Crisis tends to exposes flaws and issues in systems and planning. Food banks themselves expose the flaws and issues in a number of the systems that should be protecting people from hardship and poverty, whilst COVID-19 is exposing the flaws in the way that many food banks, including ours (The North Paddington Food Bank), provide theirs. A reliance on volunteers is the topic for another time, but some of the common methods of collecting items for distribution are showing themselves to be insufficient when trying to meet the needs of people in an environment such as this, and suggests a need to review where food banks are in the supply chain.
Namely, that without sufficient financial support for people that will allow them to support themselves (which should be the overall aim, bringing an end to the need for large scale food aid), food banks and other emergency food aid services need to move higher up the supply chain. This is so we can meet demand reliably and to a standard that retains the dignity and health of those who need it. This can be done without further institutionalising food aid and moving it away from its roots in the communities that provide it.
We currently receive most of our food and essentials through purchasing from supermarkets and wholesalers. This is supplemented by physical food donations (from supermarket collections, individuals and food drives) , with delieveries from food redistribution charities such as the Felix Project adding to the fresh food stocks that we purchase from local stalls.
Physical donations, whilst a useful and gratefully received supplement that can add diversity to stocks, can also overload limited storage space with unnecessary items, can be difficult to organise logistically and fluctuate too much throughout the year to be too heavily relied upon.
Fresh food from redistribution charities also provide a hugely useful service, but they, like us, can be affected by shortages of donations, volunteers or suitable items. Self-sufficiency and reliable supply chains should be the main aim, with anything on top of that a bonus.
In the last few weeks, as panic buying has depleted stocks and emptied shelves, we have been in the same postion as any other customer, with items we are looking to purchase being unavailable, or having a lowered set limit which will never meet the level of demand that we are experiencing. This, is combined with lower physical donations. Everyone who needs a package will get one, but they will not all be of the quality or diversity that we should be giving them.
We have been exploring the possibilities of us being connected more directly to suppliers for some time, which have usually been met with polite refusal . The same requests now have been met with justifications around how high demand is and how busy suppliers are, which is all true. This could mean the boat has been missed and the point was not pushed hard enough when supplies were more available, or the right contacts were not found. However at this point of acute crisis, where so many people could risk going without food and essentials, a change needs to be made. Food banks, and their place as safety nets for some of the poorest in the community.
Most of the money used to purchase items that end up in food banks goes through supermarkets, and we are still happy to pay for what we need. We just need an upgrading of our relationship with food providers to ensure that our supplies are protected, consistent and reliable and can be moved away from a need from physical food donations. This is particularly true at this time, when we want to limit the amount of exposure to contamination an item has gone through on its way to the bag of one of our potentially vulnerable customers.
The more that food banks have to scratch and beg for the items needed to help people, the less time that they can spend on ensuring that a high quality service is provided that supports the wide array of needs that come with the need to use a food bank. It also means that food banks spend their time appealing for food, rather than sharing their experience and pushing the conversation about how their customers should be supported. At this time, this also means less time to be able to plan and prepare the best response to an unprecedented change in circumstances and a potential increase in need beyond the almost already unmanageable levels experienced this year.
Connect food banks to suppliers so they can receive the food they need at a time that suits them, so that it can be easily sorted, stored and distributed to those who need it in the quantities and of the quality that is required.