Economy, Globe, United Kingdom

Food banks: real solidarity in action

There are 13 million people in the UK living below the poverty line, and 115 million across Europe. Of these, 5 million people benefited from the work carried out by food banks in 2011.

Benjamin Serra

A study by the organization “Save the Children” has revealed that nearly 3.5 million British children live in poverty, and predicts that the number of poor families will rise in  coming years.

A similar situation is also occurring at a global level due to the economic crisis. Lack of work, low salaries and debt are some of the factors influencing families’ ability to claim a right so basic as the right to food.

Confronted with this reality, various organizations have taken it upon themselves to provide these people with the food they need. These are the food banks.

It was in the 1980s that food banks first arrived in the UK from the USA and Canada and began to carry out their solidarity work, but it is only now, with the crisis, that they are having the greatest impact.

The majority of food banks in the UK are run by religious institutions of all faiths which distribute food on a small scale within their communities, handing out supermarket leftovers and donations from individuals to those most in need of them.

The Trussell Trust is the Christian organization which runs almost all the UK’s food banks, but it is also thanks to smaller groups that this kind of work is possible. In addition to the approximately 200 Trussell Trust food banks, there are more than 60 independent charities which distribute food. This is the case for the food banks in Tower Hamlets or Norwood and Brixton in London.

The importance of these centres is constantly growing. Which may explain why in 2012 the average number of new food banks opening has been two per week, and it is expected that demand for food from these banks will increase in the coming months, with cuts due to take effect in April of next year.

Another of the most important food distribution networks in the UK is FareShare, a member of the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA), which provides food to almost 700 local organisations and charities across the country.

The work carried out by this network is backed by the UK’s big chain stores such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and The Co-op, who have signed agreements with them.

How it works

Every day, shops dealing in foodstuffs offer a large number of products which, for one reason or another, they do not manage to sell.

These are usually surplus goods, or those about to pass their sell-by date but which are still perfectly edible. They could also be products which did not pass quality control for a reason sometimes as simple as an incorrect label or a dent in the packaging.

Until just a few years ago, these products were discarded and destroyed because they were considered unusable. However, with the introduction of food banks this has all changed. These charities now contact businesses selling food, collect unwanted groceries and share them out.

Though they all follow this basic procedure, depending on its structure, each food bank distributes the goods it receives differently. There are those which distribute food directly amongst the needy, such as small groups or religious institutions, and those which provide partner charities with the food, this being the most common option for the big food banks.

In the majority of cases, the work is carried out by members of religious institutions who volunteer their time to collect surplus produce from retailers. These volunteers store the food and their fellow parishioners spread the word so that those most in need come, whether they are members of that religious community or not.

Biscuits, milk, soft drinks or vegetables are distributed to soup kitchens and help centres for the needy, who need not necessarily be homeless, but simply people who have been left without work and are unable meet the cost of the family accounts.

Among those benefiting from this service are usually groups which are socially disadvantaged for one reason or another. This is the case of the long-term unemployed, immigrant populations, drug addicts, those in poverty and the elderly.

But it is not only groups at risk of social exclusion which receive assistance from food banks, as was the case a few years ago. There are now many families obliged to pay a visit to the food bank because family members have lost their job and what little money they have is used to pay off debts and mortgages.

As recently as 2011, European food banks distributed 401,000 tonnes of food to more than five million people without access to food.

Officially grouped under the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA), there are currently 247 food banks in 21 European countries trying to fight hunger by appealing to our sense of solidarity. However, there are many more groups not associated with the Federation but which carry out this important work in the same way.

A story of volunteers

Although they arrived in the UK in the 1980s, the development of food banks has been similar worldwide. The first food banks were founded in the United States during the 1960s. The idea then spread to Canada, and from there to France and countries like the UK, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

It all began with John Van Hengel, a pensioner who noticed a woman passing by every day carrying food in a wheelbarrow and asked her why she did this. The woman replied that she collected left over food from supermarkets to feed her children. And with this the first food bank was born.

The nature of charities means that this is unpaid work, and those who get involved are volunteers who can be anything from youths to pensioners or professionals devoting their time for the benefit of the community, whether they belong to a religious institution or not.

Many of them offer their services in accounting, legal aid or PR, all necessary for the smooth running of these banks. Others are involved in the storing, transporting or supplying of food.

These volunteers make a moral commitment to society and to the people most in need of that commitment. They see their work in food banks as a real job and an obligation to improve their community, setting themselves up as examples of solidarity and justice.

While the work the food banks carry out and their running is independent of public institutions, the public sector is aware of the huge task the banks face.

Aid under threat

The EU’s Social Fund therefore provides certain food banks, generally those belonging to larger networks, in various countries with produce. Something which does not occur at the community level, where this activity is entirely dependent on local volunteers.

However, from 2014 this aid, in existence since 1987, could come under serious threat from cutbacks planned for the European network of food banks.

Countries favouring austerity such as Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark and Holland have decided to cut funding for food banks, arguing that this is the responsibility of individual states and not the EU.

Those who support funding on the other hand claim that food banks are necessary now more than ever, being a “question of European solidarity”, and would like to see aid extended for the period 2014-2020.

A period in which it is expected that the economic situation of the countries in crisis will improve. A situation which affects thousands of families in the UK and, more generally, throughout Europe. At the moment, food banks offer the only hope for those families unable to allow themselves the luxury of going to the supermarket with a shopping list in their hand.

(Translated by Fiona Marshall)

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