The pandemic and food banks: what’s happened and where do we go next?

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Blog by Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust 

There’s something about this time of year that often makes me feel both reflective and hopeful. And this Easter, with the recent anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, that feels especially heightened. So I wanted to share with you the challenges food banks across the country have faced over the past year, how we’ve responded, and what this means for what we’re doing next.

What were the challenges?

When the pandemic first hit, food banks faced four key challenges:

  1. How to help people access support safely?
  2. How to ensure there would be enough food at food banks so emergency support could be there for anyone struggling to afford the basics?
  3. How to link people who could volunteer safely up with food banks?
  4. How to ensure the public and policy makers were aware of what was happening, and knew what was needed to address the reasons why people didn’t have enough money in the first place?

What did we do?

Food banks have worked tirelessly over the last year to provide crucial support to people on a scale that has never been needed before, and to push for changes that would prevent people needing emergency food in the future. We’ve been supporting food banks in the following ways.

To help connect people with support safely, we:

  • Stepped up the rollout of our e-referral system rapidly, allowing organisations to refer to a food bank in our network without the need for an in-person meeting or paper voucher to be exchanged. In March, only 15% of referrals to food banks were e-referrals. Now, 68% of referrals are e-referral.
  • Set up a free national helpline in partnership with Citizens Advice (England & Wales). In April this helped people access food at a time when many local agencies who refer to food banks were closed and since May it has been staffed by specialist advisors, able to support callers to maximise their income and identify wider advice needs.
  • Provided ongoing support and guidance to our food bank network about the implications of rapidly changing government guidance, and distributed over £2 million of funding to food banks through two special coronavirus grants:
    • Emergency grants – for costs like short-term staffing, warehouse space, protective equipment, food and the transport and delivery of food
    • Recovery grants – for proactive projects that respond to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, eg services that make sure people are getting all of the money they’re entitled to.
  • Supported food banks to deliver emergency food to people: through a mixture of guidance and by building on our relationship with British Gas. More than 1,700 volunteers from British Gas supported most of the food banks in our network in Britain, contributing 58,656 hours to deliver vital food. The equivalent of 4 million meals for people in crisis were delivered by British Gas volunteers.

To help ensure emergency food was there for people, we:

  • Built on our long-standing partnership with Tesco, who generously donated £7.5million worth of food to support food banks during the early stages of the pandemic.
  • Partnered with British Gas, Palletforce, XPO and The Entertainer to get this food to food banks through a distribution network serving England, Wales and Scotland. This team effort across a range of industries played a pivotal part in food banks’ ability to continue supporting people.

To help link volunteers up with food banks, we:

  • Brought forward the launch of our volunteering platform. With around 51% of regular volunteers at food banks in our network over 65 and many people needing to shield, self-isolate or provide child-care, being able to connect new volunteers with food banks needing help was vital. This system helps food banks to easily advertise and recruit to specific volunteer roles, and then manage and communicate with volunteers easily.

To help campaign for long-term change, we:

  • Gathered and shared data on the increasing level of need for food banks throughout the summer and commissioned research from Herriot-Watt University to forecast food bank use in winter 2020/21.
  • Presented evidence to a number of select committees, worked alongside partners across the charity sector, and mobilised supporters across the UK to encourage their MPs to back the policy changes we knew would make a difference. This influencing with partners helped secure £63m during summer and £170m for December-March 2021 for local authorities in England to provide support to people struggling to afford the basics, and the six month extension to the £20 a week increase in universal credit payments. But we know there is much more that must be done to strengthen our social security system, and we’ll be pushing for more change.
  • Worked with a range of media outlets and influencers like Liam Payne and Michael McIntyre to draw attention to food bank use, creating a range of hard-hitting news stories and compelling features to build public understanding of why some people were being left without enough money for the basics.

What next?

The last year has shown just how willing people are to put their compassion into practice, on a scale we had never imagined would be needed.

During the first six months of the pandemic, food banks in our network provided more than 1.2 million emergency parcels to people unable to afford the basics, a 47% increase compared to the same period in 2019. The phenomenal commitment of food bank staff and volunteers, and the incredible support shown by charity partners, churches, corporate partners and the public meant food banks were able to provide emergency support to thousands and thousands of people struggling to afford the very basics.

But the last year has also shown us people’s real desire for longer-term change, for change that addresses the root causes of why so many people are being left without enough money in the first place – people want to show compassion, but they also want to see justice.

With things likely to change in the coming months, as a country we have a decision to make: either we accept food banks as part of our ‘normal’, or we work to create a more dignified, compassionate and just society where all of us have enough money for the essentials.

For me, there’s no question – it can never be normal that any of us need a charity’s help to put food on the table. When one person goes hungry, our whole society is weaker. That’s why throughout this coming year we’ll be working closely with food banks across our network, partners and people like you, to build a hunger free future.

If you want to join the movement for a hunger free future, click here to find out more.

A UK where no one needs emergency food might is ambitious, but the last year has shown us that if we work together, anything is possible. Together, we can create a hunger free future where none of us go hungry because none of us will allow it.