Cost of living - Food aid

“I worry that we normalise hunger,” explains a charity leader, discussing the demand for food aid. “It’s much worse than during Covid,” says another. “Each week we think it can’t get any worse… and then it does.”

In the first two weeks of December 2022, Citizens Advice helped more people with food bank referrals than in any other week on record. Over 90% of foodbanks supported by FareShare have seen demand “skyrocketing”. And 46% of all independent foodbanks are concerned about their capacity to support people if demand stays the same or continues to increase.

At The National Lottery Community Fund, we’re funding charities and community groups which are taking a long term view. They’re helping people manage debt, supporting wellbeing, building allotments so that people can grow their own food, and working on the demand and supply side of the labour market to improve employment opportunities.

But people also need to get through the next few days or weeks. We fund many food banks, community supermarkets and pantries that provide emergency food aid, often alongside other provision, when people need a bit of help to get back on their feet. We support intermediaries too - organisations which collect and distribute surplus food to charities, churches, schools, and community groups across the UK.

Here we look at this emergency food aid: how our grant holders deliver it, how they’ve pivoted to respond to the cost of living crisis, and what they’re learning from the changing situation.

This is based on an analysis of 496 grants from July to November 2022, so this is an emerging picture. We'd welcome feedback and suggestions if you feel we've missed anything significant.

Models of food aid

Food for Life Wales
Food for Life Wales

Many people don’t think they deserve help. There’s still a lot of stigma associated with food banks, as outlined in a 2019 report into food insecurity in Scotland. Natalie from Dundee said she “hate[s] asking for help, because other people need help too.”

This is one reason why charities and community groups use different models to distribute food aid. Food banks remain important, but we’re seeing a growing number of food pantries and social supermarkets – membership schemes, where participants can buy food at reduced prices. There are also many more community larders and fridges where people can both donate and receive surplus food.

It’s important to recognise the different types of food aid initiatives – and to be careful with language. Terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but a project set up as a community fridge might strongly object to being called a food bank.

Responding to the cost of living crisis

Foothold Cymru food parcel
Food parcel from Foothold Cymru

Facing unprecedented demand, charitable food aid providers are expanding their operations to support more people and cover new geographical areas.

Many now provide help beyond their usual remit, or have shifted their priorities – for instance, by adding warm spaces to food hubs, or providing “no cook” options to save fuel. Here we share recent examples of work we have funded.

Improving equipment and facilities

We’re seeing charities adapt their facilities to meet increased demand: expanding storage, and upgrading equipment for cooking and refrigeration. This may mean groups can offer a wider range of support, such as cooking classes or advice services.

  • Expanding premises to support more people. Margate Independent Foodbank has received a National Lottery grant to help with their move to larger premises, to meet increased demand. More space means reduced queuing time and the chance to expand services by offering a warm bank and a private area for consultations. This offers new ways for the charity to save money: more storage capacity means it can now place larger, cheaper wholesale orders, getting more food at lower prices.
  • Upgrading equipment to save costs and diversify services. In Merseyside, we’ve awarded Knowsley Foodbank £9,700 to buy an industrial-sized fridge and freezer and a commercial-standard cooker, and to restock the warehouse shelves with basics like milk, pasta, and vegetables. Better cooking facilities mean the food bank can teach healthy cooking skills, and adapt its space so that people can chat and spend time together.

Opening up to new customers

Many food banks are now helping people who have never turned to them for support before, including a growing number from working households. To do this, many have extended their opening hours, opened more frequently, or applied for grants to support more people.

  • New opening hours to address waiting lists. Every week, Lifehub NI in Belfast collects, sorts and redistributes surplus food from Henderson's, M&S and Lidl to 250 people. To support 70 more families from its waiting list, the group is using our grant to open the food bank for an extra morning each week.
  • Serving outside office hours. In this crisis, people may be working longer hours, or taking second jobs to help cover the bills. That makes it harder to get to a food aid charity during usual hours. Responding to feedback, the Burgess Hill Pantry is using our grant to extend its opening hours so it can support shift workers and welcome new members from its waiting list.
  • Providing specialist food. It’s important to provide the food that people actually need – such as food that is culturally appropriate, or suitable for specialist diets. Kollel Zichron Shaul, a Jewish community group in Gateshead, is providing bi-monthly Kosher food packages to Orthodox Jewish families who are struggling to make ends meet. In Salford, Special Education Needs Families Support Group distributes emergency resources for people with health conditions and disabilities, including specialist milk and food.

Vehicles for food collection and delivery

Food aid services play an important role in redistributing good quality food which has become surplus due to over-production, forecasting errors, labelling mistakes or short shelf-life. Others work with those who can’t get to food banks, arranging home deliveries. All this requires vehicles and fuel.

