump queues at supermarkets or claim immunity from 3-item restrictions. What’s more, donation boxes were removed in some stores. Frontline providers that had signed up to FareShare could access some fresh food, but not the shelf stable products on which many food banks depend. All the while, more and more adults and children were contacting food banks to request emergency food parcels.

By early May, on the face of it, things might have started to look up in food supply terms. Tesco’s, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and the Coop have donated millions of pounds to the Trussell Trust and FareShare while food donations of 40 food industry players made through what’s called the IGD, or the Institute of Grocery Distribution, were shared between the two charities. The Scottish Government transferred £500,000 to FareShare to supply non-perishable food to community food organisations, and yesterday Defra announced a £16 million allocation for England to FareShare, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and a fund for smaller food distribution charities. In addition, many local authorities are taking matters into their own hands and are purchasing and distributing food. Morrisons has donated food worth £10 million to food banks.

But how do at least 842 independent food banks and a wider cohort of food aid providers fit in and access support? The Trussell Trust has remained steadfast in its efforts to help IFAN and independent food banks as much as possible throughout this crisis but the charity has a large network of over 1,200 food banks of its own to support.

In the absence of meaningful financial support from the Government to enable people on low or no incomes to be able to afford to buy food, independent food banks and other food aid providers need immediate access to food supply to meet the tsunami of need coming their way. Financial donations from the public to frontline providers have increased in some cases, but buying specific food from supermarkets in bulk is not always possible at the moment. The bank accounts of small, grassroots frontline food charities are rapidly running dry. Increasingly, individual donations of food are helping again, but these end up being small contributions when matched with growing levels of need. The Morrison’s £10 million donation to Trussell Trust and independent food banks can only stretch so far as the number of organisations needing support increases. Independent food banks can connect to the online service Bankuet but there are processing times and future charges in the mix. Trussell Trust food banks support local independents when they can but they too have increasing need to contend with.

FareShare has provided a huge amount of much valued food supply to new and existing independent food banks in their membership during this crisis, and their teams have done their utmost to help, but some of their regional centres have been struggling to cope with waiting lists while food supplies reach their limits. FareShare's membership includes a range of frontline charities, only some of these primarily aim to provide food aid. As the Defra announcement states – “At least 5,000 frontline charities and community groups in England will benefit, including refuges, homeless shelters and rehabilitation services.” Part of the £16 million will be distributed to smaller food charities via a COVID-19 Food Charity Grant scheme which will be open for applications on Monday. This fund is intended to support an estimated 30% of food charities not already linked to FareShare but applications are certain to exceed expectations.

Independent food banks are confronted with a double whammy: the challenges of putting together an emergency food parcel as well as supporting huge numbers of additional people asking for help. No sooner have independent food bank teams made up food parcels with the supply they can muster than they’ve all been distributed. It’s a question of continually playing catch up.

Hereford Food Bank’s caseload has more than quadrupled over the past twelve months, while North Paddington Food Bank is serving 75% more people than a year ago. In our latest survey, 7% of IFAN member organisations saw a tripling or more of need from March 2019 to March 2020. The Trussell Trust has reported an 81% increase in need comparing the last 2 weeks in March with the same period last year; and a 122% increase in the number of food parcels distributed to children. The Food Foundation’s mind-boggling data demonstrates the scale of what is unfolding: excluding figures related to the empty shelves seen in the first few weeks of the crisis, 4.8 million adults and 1.5 million children have experienced food insecurity since lockdown. As Anna Taylor of the Food Foundation says, there is a level of need that “far outstrips the capacity of frontline charities”.

The apparent assumption on the part of Government that a combination of food banks and other food aid providers delivering emergency food parcels, fuelled by large-scale supermarket donations, local authority support, and a token Government contribution, can sustain millions of people currently being thrown into poverty defies belief. And those numbers are on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who were already grappling with the pre-Covid-19 food insecurity crisis. And beyond the enormity of short-term need, the long-term mental and physical health implications of reducing millions to rationed tins and desperation appears not to have factored into any Government decisions so far. The reality is that the Government’s contribution of £16 million will only cover a fraction of predicted need for a short period of time and this, like the supermarket and Scottish Government donations before now, will only act as a sticking plaster. Unless cash is placed directly into the hands of people who can’t afford to buy food, the hunger crisis can only deepen with devastating consequences.

And, these crisis payments from governments and supermarkets appear likely to set us back in our vision shared with the Trussell Trust to see the end for the need for food banks. The building of food charity infrastructure will need to be re-purposed in the future. The purchase of fridges to support fresh surplus supply, the rapid growth of Bankuet and food bank finding apps or the systems set up by local authorities to refer people in need to food banks rather than link them to cash grants in the absence of welfare provision funding are proving essential right now. But can their normalisation be scaled back in the months to come if the UK Government ever takes responsibility for addressing the poverty driving food bank use? Or will streamlined food bank systems prove impossible to dismantle? There’s a real danger that their institutionalisation might provide the excuse the UK Government needs to leave food banks to continue to pick up the pieces and fill the crater left by a shattered benefits system.

However complex, we need to keep the future firmly in mind with a focus on dual seemingly contradictory actions: to support people immediately in crisis but to also call for the policy changes that would reduce people’s need for food parcels to survive. We can't let human and financial investments in the logistics of delivering emergency food parcels to people unable to afford food cloud our vision of a fairer society. So, while we press on to fill an ever-widening gap with food parcels we must keep reminding our Government that, of course, sticking plasters are no solution to poverty. The COVID-19 crisis shines a spotlight on the immense inequalities in our society, but funding the distribution of more emergency food parcels will never prove a real solution for those people deserving the dignity to be able to afford to buy food for themselves. And worse, this default reaction could very well embed food banking into our society for good.

 

The Independent Food Aid Network connects, supports and advocates on behalf of a range of independent food aid providers including independent food banks. Our vision is of a country which doesn’t need emergency food aid and in which good food is accessible to all.

You can write to your MP and ask him or her to support our joint call for a Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme here.

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