Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: 'Are we normalising food banks?'

There’s a growing realisation among the food bank community that people’s lack of income can only be resolved by addressing the root causes of poverty, writes Charlotte White.

Food bank volunteer/ T

Food banks are struggling to cope in the cost of living crisis. Image: Kyle Issit.

Earlier this month some stark new data was released by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showing that almost one in four consumers now report skipping a meal or cutting the size of meals due to lack of money to buy food. And that 15 per cent of consumers – over one in six – reported using a food bank in March 2022. 

These alarming figures are in keeping with the steep rise we’re seeing here at Earlsfield Foodbank. There are around 150 households regularly using our food bank. Two years ago this was less than 40.

What the new FSA data shows is that food bank usage is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food insecurity. For every person who visits a food bank, there are so many more who are struggling to afford food and aren’t seeking help.

When a new guest registers at our food bank, our initial interview often reveals that they’ve been struggling for a while. Visiting a food bank is a big step, one most people don’t want to take and often put off for as long as possible. New guest Lana says: “For weeks I knew we were getting to this point; we’ve been running out of food earlier and earlier in the week. But I just couldn’t bring myself to go. I feel so ashamed that I need a food bank.”

We’ve also helped guests who have needed to keep their food bank visits a secret as they were concerned about what their partner or children would think. Many guests also talk about being worried about seeing someone they know at the food bank. Monica says: “It’s just a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? Like you haven’t looked after things properly. I would hate for someone to see me here.”

Another barrier to getting support can also be simply not knowing where the nearest food bank is. Karl says: “For two winters I sat in my flat, cold, hungry, and alone, not knowing that there was a food bank right across the street. It was only a few steps in the end but a journey that saved my life.” After signing up as a guest, Karl soon became a regular volunteer as well and is now part of our management team. 

Some guests also worry about accessing a food bank. Do you need a referral from an agency or official? Are vouchers needed? What if you’ve already been this year? The Earlsfield Foodbank, like many other independent food banks, accepts what we call self-referrals and doesn’t require vouchers, but many food banks do need people to access a referral agent before they visit.

There’s no doubt there’s plenty we can do at our food bank to tackle these barriers. We already do everything in our power to make the food bank experience as warm and inviting as possible: we serve a cooked breakfast, provide tea and coffee so that guests can socialise and feel looked after; we make sure the registration interview is a kind conversation, that new guests will not feel judged and will be treated with dignity and in confidence. And we regularly post on social media and amongst the community so that people know we’re here and where to find us.

However, in taking all these steps, we often worry that we’re further embedding food banks into the support infrastructure, that we’re aiding the normalisation of food banks.

This is why we wholeheartedly endorse IFAN’s campaign for cash-first, income-based solutions. IFAN advocates for all local authorities to provide direct, easy-to-access cash payments for people in financial crisis, while advocating for systemic change to address the root causes of poverty. This infographic explains what this approach is all about.

IFAN’s cash-first infographic. Image: Independent Food Aid Network

IFAN’s “Worrying about Money” leaflets epitomise this cash first approach. These feature a simple step-by-step guide for people facing financial crisis, to quickly see available advice and support options, plus details of which local agencies are best placed to help. As well as sharing these with food bank guests, we distribute these around Earlsfield – in pharmacies, GP surgeries, local schools, charity shops, libraries. Our aim is to reach people before they need a food bank, with the hope that with this advice and guidance on financial support, a food bank won’t be needed at all.

And we’re not alone. IFAN has been working with council teams, advice providers and food banks in over 80 local authorities to put together similar cash-first referral leaflets for people in communities across the UK. There’s a growing realisation that people’s lack of income can only be resolved by addressing the root causes of poverty. And ensuring advice and support is the first port of call for someone struggling to afford food is critical to ending the need for food banks.

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurity. Tom Pollard recently spoke with people at the food bank for his report on poverty, food banks and mental health in collaboration with IFAN and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. You can access IFAN’s cash first referral leaflets designed to help people facing worries access advice and support here. Take action and write to your MP using IFAN’s template letter here.

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