Why food banks are still hungry for funds as the cutbacks bite

The economy may be recovering but hundreds of thousands of people continue to need help, says Neasa MacErlean

Hundreds of thousands of people who receive meals or other provisions from food banks and charities look set to face greater difficulties over the next year in accessing the basic foodstuffs these organisations provide.

A report from social-research institute NatCen, given exclusively today to The Independent, shows that food distribution from FareShare, one of the leading suppliers, is "ideally located" and reaching the poorest and most health-deprived areas of Britain.

However, data from FareShare itself reveals that one in 10 of the food banks, soup kitchens and other charities it supplies "will either have to stop providing food or reduce their level of service" as a direct result of funding cuts. Some 42 per cent, in total, are facing cuts. At the same time, 70 per cent of the food banks and charities predict an increase in demand from the needy. The NatCen report – From Food Waste to Fighting Hunger: Exploring FareShare – is published this Wednesday, World Food Day.

The food-bank sector is a phenomenon of the last decade. The Trussell Trust, which now has 400 such centres, had just two in 2004. Although there were some local food banks before that, it took the economic downturn that started in 2007/08 to create strong, national networks such as FareShare and Trussell. Today it is not just food banks which provide help but also organisations such as homelessness charities which provide meals, women's refuges, addiction groups and community centres for the elderly.

So will this branch of the voluntary sector shrink again as economic growth returns? Lindsey Boswell, chief executive of FareShare, says: "The FTSE might be doing well and new-car purchases are up, but the voluntary sector will be struggling for some time to come. The impact of the current recession will have a tail that will go way beyond the return of the feel-good factor in the country."

Right now charities which are stopping providing food to clients are doing so in desperation. Those that are continuing generally find that more people are coming to them for help.

"That is right across the board," says Mr Boswell. "It includes domestic-violence refuges, community cafes for the elderly, mental-health charities and drug and alcohol-addiction centres."

Food banks and charities have placed themselves in the areas of greatest need. The FareShare network, through a backbone of 17 centres, supplies 910 community projects. Of these, 63 per cent are in the 20 per cent of neighbourhoods which are the most deprived. Similarly, over half (58 per cent) are found in the most health-deprived areas, according to NatCen. Depots in Manchester and Merseyside provide food to areas suffering from the greatest health deprivation in Britain.

There are, nevertheless, gaps, and FareShare plans to expand further into the east of England and the south west. Although the charity believes it will increase the amount of food it provides – a total equal to feeding 44,000 people every day – any increase will be hard-won. This is because the food and drink which it procures are the waste from suppliers to the supermarkets, and those suppliers are extremely efficient. It also receives food – tins, fresh fruit and vegetables, snacks and meals – from all the major supermarket chains and many farmers.

"The food industry in the UK is probably among the most efficient on the planet," says Mr Boswell. "So you end up with really small margins. The whole food industry is getting more efficient and wasting less."

Another factor which affects the provision of food and drink to struggling individuals and families is the entree which food gives charities with their clients. For instance, one of the drug-addiction centres which is on the FareShare supply network recently said word had got out among the addicts in the area about the high quality of the food available there.

"We've increased the number of people who are going on rehab courses," the drug-centre manager told FareShare.

And Mr Boswell says: "Food is just a symptom. Many charities use food as a way to engage with someone who is vulnerable."

It is partly for this reason that, looking forward to times of economic growth, he says: "I don't think food banks will go away completely."

The Trussell Trust is not expecting to see food banks go away either. It has a goal "for every town to have one". At the moment a third of the recipients of its provisions are children.

NatCen reports that "previously unaffected demographic groups are now confronting food insecurity on a daily basis."

Mr Boswell makes a similar point, describing how the position of people like himself – in a stable job and marriage, with two children – can degenerate through job loss and then debt and separation into a devastating personal situation within nine months... "then you're in poor health and really struggling to feed yourself".

THE PARTNERSHIP: FARESHARE & GERBER

From its base in Bridgwater, Somerset, Gerber Juice is the main provider of fruit juices in the UK. It is also highly efficient. When FareShare approached it a few years ago to ask for its excess production, the charity was told that there was virtually no waste. The excess was just 0.04 per cent.

But in the ensuing negotiations, FareShare said even such a tiny proportion would mean a lot spread among the needy. In fact, Gerber's waste adds up to one million glasses of orange and other juices a year – or 300,000 litres. This is of particular use to charities whose clients are prone to malnourishment. The homeless, in particular, tend to suffer from a lack of vitamin C. Gerber not only donates its excess to FareShare, it also pays the distribution costs. "We've been doing this for quite a few years and have seen the big difference FareShare can make in improving lives through better diet and nutrition," the company says.

After fresh fruit and vegetables, fruit juice is the most common item FareShare distributes to its client charities. Looking at the end results of the Gerber donation, FareShare says: "Gerber is also helping drug rehab courses and programmes against domestic violence and for the elderly."

CASE STUDIES: HELP FOR ALL, FROM THE HOMELESS TO ALCOHOLICS

"Joe", an alcoholic seeking help at an addictions unit, was asked about his nutrition before going to the centre: "Starving. I was not eating at all. I couldn't eat. I was just drinking, constantly. You know, eating was impossible. Really, really, really bad."

"Bob", who is cooking some meals for himself and other rough sleepers at a homelessness charity, says: "I enjoy cooking a meal, serving it up, hearing people, what they thought of it. It gives you a wee bit of confidence, and it makes you feel better that you're doing something. You must be doing something right when you're cooking, you know? I mean I've never looked at myself as being a decent cook, but people come back and say 'This was good', and 'That was good', and 'That was really nice', and to hear that, I think it's good."

"Ed", another rough sleeper, talks about the food provisions at a homelessness charity: "There's always plenty of food, the food's always good, the food's always hot. Cooked... and sometimes you might get a bit of fruit or a little bit of salad or something."

"Ray", a diner at a luncheon club, says: "This is actually vital for me. I get my cooked main meal here."

"Susan", another visitor to the luncheon club, adds: "I don't know what I'd do without it, I really don't. I come here for the good, square meal and the company."

"Nicky", who goes to a homelessness charity, says: "Whether I need to come here or not, the most important thing to me is the social aspect of it."

"Alice", beneficiary of a domestic-violence refuge, is "thankful" for the help she gets. "Really, it helps us and our families, our little ones. We are really just thankful for that. I'm sure we all feel that way. For me, the first thing I want is for my child to eat."

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