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Thinking of setting up a food bank? Here's how you can help people in your area

If you're worried about food poverty in your community and wondering how to set up a food bank, here are some steps on how to help effectively

how to set up a food bank

There are a number of things you can do to help with food poverty - and not all are as complicated as setting up a food bank. Image: Unsplash

With inflation hitting heights not seen for decades, food poverty is a growing problem. You might be looking to help in your community and wondering how to set up a food bank

It’s important to make clear that the country shouldn’t need them. Access to food is a human right. But it’s under strain. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has said increased demand seems like a “monstrous wave.”

“I’m extremely concerned. Really, really concerned. We have seen in some areas food bank use already going up 400 per cent,” Welby said.

“It just feels like a monstrous wave coming at us and we know it is going to hit. We can do our best to prepare for it but it’s very very difficult.”

As bills soar, many will struggle to pay for essentials. Yet setting up a food bank may not necessarily be the most effective way to help. If you’re looking to help in your community and tackle food poverty, here’s our guide.

See what else there is in your area

As of July 2022, there are just over 2,500 food banks in the country. Nearly every local authority will have one, referring people to it. It may well be the case that your local area is covered.

Sabine Goodwin of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), which represents over 550 independent food banks across the country, stresses that more food banks is not what the country needs. Instead, your time and effort might be best spent helping out at the existing food bank.

“Food banks are struggling to cope and there is room for people to get involved with volunteering and supporting the organisations that are already there,” Goodwin said. “Some of them are having to contemplate not being able to continue.”

If you’re looking to volunteer at a food bank, here’s the Big Issue’s guide.

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See if there are other ways you can help, beside handing out food

Food is just one element of need and food parcels often act as a “sticking plaster” or a last resort.

You might think you can’t change things, but there are things you can do in your community to help alleviate the need for food banks.

IFAN advocates what’s called a cash first approach – giving people cash and letting them decide what to do with it, and giving advice on how to manage money. Some IFAN food banks give out vouchers as well as food.

“Our approach is always that advice and support to maximise income needs to be the focal point when someone’s facing money worries or financial crisis. There’s plenty of debt advice and citizen’s advice services that needs volunteers,” Goodwin says.

You could consider volunteering at Citizens’ Advice to help give people that advice.

Goodwin added: “It’s about really channelling the energy in communities into what’s going to reduce the need for food banks.”

If you’re looking to volunteer in your community, check out our guide here.

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Start small

If you do see pressing need in your community and nobody else is doing anything, there are things you can do.

Ray Barron-Woolford, who set up We Care, Britain’s biggest food bank, recommends just handing out supplies. There’s no need for premises – just set up a place to be each week.

“That’s the only way you can really do a street food bank these days because the costs of it are so huge,” he says.

All it really needs is some food. You might get this through apps like donations app Olio, local restaurants or even estate agents.

“I got estate agents, because they have quite a lot of money and they have storage, and I said that when you have tenants moving out of houses quite often they leave food behind. [I told them to] get them to bring it to your office and then ring me,” Barron-Woolford says. “They’d call me and I’d go round and collect the food.”

Being there at a certain time every week is crucial. Barron-Woolford points out that the end of the month is also a particularly good time to do it, as people can be struggling to stretch pay cheques.

You can even get specific funding from local authorities if you have a specific community in mind.

“If you want to help certain groups of people, there’s more funding. So if you only do refugees or only do homeless, local authorities will have funding and you might be able to access some of that,” Barron-Woolford says.

Bear in mind vulnerable groups. The disabled and elderly often can’t make it out to food banks and get forgotten. 

“There’s a lot of people who are housebound, and they don’t have the option to go to a food bank. A lot of food banks don’t deliver. It’s very easy, because you don’t see them, to forget the disabled,” he added.

You might be able to reach these people through local groups or neighbours, and keep in contact with them through a buddy system.

This approach is a way to establish networks and a supply of food. From there, you might realise there’s further need in your community and that setting up a permanent food bank is the way forward.

“Never worry about having too much food. You can never have enough food. One weekend we were given 148 commercial-sized apple pies from Costa when all the coffee shops were closed. So I literally stood on the street corner and gave everybody that walked past an apple pie, and some said they’d give a donation,” says Barron-Woolford.

“People will give you a bit of money, so if you need specific things that you’re not getting donated you can buy them next week.”

If you are distributing food regularly, it’s a legal requirement to register with your local authority as a food business.

Think about a community fridge

Another alternative if you’re wondering how to set up a food bank is a community fridge. These are open to all rather than means tested and offer a way to use food that would otherwise go to waste. Hubbub has a guide on how to set one up.

You will need a legally registered organisation – new or existing – to lead the fridge project, for insurance purposes.  And you’ll need to find a good location. One that’s accessible, popular and secure is ideal.

If you’re interested, Hubbub’s full guide – with information on security, hygiene, and health and safety – can be found here, and you can contact Hubbub by emailing communityfridge@hubbub.org.uk

How to set up a food bank

Setting up a food bank itself is a big task and doesn’t suit everywhere. But here’s how you can do it.

The ingredients are fairly basic. You’ll need premises, supply of food, money, and volunteers. 

Unless you’re just giving out dried and canned food, you’ll need fridges – these are expensive to run, so you will need funding to keep going. You’ll also need to contend with food hygiene regulations.

In particular, you’ve got to be able to transport the food if you’re getting it from a supermarket or warehouse. It will need to be refrigerated and you can’t just stick it in the back of your car.
It may be worth getting the input and help of an existing food bank network. Organisations like the Trussell Trust offer training and support in exchange for a membership fee and provide more information here.

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For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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