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Blog 8: Some bigger questions about food banks and food poverty

In my last post, I posed a series of practical questions for those involved in food banking, ending with a set of more fundamental questions. This post begins with some common criticisms of food banking, many of which are found in the publications mentioned in section 2. Section 3 draws attention to new models of food aid which maintain dignity and regard those experiencing food poverty as the real experts.

  1. Common criticisms of food banks
  • They are stigmatising – while some give (food and money) others take food (for nothing)
  • They are a form of sticking plaster (like BandAid) since they address symptoms, not causes
  • They let the government off the hook by seeking to take responsibility for ensuring people get enough food
  • They allow the food industries to get rid of the food they don’t need by giving surplus to charities, and thereby gain much-needed PR
  • They think in terms of charity, not solidarity, much less the human right to food
  • They do not take sufficient account of the fact that food poverty is only the tip of a large ice-berg: low pay, unemployment, disability, illness, mental health problems, housing problems
  • They do not challenge the changing public perception of citizens’ entitlements in a supposedly welfare state: from a ‘cradle to grave’ safety net paid for by national insurance, to ‘scroungers’ battening on the tax-payer.
  1. Some recent work on food poverty:

 Andrew Fisher’s book ‘Big Hunger’ (MIT Press 2017)

  • Food banks have become an intrinsic part of north American society
  • They are inextricably tied up with the food industry and the waste it produces
  • They are also tied to ‘looking good’ and requirement for all companies to be seen to fulfill their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policy
  • They let government and the public off the hook, comfortable in the knowledge that people are getting fed by charities

Graham Riches’ book ‘Food Bank Nation: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food’. (Routledge 2018)

  • The right to food is a human right in international law ratified by most nations
  • In other words, everyone is entitled to sufficient food of good quality
  • This right is not being observed in many rich nations in the West, where food banks or similar schemes have been set up to deal with food poverty
  • This is caused by growing inequality and growing poverty which governments are unwilling to tackle

3. Some moves towards new kinds of organisations addressing food poverty

While both Fisher and Riches make mention of some organisations in north America which are rather different from the standard food banking model, I found particularly inspiring the report below from two Scottish organisations which work (with the support of their governmen) to make good food available to all. It contains a set of important principles and practical advice for food banks which want to transition to something different.

  1. Nourish Scotland and the Poverty Truth Commission: ‘Dignity in Practice: Learning, tools and guidance for community food providers.’ (2018)

Scotland has a devolved government which pursues progressive policies in relation to healthy food for all. However, it does not have the powers to operate a different benefit system or set a higher minimum wage than elsewhere in the UK and there are many in Scotland who live in poverty and suffer from food insecurity. Unsurprisingly, systems of alleviating food poverty similar to those elsewhere in the UK have developed, including food banks, but some community initiatives have tried to move beyond a standard food bank model.

  • Nourish argues that ‘Dignity should be placed at the heart of all community action around food poverty’ and
  • ‘Involving people experiencing food insecurity is where we will find the solution’
  • The four dignity principles are:
    • Involvement in decision-making of people with direct experience
    • Recognise the social value of food
    • Provide opportunities to contribute
    • Leave people with the power to choose
  • This means asking staff, volunteers and others taking part how the project supports people to feel
    • A sense of control
    • Able to take part
    • Nourished and supported
    • Involved in decision-making
    • Valued and able to contribute
  • In this report, Nourish adduces examples of community actions which already go beyond the standard FB model, and include maintaining gardens for growing vegetables, providing community meals which are open to all, increasing the choice of affordable fruit and vegetables, provision of fresh food vouchers, operating in places where people go regularly
  • In the second part of the report, Nourish suggests ways in which food banks may transition to different kinds of organisations which respect the principles above


Blog 7: ‘best practice’ in food banks?

A food bank manager contacted me recently: ‘I’m beginning to realise we have to change a couple of things. I know we could also learn from other food banks too. So any good practice you’ve seen that you can share would be appreciated. I’m going to organise a volunteer meeting to share ideas for improvement.’

I thanked her for her request, noting that during the three years of my research there has not only been a depressing increase in the number of people in food poverty in the UK and in the number of FBs. At the same time there has also been an increase in the links between FBs and the food industry, which contributes to a widespread public perception that this ‘fixes’ the problem of food poverty, which clearly it does not.

