Help The Hungry: Five ways to help your local food bank you might not have thought of

Reaching out, at every level, is fundamental to what food banks do, writes Vincent Wood

Sunday 29 March 2020 19:01 BST
The Independent and Evening Standard launches the Help The Hungry campaign

The government has been forced to step in at an unprecedented scale during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, resolving glaring issues as people across the country are forced to stay at home. But those groups who have always been in need in our communities remain just that – in need.

People who previously struggled with universal credit continue to do so. Rough sleepers and sofa surfers continue to live without shelter. Services that once offered support have shuttered to protect workers, while people are burning through their kitchen cupboards faster than usual because they are stuck inside. In short, many of those who have needed to use food banks in the past, those who are not among the government’s 1.5 million most at-risk people and will not be able to call on its swelling volunteer service for support, still need help. The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign aims to help give these people the support they need. Click here for ways you can help.

And here are five things you might not have considered to help you to support your community’s food bank.

Dignity first

A common misconception is that food banks exist to offer the bare minimum – but to do so would be to completely undermine what food can give us in our day to day lives. We don’t only eat for sustenance – we do it for pleasure, to access our cultures, to engage in tradition. Food is central to the human experience, and for millennia has been key to how we experience love and affection.

So ultimately think about what is going to taste good. Of course you can pick up staples that will be warmly received, but you can also donate things that get you excited, and share that excitement with someone else.

Take, for example, Easter eggs. They may not be a matter of life or death, but by donating them you can give a parent the chance to treat their child, and a child the ability to engage in a communal tradition they might have been left out of. You are not just handing out subsistence, but a moment of dignity and joy for a family – and all it took was a bit of chocolate.

It’s not just food

Food banks have never been just about food. Poverty is about choices – do you buy something to eat, or put money on the meter to keep the electricity running? Do you really need the heating on, or can you hold out? Will you be hungry now, or hungry later?

At their most fundamental level, food banks are about a community pulling together and trying to resolve those conflicts – so when you think of donating, empathy is key. On one side of the spectrum, this means not just dredging mystery tins from the back of your cupboard – if you didn’t want to eat it over the last two years, chances are no one else will either. On the other, it’s about thinking of the groceries you couldn’t live without – be that food or something else.

In the early days of the UK epidemic, among the first things to be stockpiled were hygiene products – sanitary towels, hand wash, toilet roll. If you didn’t have the ability to bulk buy, or the spare funds to travel from shop to shop by car or public transport, you were stuck. Donating bathroom products means people who use the service don’t have to choose between hunger and hygiene.

Different people, different needs

The range of reasons people visit food banks is vast, reflecting many of the social issues seen across the country, from universal credit delays to limited post-prison rehabilitation systems, rising rents and jobs that simply do not pay enough to allow for survival.

But helping rough sleepers and sofa surfers out represents a unique challenge for food banks – particularly those who do not have access to kitchens and so are less likely to feel the benefit of, say, the bag of dry pasta many would receive. While volunteers will build a parcel that helps as much as possible, you can go a step further by putting together boxes of much-needed items that can be handed straight over as is.

Ask if your local service is interested, then get a few shoeboxes and add things that might prove useful – like socks and underwear, first aid kits, compact waterproofs, or toothbrushes and paste. Once again as much as you are donating a small box of odds and ends, you are also handing over dignity, and the tools people need to look after themselves.

Bags of bags

Food banks across the country have had to make drastic changes to how they operate due to the virus – while volunteers may have a few contingency plans up their sleeves to keep services running, readying for a global pandemic was not among them.

What has followed has been a herculean effort to organise outright change in a matter of days. Entire delivery systems have been dreamt up out of thin air, while the elderly and at risk who make up much of the volunteer base have been sent home.

Operations have also been streamlined to feed as many people as possible, as hygienically as can be achieved. And as every service user’s food is bagged up and handed over, a small mountain of plastic bags are being deployed.

So, bizarrely enough, in this time of national crisis, that bag of shopping bags that you and every other UK resident has been keeping in the corner of their kitchen or under their sink for years might finally serve a purpose. After all that time of being stored and neglected after trips to the supermarket, they could be put to use in ensuring social distancing.

Ask your local food bank if they could use them – but if you can go a step further and also feel a little apprehensive about contributing to the impact of plastic on the planet, consider handing over canvas bags instead. There are so many feelings wrapped into asking for help – and when you’ve been let down by the world around you time and time again, one that’s likely to come up is shame.

Volunteers work hard to try to mitigate that – and make the experience about support and community, but it’s easy to feel self-conscious walking away from a food bank and onto the high street with an array of clearly worn and mismatched carrier bags in your hands. A canvas bag, while sturdier, is also more discreet.

Reach out

Possibly the most useful thing you can do for your local food bank is among the easiest – ask what they need. While the Trussell Trust, the nation’s largest food bank charity, helps to set up and support sites, the individual operation in your region sets its own rules and runs its own show. Others run via other charities or completely independently.

So check out their tweets to see what they are appealing for, or send them an email to check what they are after, or give them a call and offer up a few hours a week to stack some tins (particularly if you are young, physically fit and don’t mind lugging around crates of produce).

Reaching out, at every level, is fundamental to what food banks are. In reaching out you will get the satisfaction that comes from rallying around your community at a time where we’ve perhaps never been more isolated. What the person who comes to ask for food will get, from your contribution combined with others in your area coming together, is help when it’s possible no one else can.

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