Food banks are evolving to survive the cost-of-living crisis, experts say

The traditional food bank model is evolving to become more sustainable as charities and organizations report unprecedented demand and reduced donations in the face of the national cost of living crisis.

Researchers at London’s Kingston University and London Metropolitan University have found that community and social supermarkets and pay-as-you-feel services are increasingly being adopted by food aid charities so they can meet demand, become more sustainable , provide choice and reduce the stigma sometimes associated with referral to a food bank.

Kingston University, London researchers Dr. Ronald Ranta, a former chef who is now an academic expert in food politics and international relations, and Dr. Hilda Mulrooney, a nutritionist and registered dietitian, conducted a two-year study working with food aid organizations in South London and Sussex who were rethinking the traditional model of food banks, with some community and social supermarkets open.

These were open to anyone, so it took away the embarrassment of having to ask for a referral, said Dr. Mulrooney, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “Food banks are the place people go when they’ve really hit rock bottom and there are no other options. They may be grateful for that provision, but it’s usually only available for limited visits and there’s a certain stigma associated with being referred be,” she said.

The element of choice in a community supermarket approach also dignified customers, by feeling more like a shopping experience where they browsed and chose items they liked, albeit from a limited range, said Dr. Mulrooney. This led to less food waste. “While food banks do a fantastic job of handing out bags of food, there is limited choice about what people receive. This means there is a potential for food waste because everyone has their likes and dislikes. Plus, if someone has reached rock bottom, getting food that they don’t like or don’t know how to cook will not benefit their well-being,” she said.

Food banks were first established in the UK in 2000 to tackle food poverty and then expanded during a period of national austerity in the 2010s. Food banks have traditionally been used by people experiencing financial difficulties, often awaiting benefits such as universal credit.

The pandemic had led to increased demand, including from people who had never experienced food insecurity before, the researchers found. It had also exposed some vulnerabilities of the food aid sector, including the unreliable access to funds, food donations and food surpluses.

As donations continued to run out, some organizations addressed the shortfall by using alternative methods to fund distribution, they found. New approaches included having a subscription model, where visitors paid £3 or £5 per shop, but received food worth more than multiples of that amount. Others asked for small donations from their customers when they were able, in support of the so-called pay-as-you-feel model.

One benefit of charging a nominal amount for food was to give people dignity, said Dr. Ranta, an expert in the sociological, political and international relations dimensions of food. “If they want to pay — and some people do — they can give something back, so it helps restore their self-esteem,” he said.

Charging customers also made organizations more likely to survive, said Dr. Ranta. “Since the pandemic, public donations have fallen, while the demand for food aid is even higher than during the first lockdown. With food prices rising, it is becoming increasingly expensive to provide food aid,” he said. “A subscription or pay as you feel model is the most sustainable option financially, as they generate money to buy essential goods and secure the future of the organization.”

The researchers worked with a range of providers, including the Voices of Hope charity in London’s Kingston upon Thames and the Lewes Food Partnership in Sussex, UK.

The resulting article, “Change and Innovation in Food Aid Provision in Sussex and Southwest London during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, is published in the British food diary. The findings will be used by relevant organizations and other stakeholders to help further charitable work to tackle food poverty.

More information:
Ronald Ranta et al, Change and Innovation in Food Relief in Sussex and South West London during the COVID-19 Pandemic, British food diary (2022). DOI: 10.1108/BFJ-05-2022-0442

Presented by Kingston University, London

Quote: Food banks are evolving to survive cost-of-living crisis, experts find (2022, Nov. 29) Retrieved Nov. 29, 2022 from experts.html

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