Britain’s gripped by food poverty. The number of families relying on foodbanks to survive has hit a record high, with new figures from charity the Trussell Trust showing that more than 1.3 million three-day emergency food supplies were distributed throughout Britain over the last twelve months.
For most, turning to others for help with food and essential daily supplies usually means making a physical trip to the local foodbank. But a rising number of people, both in Britain and abroad, are instead joining online communities to help out with the weekly shop — either supplementing or entirely replacing the need to visit a foodbank or receive emergency food packages from traditional foodbank vendors.
In a year where the web’s biggest players have been caught taking too much, these are the instances in which online grassroots movements are using it for giving.
This is a shameful indictment of this Tory Government.
While an elite wealthy few get tax giveaways, millions of families find it harder to get by.https://t.co/qmkZZePD9D
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) April 24, 2018
“I had my last bit of food last night and [have had] nothing yet today. I feel so terrible for having to ask but at this point I don’t have much choice,” posts one user on r/Food_Pantry, a ‘subreddit’ on Reddit.com, one of the web’s largest community forums that hosts dedicated online communities across thousands of topics.
“I live in the UK. I have been unemployed for just over a month and have not been able to find work since. I have been trying really hard though, I have been going to the jobcentre once every two weeks.”
The message ends with a link to an Amazon.com wish list full of essential items, including toilet paper. The request is just one of hundreds posted over the last few months by users of the subreddit.
“[REQUEST] Grandma died, money spent for convenience rather than sustainability” another post is titled. “[REQUEST] Mom of two on maternity leave (reduced income) and struggling a little” reads another.
Ask for food, personal and cleaning supplies, even diapers and condoms, and someone will answer your request
While the majority of Food_Pantry’s 8,000 users appear to be based in the US and Canada, there a number of British users are asking the forum for help. Food_Pantry is global, and its mission statement is clear.
“Ask for food, personal and cleaning supplies, even diapers and condoms, and someone will answer your request if they find your need for assistance valid,” reads the bio, with its moderators describing it as a “short term solution to help out in a time of need, not a free ride or a long-term solution”. Essentially, users post an Amazon wish list, and other users buy items from that wish list and get them delivered to the original poster. Once this has been completed, the post is then tagged as “fulfilled”.
These acts of giving aren’t new to the internet. Reddit’s ‘Random Acts of Kindness’, which has around 60,000 users, has been churning out feelgood stories for years, and there’s a strong argument that the globally-connected architecture of the web itself is perfectly constructed to improve the world for the billions who have access to the internet.
I reached out to the moderators of r/Food_Pantry, keen to hear how they perceive their role in facilitating help with Western food poverty, and whether or not there are trust issues with practically anonymous users asking for freebies online.
One moderator, going by the name of Bonnie, told me that although they’ve never requested any help with food donations from Reddit themselves, they are an active moderator on the forum, saying that despite living in California they have connections with British Reddit users who use the subreddit to request food donations.
“Trust has been and continues to be a huge issue when people are helping unknown others on the internet; I personally have [been] burned many times giving so that I now limit myself to Food_Pantry,” Bonnie wrote, alluding to their use of other charitable and ‘acts of kindness’ subreddits. “I try to console myself that even ‘scammers’ have to eat.”
Then my boiler broke and the weather has been dreadful of late. I also have a one year old so not fixing it wasn’t an option
Admittedly, when reading requests for help through the emotion dampener that is a laptop screen, it can be hard to discern what is real and what may be fake.
“I’ve been having a really tough time but honestly thought that things were getting better. Then my boiler broke and the weather has been dreadful of late. I also have a one year old so not fixing it wasn’t an option,” posts another British user. “I have a small wish list of a few food items and some baby things. Any help would be much appreciated.”
I messaged the poster of this one particular request but did not receive a reply. Some weeks later, their Reddit account had been deleted, a direct contravention of Food_Pantry’s rule that deleted food requests will result in a user ban. It’s for this reason, I was told by Bonnie, that monetary donations are not allowed on r/Food_Pantry.
But for a web in trouble, with some of its largest platforms – Reddit included – embroiled in fake news, extreme racism and vast instances of surveillance and personal data theft, it’s life-affirming to see such good persist. This is why the web was created, and in times of technological unrest, it must be its future. For Bonnie, that future comes in small steps, through not-so-random acts of kindness.
“I truly don’t go that deep to wander into future ‘what-ifs” they told me. “I simply do what I can to moderate a small internet-based community and take it one day at a time.”