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Why aren’t people in need using food banks?

Written by on December 13, 2021

Between April and September 2021 “…the Trussell Trust’s food bank network provided 936,000 emergency food parcels to people in crisis between April and September 2021”, and this was after they reported that at the end of 2020 “…a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were distributed to people in need.” This is only part of the story – many other foodbanks are independent of that network.

It is a societal, and human, failing that in the 21st century some people are still not having their basic needs being met.

Worse still, these statistics are only those cases that can be recorded. Speaking with food bank distributors such as The Hope Centre in Northampton, it is clear that the need is greater and many in greatest need don’t come forward.

If services are there, why are they not being utilized?

Practical considerations?

The location of food banks can be difficult for people to access in terms of distance, and in some cases they operate only at set times. To counter this, Northampton Hope Centre has set up the “Foodclub”, a social supermarket where donations are brought to community centres in local areas of need, and for £10 per month, it is possible to stock up on around £20+ worth of food (including toiletries and fresh fruits) per week. Some food banks do a delivery service, bringing food packages directly to your door.

An “off putting religious bent”?

A report in The Conversation (based on research by Power et al 2017) said that there were concerns with religious messaging because many of the food bank charities were run by Christian charities which may be off putting to those of different faiths. This is an area being addressed internally within organisations, and the report also considers that while other faiths were underrepresented at food banks, it may also be because they had other avenues of support within their communities.

Poor quality of food?

Food bank or social supermarket parcels try to be as nutritionally balanced as possible, and while there have been some historical instances of questionable quality of donated food, they are very careful to ensure their provisions are of a quality anyone would find acceptable. Further, food aid services can also provide tin openers, toiletries and other necessities that make simple daily living tasks easier.

A walk of shame

The hardest part, perhaps, taking the step to ask for help.

Access to food banks often requires a voucher which can be issued by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, your local council or many of the services that you may already be working with, although independent food banks don’t always need a referral.

Brene Brown said “The difference between guilt and shame is between “I did something bad” and “I AM bad.”

One of the most poignant things that Robin Burgess, CEO of Northampton Hope Centre said in an interview was “When people are judged they internalize those judgments. They begin to think I’m not worthy because otherwise I wouldn’t be living like this.” The truth is, we may all be one misfortune away from needing help…and that misfortune is not often of our own making.

Shame takes us to an internal state of unworthiness and inadequacy, it is a self-critical, negative perception and we feel very uncomfortable with it, and the last thing we want to do is validate those feelings by taking the hand reaching out.

So what can we do?

Apart from huge societal shifts such as genuinely affordable housing being available; better support for those already at risk of poverty – The Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies three levels of poverty:

a) Income below minimum income standard (which makes it very difficult to manage the unexpected)

b) Not enough income (falling short of a decent standard of living)

c) Destitute (not being able to afford to eat, keep clean, stay warm and dry)

…and we ourselves may need to reflect on how easily we could ride another pandemic; perhaps one of the key contributions is to turn judgment into support.

Instead of tutting when you see someone drinking while clearly sleeping on the street ask yourself, would you like it if someone tutted at you drinking at home, then channel that energy into making a donation of food, or even time, to the services offering support to not just meet the needs that we all have a right to, but to help restore self-worth and self-belief.

As an organization: what could you do to support those whose only options may be the gig economy or zero-hours contracts, or even give people the chance to hope for better opportunities?

As a society can we:

– change the narrative around poverty so it emphasizes the systemic causes thus giving strength to the campaigns for societal change;

– reduce the stereotyping and labelling making it too easy to dismiss those in need as categories not individuals;

– replace judgment with compassion, or if not compassion, curiosity.

And if you need help please remember that we all do at some point…it’s just that what we need varies. Just because you need support from a food bank, it is no different to seeking it from another service, such as the NHS.

A quote from the “Invisible People” YouTube channel probably sums it up best – “We don’t need more random acts of kindness, instead offer one deliberate act of compassion”…that compassion can be for others, or, if you are in need, for yourself.

Useful links:

IFAN Independent Food Aid network

The Trussell Trust – Stop UK Hunger

Crisis | Together we will end homelessness

Citizens Advice

StepChange Debt Charity – Free Expert Debt Advice

By Audrey Tang

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