We are living in interesting times: times which are most definitely more of a curse than a blessing for far too many people. The cost-of-living crisis is piling pressure onto households already hard-pressed to make ends meet. And that crisis is also creating an unprecedented squeeze on one of the few sectors that is providing practical help and support for those hard-pressed households. The food banks.
Food bank use is increasing
It is estimated that around 2.5% of the population of the UK are now using food banks. But it is impossible to put a definite figure on that. Food banks are not regulated and there is no central register. The government does not record the number of food banks in the UK. Nor does it keep records of the number of food parcels being handed out. Or even the number of citizens who, because the social safety net has been steadily destroyed over the last 12 years of Tory rule, are now reliant on charity to ensure that they and their families have food to eat.
Since the start of the year food banks across the UK have seen significant increases in the number of people coming to them for help. The Trussell Trust reports that between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022 they distributed over 2.1 million emergency food parcels, an 81% increase from 2014–2015. And the Trussell Trust is not alone in seeing a rise in the number of people asking for help. A survey by the Independent Food Aid Network, that links over 1 700 independent food banks, found that demand is rising and that support for those in food poverty is needed for far longer than it has been previously.
Food banks are struggling to keep up with demand
To make matters worse, food donations are falling. The cost-of-living crisis is also squeezing the middle classes; those middle classes who were keeping the food bank donation bins in supermarkets full. Food industry donations are also in decline. This could be due to supply chain issues, or distribution problems in the UK due to the shortage of HGV drivers, or even because supermarkets are now selling a lot of the products that would previously have been donated – like wonky fruit and veg.
Adding to the perfect storm pile, financial donations are falling too. Charities across all sectors are finding their donors simply cannot afford to be as generous as they once were. So, income is falling whilst costs are rising. Unlike in the domestic sector, there is no cap on energy costs for charities. Energy costs for running cold rooms or fridge freezers, vital for keeping meat and dairy products fresh and safe to eat, are skyrocketing. Many food banks are close to breaking point because the increased costs and demand coupled with the fall in donations is simply unsustainable and some may even be forced to close.
Who helps the food banks?
There is a charity called FairShare which was set up to distribute food that would otherwise have gone to waste to other charities that feed people. The food comes from a range of places including farms (‘wonky veg’ or excess supply), factories (stuff that is incorrectly labelled or where packaging isn’t quite as perfect as supermarkets demand) and supermarkets (short life products).
Feed the hungry and heal the planet
And this redistribution doesn’t just feed hungry people: it also has huge environmental benefits, reducing water waste and saving thousands of tons of CO2 emissions every year. According to the UN, if food waste were a country, it would have the third largest carbon footprint in the world.
Two recent entrants into the sector may also be able to make a difference.
First off there is an organisation called Bankuet. They are a fundraising organisation (not a charity) who accept financial donations from the public. These donations can be either general or directed to a specific food bank. Bankuet then use the donations to purchase food and other goods like toiletries for the food banks which are signed up to their system. The food banks that are signed up can put in requests for the things they really need, rather than just an endless supply of tins of beans.
Even if people only donate £1 at a time, Bankuet guarantees that every penny donated will be spent on provisions for food banks, and because they buy in bulk, they have what is known as ‘economies of scale’ so they can purchase at lower prices. Which all means that shoppers don’t need to remember to pop yet another tin of beans into the food bank basket at the end of their shop.
BanktheFood is a charity which runs an app. Like Bankuet, food banks sign up to BanktheFood. But unlike Bankuet, the app communicates directly with users. Food banks sign up and upload a ‘shopping list’ of their current needs onto the app which they are asked to keep as up to date as possible. When a user downloads the app, they are asked to ‘follow’ their local food banks.
When the app detects that a user is in a supermarket, it pings a message directly to the user, letting them know exactly what products are needed by local food banks. It is then up to the user to decide what if anything they will buy to put into the food bank collection box.
What are the ‘best’ things to donate?
But if neither of those options appeals, and you can afford to add a donation to a food bank to your weekly shop, what exactly are the ‘best’ items to buy from a nutrition perspective?
Breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals and can be some of the most nutritious foods that many people in the UK eat on a daily basis. If possible, find varieties that are lower in sugar; they do exist.
Don’t forget your ‘five-a-day’!
Tinned fruit, vegetables, beans, and pulses are great. They are full of vitamins, minerals and fibre, count towards your five-a-day, and don’t require much in the way of cooking. Which is a good thing as fuel poverty – not being able to afford to cook – is just as significant as food poverty at the moment. Please don’t donate dried beans or pulses, people cannot afford the cost of cooking them for hours to make them edible.
Rice and pasta are great staples. And pre-soaking them (about 2-3 hours in room temperature water) cuts cooking time in half. If you are donating pasta, then a jar of pasta sauce is always a good add on.
Fish, soup and stew
Tins of fish and meat are great options. They don’t need refrigeration, which makes it easier for food banks to store them, and they require little cooking, which makes it easier for the recipients to use them. They are also great sources of much needed protein, vitamins, minerals and (in the case of some canned fish) omega-3, which most of us don’t get nearly enough of.
Tins of soup or stew are great, particularly if they include plenty of vegetables. They don’t need much cooking, but they can also be used as part of another dish – adding in rice or pasta can bulk them up and provide a really satisfying meal.
Vitamins, minerals and fibre
Long life milk and milk powder which, again, do not require refrigeration. They contain protein, several B vitamins, iodine, and calcium, and whole milk varieties also contain some vitamin D, which is needed for the absorption of that calcium.
Dried fruit, nuts and seeds are great sources of fibre, vitamins, minerals and even protein. They help to fill you up and provide slow-release energy, keeping you going for longer.
Things to provide flavour like stock cubes, ketchup, salt and pepper, mayonnaise and vinegar. These can make a huge difference to any meal.
Biscuits and baked beans
If you do donate to a food bank, try to think about what elements will make a nutritious and sustaining meal. Most people don’t want to live on an endless diet of biscuits and baked beans.