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Putting cash first into practice while running a food bank

Charlotte White, IFAN’s Member Support Officer and former Earlsfield Foodbank manager, shares her ideas on putting cash first into practice at a food bank

As poverty continues to soar alongside increasing numbers of desperate consequences, few would argue that a different approach is needed.  The current system simply isn’t working.  It’s becoming ever more obvious that food parcels are just sticking plasters and that the provision of charitable food aid can only temporarily alleviate the symptoms of poverty.  A cash first approach to food insecurity – raising people’s incomes over food bank referrals – is needed more than ever. 

However, food banks are stuck in a paradox, there’s a limit to what they can do to force change when there’s an overwhelming, immediate need for them to firefight and fill the gap. But their teams can  and do try to reach that limit by embedding cash first practice within the context of their operations.

Whilst the logic of cash first is clear, and many agree with the shared vision to eradicate the poverty driving food bank use, it can be difficult in practice to secure interest and consensus in implementing this approach at the food bank coalface. There are often numerous barriers, both practical and ideological, that need to be overcome to even get started. 

First and foremost, I’ve found it’s key to ensure team members, trustees and the people you support buy into the cash first concept from the very start. Before suggesting any operational changes, raise the topic at every opportunity. At trustee meetings, volunteer meetings, conversations within the community and with people needing support.  Use the brilliant IFAN resources as tools of engagement.  This infographic can really help (physical copies are available on request from IFAN). If you need evidence and reading material then use the resources listed on IFAN’s ‘Why Cash First?’ page. And highlight the benefits of taking cash first approach, not only for people facing poverty but also for food bank operations.  Moving up the cash first ladder will result in fewer people needing to visit food banks while reducing pressure on operations.

The ‘Worrying about Money?’ leaflets epitomise taking a cash first approach food insecurity and embracing this resource can be an excellent first step. They are, quite simply, a straightforward way to support people to find local routes to maximise income.  At our food bank in south west London, the leaflets became part of the guest registration process.  And in doing this, these resources immediately reinforced the thinking to the whole team, that our goal was to reduce the need for food bank visits by increasing people’s incomes.

As well as embedding a cash first mindset internally at food banks, the WAM leaflets can engage and convince external stakeholders.  Local authorities can play a vital role in adopting a local cash first approach food insecurity by establishing the provision of crisis grants in cash. You can find out more about local authorities prioritising income-focused solutions on IFAN’s ‘Can you get cash in a crisis?’ page. Councils are often grateful and appreciative of the work IFAN does to collaborate with them, put together and disseminate cash first referral leaflets.  Colleagues at Wandsworth Council commented that we were doing their job for them when we regularly distributed Wandsworth ‘Worrying About Money?’ leaflets around the community in pharmacies, charity shops, GP surgeries, libraries. 

Moving towards a shopping voucher or gift card model is perhaps the next big step for food bank teams who want to embrace a cash first approach as best they can within their operations. However, further barriers and biases come into play at this stage not to mention the practical barrier of the cost of vouchers as compared to buying food in bulk.  Questions that can come up include “What if people abuse the system?”; “What if people spend the money on alcohol?”.  Conversations on these can be difficult, but experience shows that the misuse of vouchers is low and some voucher platforms also prohibit use for alcohol and other items – a technique which can assuage the doubters. We also used to point out that we don’t ask people how they use their Universal Credit or wages, so why should vouchers be any different?

It can’t be denied that shopping vouchers or gift cards can, not always, cost more than purchasing food in bulk but this method of support undoubtedly allows more choice and dignity for people, reduces the pressures on food bank teams and has the potential to take food banks out the equation. The Citizens Advice Scotland recently ran a Food Insecurity Pilot as part of the Scottish Government’s plan towards ending the need for food banks. Citizens Advice bureaux across Scotland distributed shopping vouchers and even cash payments instead of food bank referrals. It’s also possible for food bank to buy shopping vouchers or gift cards to distribute to referral agents ensuring advice and support come first alongside immediate help to access food.

In my experience, any change in food bank operations is always best on a test-and-learn basis.  It’s much better and safer to dip the toe in the water of new ways of working, to learn and then build from there.   One food bank started trialling vouchers when they stopped offering nappies and infant food products.  Families with young children were offered vouchers for their weekly shop, so that they could purchase these infant items as well.  This became an easy way to incorporate a voucher infrastructure into the system, and for everyone involved with the food bank to trust that this works. Another approach has been to begin offering gas and electricity vouchers to people facing an “eating or heating” dilemma.  Again, this can be a safe way to incorporate voucher distribution on a small scale, while building confidence across all stakeholders.

Using shopping vouchers or gift cards also means that support can be given to everyone.  At Earlsfield Foodbank, we had a number of guests who struggled with anxiety and found the food bank experience (the long queue, the busy, noisy church, the ordering process), daunting; sometimes to the point where they may go without food to avoid the extreme anxiety a food bank visit caused them.  Giving emergency vouchers digitally meant that they never went without food .This also applies to people who may struggle carrying food parcels full of tins and jars.

Using shopping vouchers or gift cards can also free up time for food bank teams and volunteers.  Less time spent managing food items, deliveries, packing food parcels, moving stock means more time for invaluable support and advice.  A cash first approach could mean harnessing community spirit and support in a much more powerful, meaningful way.

Ultimately, we need systemic change to end the need for food banks and other forms of charitable food aid. There’s only so much we can do as independent food banks on the frontline. But embracing steps towards a cash first approach will get us closer to the end goal.

Further reading: Building a ‘cash first’ momentum while breaking the food bank paradox from the ground up by Sabine Goodwin and Maria Marshall for CPAG

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