Social Justice

Food banks forced to ration parcels and dip into cash reserves as donations drop

Food banks are struggling to cope with a surge in demand as donations fall due to the cost of living crisis pushing up prices.

An aerial view of a woman packing food parcels at a food bank. Nearly half of people using food banks last year were in debt to the government

Nearly half of people using food banks last year were in debt to the government. Image: Justin Thomas

Food banks across the UK are being forced to ration parcels and dip into their own cash reserves to cope with rising demand as the cost of living crisis bites, the Big Issue has learned. 

Independent food banks say they have seen a drop in donations while demand has surged, leaving some fearing they may have to close without further assistance.

“Despite all the best will in the world, there is a limit to food banks’ capacity to cope,” Sabine Goodwin, coordinator at the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) said.

A survey published by IFAN in December found over 90 per cent of the 550 independent food banks in IFAN’s network had seen an increase in demand for parcels, while nearly half said a further increase in demand would leave them unable to provide for everyone, or forced to ration parcels. 

Since then the situation has worsened, said Goodwin, with some food banks forced to “dip into financial reserves” to pay for food as rising supermarket prices and the cost of living crisis have led to a drop in donations.

In January, Kinross food bank in Scotland faced closure after the organisation ran out of food and money to service high demand in the area. 

“The options were to close the food bank or reduce the amount of food we were giving people,” food bank manager Annie McCormack said.

Though the food bank managed to acquire funding to keep going, McCormack said they’ve had to “get creative” to keep their head above water. 

“We give people the option to have a food parcel or a supermarket voucher and we’ve had to reduce the amount of money that we can give,” she said. 

“Trying to find funding to keep going is a full time job in itself.”

With national insurance, energy bills and other consumer prices due to rise again in April, Kinross food bank and others around the country are “terrified” about the impact on their clients, McCormack said.

“I know from speaking to lots of other food banks that everyone is terrified about what’s going to happen,” she added. “We’ve got a couple of options up our sleeves, but at the same time we don’t know what to expect.”

Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement has done little to assuage the fears of food banks, with inflation still set to rise at twice the rate of the 3.1 per cent increase to benefits in April. IFAN has called for an uprating of at least eight per cent. 

“It barely scratched the surface of what’s needed in terms of targeting support to the people who are most impacted. This is a catastrophe. It’s deeply, deeply troubling,” Goodwin said. 

Alongside an increase in demand, many food banks are also reporting increasing levels of distress and destitution among those who arrive to collect parcels. 

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This week, Iceland boss Richard Walker reportedly said that food banks are turning away potatoes and other goods which require heating because people can’t afford the energy to cook them, a scenario Goodwin said is not uncommon across IFAN food banks. 

At Earlsfield food bank in London, manager Charlotte White reported on Twitter that an ambulance had to be called this week after a 14-year-old boy fainted and hit his head due to hunger at the centre. 

https://twitter.com/charlottemwhite/status/1506995612901953539

“What we started seeing in January is that this isn’t a cost of living crisis – it’s a cost of survival crisis. You cannot budget with zero. And that’s what we’re expecting – people turning up with absolutely nothing,” McCormack said. 

With little financial support offered by the government, food banks fear being leaned on to deal with overwhelming levels of need. 

“There’s a responsibility that’s been shifted onto food banks, and away from people in duty-bearing roles. We’re doing our best but we’re just run by volunteers – we’re not professionals,” McCormack said.

Goodwin said food banks will always “do their utmost to find a way of supporting somehow, even if that means  reducing the size of parcels”.

She added, however, that further price rises mean “closing, for many food banks, is not out of the question at all”.

“Many of our members are really seriously wondering how they’re going to cope,” she said.

If you require food bank services, you can find IFAN member organisations at this link. If you would like to donate, you can find more information about doing this at this link.

IFAN is calling for a cash first approach to food insecurity and is co-developing cash first referral leaflets aimed at reducing the need for charitable food aid across the UK. You can take action by writing to your local MP through this link

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