  • New, larger vehicles to save time and money. In Leeds, St Marys/St Andrews Food Project was relying on volunteers to collect food from supermarkets and redistribution charities – a heavy weekly load in volunteers’ cars. We’ve funded them to buy a van, and to cover insurance and fuel costs. They can save time and fuel by making collections in a single trip, rather than three car journeys every other day.
  • Addressing a drop in commercial sponsorships. Each week, Rethink Food collects 10 tonnes of surplus fresh food from supermarkets, food producers and distributors in and around Leeds and Bradford. This is distributed to 42 schools, 17 community organisations and 200 families, feeding more than 2,000 people per week. Until now, a commercial partner sponsored their delivery vans, but the cost of living crisis has reduced the available sponsorship. Our funding enabled them to purchase one of the vans outright, which they would otherwise have had to give up.
  • Delivering people as well as food. In Wigan, Driven Community Transport’s volunteer drivers provide lifts to Wigan Council’s warm spaces around the borough. 15 food banks use Driven’s volunteers to transport hot meals to all the warm locations, while the Council refer vulnerable individuals and those who need accessible transport to the service.

Opportunities to connect and make friends

Many food aid services offer hot food on their premises. Friendly, café-style spaces offer the chance of social connection while doubling as warm hubs for those who are struggling to heat their homes.

  • A warm place for the community. Volunteer-led New Hartley Food Pantry has opened a café, offering hot meals for those who aren't able or can’t afford to cook. The café provides a warm meeting place for the community, while encouraging users to contribute in any way they can – for example by volunteering or donating food.
  • Encourage engagement, building connections. Beeston Village Food Pantry & Chatty Café is a member-led food pantry at a local community centre. Operating in one of the most deprived areas of Leeds, it uses surplus food to make inexpensive, nutritious meals. The group also offers opportunities to use computers and learn IT skills. Members are encouraged to volunteer, gaining experience in customer service, food safety and managing money.
  • Joining up food aid with other services. Just as food aid projects are offering more services, many others are expanding their core offer to incorporate food. In Abergavenny, Cwtch Angels CIC distributes clothes, furniture, toys, and nappies to those who need them. In 2021, it opened a Community Fridge to distribute free food. Now running year round, seven days a week, the group works with Waitrose and Morrisons, who have donated 8,678kg of food in a year - the equivalent of 20,661 meals. We’ve awarded £10,000 to fund storage space, vehicles, food stocks and electricity costs.

[P]eople come here and if they’re no’ actually using the food bank, they use it for just the social interaction... And to get out the house, and have a cup of tea and a chat. And that makes a difference to some people, ken, like being stuck in the house, depressed...
Iain, Fife, A Menu for Change

What are we learning?

Llangors Community Shop
Llangors Community Shop

The cost of living crisis has created new challenges, even for experienced food aid services. Here are some lessons they’ve shared with us.

Addressing supply issues

Building and managing stock to ensure a good mix of fresh and non-perishable foods is not easy. But it’s become much harder to source discounted and donated food: 69% of independent food banks were reporting supply issues in December 2022 and one in five have had to reduce the size of their food parcels. The demand is growing while donations from the public have dwindled.

We’re seeing food aid projects working creatively to make sure they’ve got a steady supply of food.

