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  • Dr Nicola Livingstone and Dr Joe Penny

What can influence urban food aid provision?

Updated: May 11, 2023

Dr Nicola Livingstone and Dr Joe Penny on food aid provisioning in London, Belfast and Glasgow.

Management, operations & lived experiences: Discourses of urban food aid provision in London, Glasgow & Belfast

What influences food aid provision? Find out more about Dr Nicola Livingstone & Dr Joe Penny’s research on food insecurity responses across 18 food aid providers.

The beginning of the twenty-first century has seen the UK becoming increasingly food insecure with one fifth of the population currently living in poverty. A situation that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently branded a ‘disgrace…a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one[1]’. The growth in charitable food aid providers is indicative of such calamity and although comparative research on such providers is emerging, it is limited often to food bank settings. Growing food aid provision across the UK includes food banks but also a plethora of community kitchens, soup kitchens, social supermarkets, food growing projects, breakfast clubs and community larders.

Our research, funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, contributes to the burgeoning literature on food aid by examining operational strategies and practices of food aid providers across three cities: London, Glasgow and Belfast. Through 18 in-depth interviews combined with our own site observations across eight different providers, the research is the first to compare some of the different types of food aid providers active in UK cities today. We have spoken to managers and volunteers across four types of food aid provider: community kitchens (3), independent and Trussell Trust food banks (12), and food surplus redistributors (3), and have explored how these organisations are responding to the food poverty crisis.

Here we highlight responses to questions relating to the management and operational strategies of providers working and volunteering towards counteracting food insecurity. Although these answers are often linked to the type of provider and the city they operate in, there were many stark similarities in food aid responses across the three cities. We reflect on a number of these similarities here.

What are the key influences on the operational strategies of food aid providers?

Through our interviews, we discussed how each provider sought to meet food-related needs in their local communities and how they each acquired and used space, created thresholds for access and redistributed food. Across the 18 providers, each of these particular aspects to food provision were discussed with an element of uncertainty.

Many food aid providers are operating in spaces which are somehow confined, where storage of donations can prove challenging, access to space is negotiated with other users (for example in church halls and community centres), or spaces are fully accessible but subject to rental costs (in the case of food redistributors). For food surplus redistributors renting space means additional fundraising and strategic management, however fundraising was essential for all providers as each reflected upon the need to have some financial contingency to fill any gaps in provision, as ‘you never know what you are going to get’ (Independent food bank manager, London).

For some food banks, especially those who were independent rather than part of the Trussell Trust network, the ability to directly ‘top-up’ and purchase food when needed was particularly acute. However, franchised food providers including the Trussell Trust and food surplus redistributors were able to alleviate this issue somewhat by redistributing food amongst themselves. The majority of food aid providers reflected on the importance of building links with corporate donors such as businesses and supermarkets both nationwide and in their local communities. However, the extent to which these links were developed different between providers, some were well established, others more ad hoc. Although the types of donors differed across food aid providers, ranging from large-scale institutions to individuals, they are all constrained to an extent by unpredictable supply-side dynamics, which pose a continuing challenge to ensuring food provision is both efficient and sufficient.

In addition to establishing and maintaining networks of donors and suitable, functional spaces for provision, operational strategies also develop regarding who has access to food aid, how they obtain food and when. Clear thresholds for access are in place, subject to specific opening hours and prescribed access times. All but two of the twelve food banks across the 3 cities (both independent and Trussell Trust) require voucher referrals from professionals in order to provide a parcel, whereas other community cafes and food aid providers often have fewer limits on how regularly people could access food, but more limited access to other items (for example community kitchens which also provided sleeping bags and toiletries). All vouchers were set up to provide food for a period of three days only in both independent and franchised food banks, as providers appear to mirror each other’s approaches. The independent food banks in our study often adopt the Trussell Trust model of limiting access to three parcels in a six-month period as an easily replicable standard and ‘tried and tested model’ (Trussell Trust food bank manager, Glasgow) with little reflection on the scale or justification for this provision. However, when a voucher regulates food access, it was typical for the food bank to exercise some flexibility and discretion on a case-by-case basis to address need. The two independent food banks not requiring a voucher for access, both of which were in Glasgow, had their own methods of assessing need through on-site interviews.

If food stocks are low, there are clear boundaries around who can access the food, but on the flipside when stocks are high, we heard of a food bank in Belfast which frequently chased voucher issuers to remind and encourage them to issue the vouchers they were given. In Glasgow and Belfast, the need for establishing boundaries around voucher provision and developing relationships with those providers was discussed in two food banks– and depending on the process itself, the food banks (both independent and Trussell Trust) were able to adjust the numbers of vouchers issuers received depending on circumstances of the food banks and issuers. These experiences reflects an ongoing and constant process in mediating provision.

In food banks, we found a continual and consistent balancing act going on at all times, as donations tend to be seasonal and supply unpredictable. For the community cafes and kitchens in our project, supplies are often regularly received from businesses in the local community (for example cafes and hotels), which ensures there is somewhat reliable influx of often hot and cold foods for consumption. Unlike the food banks, which do not always have constant access to perishable food such as fruit and vegetables, community cafes and food surplus redistributors are more likely to both use and recirculate perishables. The latter often delivering significant amounts of perishable food to partner organisations including, where possible to food banks.

This blog has introduced only one element of our research on operational strategies and the experiences of the different types of food aid providers active in the UK. However, we’ve offered initial insights into the types of essential decisions that need to be made by charitable providers in relation to space, determining thresholds for access, and how food is redistributed.

Other elements of our research examines what employees and volunteers think about the growth of food aid, and considers their motivations, challenges and political perceptions in relation to food insecurity. If you are interested in hearing more on these findings, they will be presented on Thursday 29thNovember at UCL. More details about registration can be found at the website below.

Nicola Livingstone & Joe Penny are both academics working at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL and are happy to be contacted with comments and questions on the following email address:


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