Many food bank workers recognise that the very existence of the food banks should not be necessary, but argue that in the absence of any alternative at present, this is the best that can be done and it is better than doing nothing.
Nonetheless, I would argue that those involved in food banks need to ask themselves regularly a number of questions, which appear below.

1. Facilities:
Having a dedicated space (including storage) is a huge plus, but most FBs do not have that, so ‘warehousing’ (collection of food, dating and storing) is a big and very labour-intensive issue. Only a small minority of the FBs I know have their own space, but most use church halls and do not have access to fridges and freezers which limits the kind of food they can hold and distribute. Those which have their own space have actively sought it.
How do you make the most of the space you have available to ensure that it is as welcoming and affords as much privacy as possible? Most FBs offer clients tea or coffee, but some have a full cafeteria or serve a simple lunch weekly or more often, thereby contributing to social solidarity and breaking down barriers between volunteers and clients

2. Governance: trustees and managers
FBs are usually charities, with Board of Trustees, a manager (who may be paid or unpaid), and volunteers
• What constitutes good governance for a FB? Is there a clear structure and accountability (who does what, who reports to whom)?
• How do you recruit your trustees? Do you advertise? Interview? Are they ‘hands-on’ and participatory?
• What constitutes a good manager? Can you have good leadership while encouraging all to give their views? Is there a difference between paid and volunteer mangers?
• What kind of record keeping do you do?
• Is there a tension between the formal structure and the need for informality in interaction?
• What difference does size make – number of branches, number of staff, volunteers, clients?

3. Volunteers
• How do you set about finding, coordinating, training, and managing volunteers?
• Is it better to have a larger or a smaller number and why?
• Do you try and ensure that the background of volunteers also reflects the community they serve?
• How do you recruit young people to volunteer for your FB?
• How do you ensure that volunteers are knowledgeable about the topics that concern clients such as low income, precarious work/unemployment, benefit system, health and mental health, housing)? What training do you offer them?
• How do you ensure that they feel able to give their opinions even if critical? Do you provide any opportunity for them to reflect on their practice?
• How is appreciation for their efforts shown? What do volunteers get out of volunteering?

4. Clients
• People come to FBs for food, but for what else? How do you know what clients want? Are they ever asked?
• Some FBs talk about ‘More than food’ – what else is needed? E.g. company, listening ear, sign-posting, budgeting, assistance with forms and benefits, community connections? How helpful are these?
• Going to a FB is seen as stigmatising – taking something for nothing. How can this be overcome? Also stigmatising is being unable to choose one’s food – are there any ways to get around this?
• How may clients be involved in the organisation? How do you find out what they think of your services?
• Should FBs be membership organisations in which clients, as well as trustees, staff and volunteers, participate?

5. Vouchers
Many FBs operate with a voucher system, which entitles clients to food parcels. It also shifts the burden of deciding who gets parcels away from the FB to the agencies. Vouchers also enable good record-keeping. However, some FBs operate without a voucher system on the grounds that it increases the difficulties for clients.
• To what extent are vouchers necessary? Could you manage without them?

6. Communication and publicity
FBs need to communicate with their trustees, staff, volunteers, clients, donors and sponsors as well as the general public. They may do this both formally (regular newsletter, Facebook pages, web pages, posters, meetings, workshops, seminars) and informally through conversations, emails. Making maximum use of media and social media to engage and inform can be very helpful to a FB – do you need to up your game with regard to your media presence?

7. Links with other FBS: sharing resources and knowledge
Some food banks get more donations than others, some occasionally find stocks low.
• Do you have arrangements whereby you send any surplus stocks to other FBs or to other helping agencies?
• Do you feel able to call on other FBs in your area if stocks run low?
• Do you ever get together with them and compare experience and practice?

8. Links with other organisations, formal and informal:
• What kind of organisations do you need to link with?
• How do you develop these to your mutual advantage?
• Are you proactive in this regard?

9. Links with sponsors and donors including food industry
• What do individuals get out of donating? Is this ever discussed?

10. Key questions to ask regularly:

  • Why are we doing this? For whom are we doing it? Is this the best way of achieving our aims?
  • If we say that we would like FBs to be unnecessary, then what are we doing about ending food poverty? Do we challenge public stereotypes about the undeserving poor and if so how? Do we seek to change the systems (e.g. low wages, benefit problems) which lead to food poverty?
  • How can we get beyond charity and think instead about solidarity? Does charitable status constrain what we do?
  • Should food bank volunteers become activists?