  • Diversifying so that food comes from multiple sources. Even a large supplier can’t provide everything a food bank needs. Most start by building relationships with local and national supermarkets, and they may work with charitable food redistributors like FareShare, The Trussell Trust, or The Felix Project. Working with local farms, cafés, cinemas, takeaways, restaurants and food suppliers is common. We, and other funders, are also supporting food aid services. GrantNav, a national grants database, gives an idea of funders who’ve previously supported this work.
  • Working with local groups for fresh, seasonal produce. This includes allotment groups, community growing projects, and even fruit-picking teams. Others have developed their own outdoor space, for example by recruiting volunteer gardeners to set up a vegetable patch. In Lancashire, the Lighthouse Christian Centre is using £4,000 grant to develop an allotment for its food bank. As well as growing fruit and vegetables, the allotment will have space for free-range chickens, for a steady supply of eggs. In Lisburn, we’ve supported Ballymacash Craft Group to start an allotment to grow vegetables for their local food bank. Craft group members have been isolated, and through gardening, they’re learning new skills, making connections, and now helping to provide healthy food for the community.
  • Campaigning for donations from businesses and the public. We see our grant holders fundraising at local festivals, putting up posters at allotments for fresh produce, seeking sponsorship from local businesses, and working with local media to drum up support. Some ran “Reverse Advent” campaigns at Christmas, where people put one item in a box every day for 25 days, donating to the food bank at the end.
  • Helping each other through peaks and troughs. Finding donations can be particularly difficult for smaller, newer food banks, which may not yet have the local connections and public awareness to get what they need. Instead of working separately, it’s been good to see groups connecting, sharing when they have more than they can distribute, and helping out if one is low on specific items. In Lisburn, a new food bank Storehouse Trust contacted another food bank in the area to minimise duplication, share experiences, and provide the best possible service to residents in the area. In Brighton, Nurture through Nature volunteers donate produce as and when it is needed, and grow what the food bank recommends – potatoes, onions, carrots, which are popular and easy to use, as well as greens and other vegetables that work well with limited cooking facilities. Groups like the Hubbub network for community fridges and the Scottish Pantry Network can be important sources of support too.
  • Buying in foods that are difficult to source. While many campaign for donations of specific foods, or collaborate with others to cover shortages, it may still be necessary to buy some at retail price. This may include culturally appropriate food, especially if only a small number of stores in the area stock it. Some of our grant holders have found it useful to keep reserves to cover occasional lapses in donations. To make most of limited resources, others promote existing government schemes so that they can focus on supplying products that aren’t already available. The Brighton and Hove Food Partnership ran publicity campaigns and awareness sessions among food bank, charity and public sector staff about Healthy Start, a government scheme that helps towards the cost of fruit, vegetables, and milk for families with young children. This led to a significant increase in the uptake of the vouchers – including 80% in one area of the city. And the South Belfast Food Alliance successfully campaigned for more shops to accept Healthy Start vouchers.

Food that saves fuel

Where people have had to choose between heating and eating, the cost of putting the oven on may be too high. Some food banks are providing “no cook” options in food parcels, such as “kettle packs” with instant food that can be made with hot water, microwaveable meals, or cold food. Many provide hot meals on site, or lend lower-fuel cooking equipment.

Kollel Erev, a Jewish community group in London, found that families were eating cold food to save fuel. One participant asked, “Will my children never remember a hot meal at home?” The group now has a lending library of high speed, low energy appliances: pressure cookers, sandwich toasters and pizza makers, with recipe cards to show how they can be used to cook a full meal in minutes. The organisation’s soup kitchen also has a rota to make sure each family has at least one hot meal a week.

Offering choice, tackling stigma

We know that there’s stigma around asking for help. People are often readier to accept food when they feel like customers, rather than charity recipients, or when they’re able to give something in return.

Settle Community and Business Hub, in Yorkshire, finds that that people like contributing to its community fridge: “we often get people on a very low income bring a jar of marmalade or some cup a soups, then taking some fresh veg, soups, bread and other options. The option to be able to contribute, whether by donating goods, helping out, making things like bread or jam, or just by spreading the word makes them feel more engaged and empowered and less ‘done to’.”

Offering choice is another way to reduce stigma. Food pantries and social supermarkets offer a choice of subsidised food. And vouchers and cash first initiatives give people more freedom to choose what they eat than pre-packed food parcels. In Scotland, we’ve awarded £2 million to the Household Hardship Fund, administered by the Corra Foundation and supported by the Scottish Government. It awards small grants that charities and community groups can use to give people cash or vouchers directly, to meet pressing needs such as food, fuel, household items or clothing. And in Northumberland, Seaton Delaval Food Hub sources fresh food from Fareshare, but also offers vouchers for the local supermarket, so customers can buy essentials not usually included in the Fareshare offer.

Improving volunteer experience

Volunteers are the lifeblood of this sector. Smaller initiatives are run entirely or mostly by volunteers. Others are supported by residents who are giving their time for free to support their community. No matter how many volunteers an organisation relies on - whether it’s five or 500 - it’s important to help groups to find, manage, train and celebrate their volunteers.

Dedicated volunteer coordinators help to maintain standards and retain volunteers, while enhancing the positive wellbeing effects of volunteering. The Smethwick Foodbank is using a grant of £8,600 to hire a part-time co-ordinator to organise rotas and train and help volunteers so that they feel supported, know what is going on locally, and are able to provide accurate information to their 1,400 monthly customers.

Celebrations are important too. In Scotland, the East Lothian Foodbank is holding a social and team-building event for 60 volunteers, who hadn’t come together as a group since before the pandemic. This will reward their work, with a chance to share learning to improve the service.

Event - Food Aid: responses to the cost of living crisis

On 9 March 2023, we'll host a free online event on food aid and responses to the cost of living crisis, featuring Kirriemuir Food Hub and Dundee Community Food Network. We'll also be joined by Sarah Williams from Sustain, who will be sharing the long term responses being piloted through the Sustainable Food Places movement. Tickets are available from TicketSource.

Last updated: Thursday 16 February, 2023