How to set up a food bank in your local community
Caspar van Vark, The Guardian
The UK's only food bank network, the Trussell Trust, reported last month that it has opened two new food banks in the country every week for the past year. That's an astonishing rate of growth, and it means that the trust now oversees 201 franchises, up from 100 in 2010-11.
All those food banks – along with scores of other independently run projects – are firmly rooted in local communities, and run almost entirely by volunteers. It's quite a groundswell of grassroots activity around around the growing problem of food poverty; according to Defra, food prices increased by 26% between June 2007 and June 2011 – or over 12% after adjusting for inflation.
That means household food budgets are under pressure, and food banks are rapidly emerging as a response to emergency needs. But how do they actually work?
The Trussell Trust, which fed 128,000 people last year, mostly works with churches or other local community groups. Those groups will typically approach the trust if they feel there is a need for a food bank in their area. They pay a fee and in return they are provided with a whole package of support to get their franchise off the ground.
"Each project is an independent charity," says Jeremy Ravn, foodbank network director at the trust. "But their relationship with us is a loose franchise contract. We provide a manual, branded publicity materials, artwork, data collection systems, and an online support platform."
The rest is up to the food bank. They have to source and collect food – usually by asking for donations of non-perishable food from the public or local supermarkets – and then organise those supplies into parcels. Frontline care services can then issue up to three vouchers to people in need of emergency food supplies, to be exchanged for a parcel.
Even with that package of support, anyone setting up a new food bank still has to join the dots to get the cycle of donations, referrals and distribution up and running.
"Food banks need people with thick skins to run them," says Daphine Aikens, manager of the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank in London. "It takes interpersonal skills, because you need to build relationships with lots of people and organisations: the Citizens Advice Bureau, GP practices, the council, and volunteers. There are lots of phonecalls to be made."
As independent charities, each of the Trussell Trust's food banks also have to meet the same statutory requirements as any other charity in terms of governance, accounting and reporting. They receive support in this from the trust itself through a quality audit system, which also checks that food is managed appropriately and health and safety requirements are met.
Under this system, the framework is provided and it's up to the community to make it happen. Other food banks have emerged in different ways. The Oxford Food Bank, for instance, sprang from its founders' frustration with how much fresh food is wasted by supermarkets. Rather than taking non-perishable donations, it collects fruit, vegetables and bread that would otherwise be thrown away.
"We're also a bit different to other food banks in that we don't distribute the food to individuals," says co-director David Cairns. "But there are lots of charities that have to feed people, and can't afford enough fresh food. We redistribute this fresh food, saving it from landfill and helping recipients get their five-a-day as well."
Whether it's asking for donations or permission to collect almost-out-of-date food, it seems like the biggest challenge might be getting donors — particularly the supermarkets – on board. But in fact, that can be surprisingly easy.
"We had a good experience approaching our local supermarket," says Aikens. "I know some others have found it harder at first, but it can be done."
For the Oxford Food Bank, a very direct approach paid off. "We just drove over to Sainsbury's and asked them," says Cairns. "Luckily the person we spoke to was equally concerned about waste, and very amenable to our idea."
Just two and a half years after it launched, the Oxford Food Bank is delivering £400,000 worth of food a year to 25 organisations, using 30 volunteer drivers plus 30 student volunteers to help with the sorting and packing. Every day, this army of volunteers picks up spare food from various suppliers, takes it back it to a warehouse, sorts it and redistributes it.
So could anyone set up a food bank? You need to be organised to make it run smoothly, Cairns says. But theirs is also a simple, replicable model – and one that he hopes will be used around the country.
"Our aim was to come up with something that can easily be copied in other cities," he says. "You need drivers, supermarkets who are prepared to give you their leftover food, volunteers to organise it, and recipients who need it. You can find all of that in any city."
For Ravn, the strength of the Trussell Trust's model is that it provides an off-the-shelf outlet for community action.
"Food banks are an interesting, growing sub-sector in the third sector," he says. "But most importantly, they're generating activity on the ground. We've stimulated it with a national framework, but the real action is local."
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