Spotlight on food banks

Foodcycle community cafe in Bromley-by-Bow, London

Food banks are helping to feed those in need. Sarah Brealey looks at how they’re encouraging healthy eating and cutting waste, too.

Food banks have rarely been out of the headlines in recent months. Although the reasons for their growth are hotly debated, the charities involved agree that there has been a surge in demand.

The Trussell Trust, the biggest provider of food banks in the UK, gave emergency food parcels to 1,084,604 people in 2014-15, up from 913,138 in 2013–14, which was itself more than two-and-a-half times the number for the previous year.

Adrian Curtis, Food Banks Network Director at the Trussell Trust, said: “The growth in the number of people being referred to us has been phenomenal.

“It is true that the number of food banks has increased, but the number of people has risen disproportionately, so clearly there are other issues.”

The growth in the number of people being referred to us has been phenomenal

“Some of that can be attributed to changes in the welfare system. We have also seen food prices, fuel bills and household bills continuing to rise. Rising prices and stagnant or falling incomes have made a lot of families less financially resilient, so when something goes wrong, like a boiler breaking down, it can cause real problems.”

Balanced diet on a budget

Even if you’re short of cash, it’s still important to have a healthy and balanced diet, which can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, prevent you gaining weight and help control your cholesterol levels. The Trussell Trust boxes are planned to make sure they are nutritionally balanced. The boxes, which provide three days’ worth of meals, don’t contain any fresh food, so that they are easier to store until they are needed, but do contain tinned vegetables and tinned fruit. Tinned fruit and veg still count towards our 5-a-day, although it’s best to pick ones that don’t contain added sugar or salt.

FoodCycle and Fareshare are two charities working to provide a healthy diet while cutting food waste and reducing social isolation at the same time. They collect surplus food from retailers and manufacturers.

In the case of FoodCycle, this is mostly fruit and vegetables, which are turned into healthy, free vegetarian meals served in a social setting in 17 locations around the UK. There is also a community café in Bromley-by-Bow, London, serving affordable, healthy food in an area with high deprivation and poor health.

Bringing about social change

A foodcycle service user and volunteer at their Islington HubShirley, 62, who has used FoodCycle in Bristol, said: “It helps financially but there’s also the social side. There are a lot of people who live on their own and it’s nice to sit around a table and have a meal together instead of staying in alone with a TV dinner.”

Virginia, 87, who has used FoodCycle Cambridge, agrees: “Since my husband died I don‘t like to cook just for myself, so this is perfect and I am grateful.”

According to the charity, 67 per cent of people say they eat more fruit and veg after coming to a FoodCycle meal.

Steven Hawkes, from FoodCycle, said: “We try to go beyond the meal to bring about behavioural change and make people think about healthy eating.

Food poverty is also not having the skills to be able to prepare and cook healthy food

“For example, if they are serving spinach as a side dish, then they might write on the board which vitamins and minerals spinach contains.”

The charity Fareshare collects surplus food from restaurants and shops and redistributes it to charities around the UK. All the food is in date but might have labelling or packaging issues, which means it cannot be sold. Fareshare currently supports more than 1,000 charities, providing mainly fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.

Community cookery classes

Having skills to buy and cook affordable food is an important part of dealing with food poverty, and helps people to eat more healthily, too.

Children learning at Central Street Cookery school, London, with food provided by FareshareFareshare has run pilot projects with some of the organisations they work with, to give charity workers the skills to enable them to run cookery classes. It also supplies food to community groups, such as the Central Street Cookery School in London (pictured), which provides cookery classes for low-income families. “Our definition of food poverty doesn’t just include not being able to buy food,” Shakira Silvestri from Fareshare said. “It is also not having the skills to be able to prepare and cook healthy food.”

Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust has run two pilot projects teaching people to cook meals on a tight budget and is hoping to roll out a wider programme next year.

5 things we can learn from food banks

Preparing food at the FoodCycle hub 1 Reduce food waste

Plan what you’re going to eat before you go shopping and keep an eye on your fridge contents so you can use up fresh produce before it needs to be thrown away.

2 Get your 5-a-day

Frozen or tinned fruit and veg can be cheaper than fresh – and count as your 5-a-day.

3 Cook your own

Home-made food is usually cheaper and tastier than convenience food, and you can control the amount of sugar, fat and salt that goes into it. Our recipes are easy to follow or, if you really can’t cook, ask your local council if they know of any cookery skills courses near you.

4 Eat with others

Loneliness is an issue for many of us, especially older people. And it can sometimes be hard to feel motivated to cook just for yourself. One way round this is to ask friends over for a heart-healthy lunch (you could ask everyone to bring a dish) or find out if there’s a lunch club or day centre that would suit you.

5 Make a difference

Volunteering can be fun, sociable, give you skills for life and help build your local community. Many food banks rely on volunteers, so get in touch with a local charity if you want to get involved.

Find out more

Food bank availability varies across the country. Ask your GP, social worker or Citizens Advice Bureau, who may be able to refer you.

FoodCycle provides free hot vegetarian meals at 17 sites around England without a referral. See a list of locations.

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