Food banks are in demand like never before as the UK faces a cost of living crisis.
The Trussell Trust gave out 1.3 million emergency food parcels between April and September 2022, an increase of more than a third in comparison to the same period the year before. Almost half a million of these went to children.
These are numbers never seen before in the charity’s history, as the Trussell Trust warns that food banks are at breaking point.
Need is outstripping donations for the first time in history, making it more important than ever that people donate to their local food banks and help their communities.
Anyone can donate and it is one of the most direct ways of helping local people at their most desperate time. The Trussell Trust and Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) and other charities have urgently called on the government to end the need for food banks as increasing numbers rely on their services. Until then, food banks need help from the public to stay afloat.
Never donated to a before? Don’t know where to find a food bank near you? Not sure why they exist in the first place? Here’s everything you need to know.
Meanwhile, there are more than 1,000 independent food banks supporting communities across the UK. You can find many of them using IFAN’s interactive map. And online tools like Bankuet and Foodbank App can also be used to find your local food bank as well as discovering what resources they most urgently need.
You can donate directly, although most have preferred drop-off points for ease and to protect the privacy of guests. This might be at their warehouse or at local supermarkets.
Most supermarket chains have a food bank collection box in their bigger stores making it easy to donate while doing your weekly shop.
Lidl launched its Good to Give initiative this year. A total of 30 long-life items on the supermarket shelves have been carefully selected and have the Good to Give trustmark on their packaging.
All you have to do is pop the item in your trolley and drop it at the food donation points located past the checkouts in Lidl stores. The items will then be collected regularly by local food banks and community projects.
If you can’t collect and donate items, most happily accept cash contributions. Services like the Trussell Trust, IFAN and other local food banks can be donated to online, either as a one-off or on a recurring basis.
Donations don’t have to be huge. It can just mean buying a few extra items in your weekly shop or donating cash to help food banks buy the items they know locals really need.
What can you donate to a food bank?
Most food banks have clear guidance on what they put in a parcel, meaning deciding what to donate is simple. They tend to have lists on their website or social media pages with exactly what items they need – it’s important to keep to this list. They might be overwhelmed by donations of pasta, for example, but not have any tinned vegetables to give to guests.
The main thing to bear in mind is that whatever you give may be stored for some time before it goes to those who need it. Avoid things like fresh fruit and veg, fish, meat and dairy products as it might go bad and the food bank is unlikely to accept it.
According to the Trussell Trust, a food parcel typically includes: cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes, pasta sauce, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea or coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk, and fruit juice.
Do food banks need toiletries?
When it comes to non-food items you can donate to a food bank, this can include deodorant, toilet paper, shower gel, shaving gel, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, tooth paste, hand wipes, sanitary towels and tampons.
Many also accept household items such as laundry powder or liquids and washing up liquid, as well as baby supplies like nappies, baby wipes and baby food.
It is worth remembering that luxury items many of us take for granted are out of the question for people struggling to put food on the table. Stick to the lists put together by food banks to ensure you are helping combat hunger, but some services have bonus tables where treats are given out – especially in the run-up to Christmas – if you decide to donate something special alongside the essentials.
How do food banks work?
Food banks are designed to help people in the community who may be struggling to pay for food. Schools, churches and community centres often set up collections for food banks or donation schemes and so do big supermarkets and charities, collecting essential items for people who can’t afford them.
People usually need a referral from a support service or professional, such as Citizens Advice, your children’s school or a charity. If you’re not sure where to get a referral, your local council should be able to advise you and help you find a food bank.
Before being referred people will be asked about their needs, their income and how many people they are supporting – so advisers know if they should be referred for enough food to feed a family. They then receive a voucher they can exchange for three days’ worth of emergency food at a local food bank.
When they have found a food bank and go to collect their food they will often be offered a cup of tea and a chat to see if there is any other help they may need. Food banks exist to meet the immediate need for food but many volunteers try to connect people in need with other support services.
Do food banks charge for food?
Food banks don’t charge for food – but most only help people who have been referred by a professional. Often, they will accept vouchers.
A voucher is exchanged for an emergency food parcel typically containing at least three days’ worth of food. If someone needs to use a food bank, they will normally need to seek another referral.
The idea that lots of people go to food banks for free groceries is a myth – many users report shame and stigma around needing food aid and most people only seek a referral after having no income for at least a month, according to Turn2us.
Why you should donate to a food bank
A record 320,000 people have sought help from Trussell Trust food banks over the last six months, with demand outstripping supply for the first time ever.
The charity has been forced to launch an emergency appeal to ensure that food banks can meet the “alarming level” of need across the country.
Food banks are at “breaking point both physically and mentally” and they are set to face their hardest winter yet, the Trussell Trust has warned. They expect to provide an average of more than 7,000 emergency food parcels a day in the next six months.
Josie Barlow, food bank manager at Bradford Foodbank, said: “Someone who came to the food bank recently told me that ‘buying milk is a luxury now’. So many people are struggling with bills and food prices.”
Over 14.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. That includes 4.3 million children.
The cost of living crisis will worsen poverty rates, with more than one million people set to be plunged into poverty this winter.
While anti-poverty campaigners lobby for long-term solutions – like making the universal credit increase permanent, lifting the benefit cap and ending the two-child limit – there remains an immediate need for people to get food even when they can’t afford it.
Are food banks the answer?
Food banks hand out emergency parcels to meet an immediate need: the thousands of people across the country who would not have anything to eat that day otherwise.
But many volunteers and charity workers agree: food poverty can’t be separated from poverty, and food handouts are not the answer to the UK’s poverty problem. They want the government to strengthen the benefits system and improve low pay across the country to make sure people can afford food in the first place.
Sabine Goodwin, coordinator for IFAN, told The Big Issue: “The buck cannot stop at the doors of food banks.”
She added ministers must reinstate the £20 per week to universal credit and working tax credits. The cut, amounting to a £1,040 annual loss for claimants, is pushing 500,000 people into poverty, anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said.
IFAN is working with dozens of local authorities to implement a “cash-first” approach to ending demand for food aid, signposting people struggling to afford food to sources of financial support.
This means distributing leaflets to guests as well as campaigning for jobs to pay the real living wage, and for food poverty to be tackled through increased incomes on a national scale.
Food bank manager Charlotte White said: “A big worry of mine is the more we do and the more we take the slack, the more that we’re relied upon. And we’re not the answer. Bigger intervention is needed. I always feel that we’re guilty, that we’re part of the problem. We’re complicit in making food banks be the solution to poverty, when really it can only ever be a sticking plaster.”
Emma Revie, the chief executive of the Trussell Trust, has urged the government to ensure there is a “broad package of support” for people on the lowest incomes by uprating benefits in line with inflation and closing the gap between price rises and incomes this winter.
She said: “Over the last few years, the government has acted to protect people who are struggling, and this action has made a difference. They must now act again: with swift support now to help people through the winter, and with vision for the longer-term to ensure that social security is always enough to weather challenging times.”
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