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Human Stories

Food Banks | Are They Beneficial to Society?

In most European countries, the government protects the economic and social well-being of its citizens through schemes such as rent subsidies, equal employment opportunities, and unemployment benefits. However, rising prices and increasing food insecurity have created the need for an additional safety net to tackle hunger. This often manifests in the form of food banks.

What is a food bank?

Food banks are charitable organisations that distribute free food to individuals in need. Unlike government food assistance programs, which provide citizens with money or vouchers to purchase food, food banks distribute the food directly. Food banks are typically intermediate agents that connect donors (of food or money) and beneficiaries who are in need of food aid.1 Depending on their approach, food banks may provide services such as purchasing or transporting food, renting premises to sort, clean, and store food, and preparing meals or grocery parcels. They may be funded by public or private organisations or a combination of the two and can managed by a variety of private actors such as faith-based organisations and NGOs or may even be run by community members acting as volunteers.1,2 While some food banks deliver tonnes of food each year, others may be as small and simple as a fridge set up in a community centre.

Soup kitchens versus food pantries

There are two major types of food banks: soup kitchens and food pantries.* Charitable organisations serving meals for on-site consumption are often called ‘soup kitchens’ but may also be referred to as social restaurants, social cafés, or community kitchens. Soup kitchens provide freshly prepared meals and also facilitate social interaction among individuals who experience exclusion because of their socioeconomic status.3 Soup kitchens may prepare meals once or twice a day or on specific days of the week.

The soup kitchen
The soup kitchen "Casa del Pueblo La Dignidad" in Buenos Aires, Argentina where more than 150 people eat each day. High inflation in the country has meant more people are seeking the support of soup kitchens. (Pablo Barrera/Getty Images)

Food pantries, on the other hand, provide people with grocery products for preparing and consuming at home.4 Those using the service may pick up readymade parcels from the food pantry or may be allowed to choose groceries themselves. Since food pantries deal with larger volumes of food than soup kitchens, they often cooperate with other regional pantries and even form associations to share food, logistical and human resources.

*Sometimes, the terms ‘food bank’ and ‘food pantries’ are used interchangeably.

Using surplus food to prevent hunger

At the retail and manufacturing stages of the food supply chain, some of the food is never sold. This could be because of incorrectly printed labels, excessive production, or faulty packaging. Therefore, while technically fit for consumption, such foods cannot be placed on supermarket shelves because of regulatory requirements. Many food businesses prefer to donate these products to food banks instead of discarding them because this is considered a good social practice. In fact, in some countries like France and Italy, supermarkets must donate their surpluses to food banks by law. However, many researchers and activists have questioned whether expecting marginalised individuals to consume ‘leftovers’ is a morally acceptable practice.

Do food banks provide healthy food?

Since food banks rely on donations, they often cannot control the kind of food that comes in. Because of this, most food banks worldwide struggle to provide their beneficiaries with nutritionally balanced meals or grocery parcels.4 Research has shown that due to food safety concerns and expensive cold transport costs, food bank parcels often lack perishable but nutritionally critical items such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat.4 A study conducted in the Netherlands found that calorie-dense foods such as pastries, cookies, and savoury snacks were almost always present in food bank parcels, whereas foods such as legumes, fish, and ready-to-eat vegetarian products were rare.5

People gather around the Salvation Army in Coventry, UK during WWII. Food banks have long played an important role in supporting those in need. (Coventry Telegraph Archive/Getty Images)
People gather around the Salvation Army in Coventry, UK during WWII. Food banks have long played an important role in supporting those in need. (Coventry Telegraph Archive/Getty Images)

How do beneficiaries feel about using food banks?

While receiving free food from a food bank might sound like an attractive opportunity, several studies have shown that food bank users often find it to be an unpleasant experience. Many users report that while accessing a food bank, they feel embarrassed about not being able to provide for their families and that they use food banks only as a last resort.6 Food bank users in the UK reported feeling upset about the possibility of being seen as a failure in their communities or neighbourhoods.7 In the Netherlands, beneficiaries have been reported to feel upset regarding the unhealthy or spoilt products that often end up in food bank parcels.8 “They feel like the food bank, as well as society as a whole, gives them food that would otherwise have been given to pigs”, says onearticle investigating the situation in the Netherlands.8 To improve the food bank experience for recipients, some countries such as the Netherlands are trying to implement a self-service format wherein recipients can browse through aisles to pick out the contents of their own parcels.

Who are the people using food banks?

Food banks are typically used by people who struggle to access sufficient quantities of safe and affordable food on a regular basis. These circumstances are created by a combination of complex societal and economic factors, making it difficult to create a profile for the average food bank user. However, based on statistics from some European countries, we know that single-parent households, refugees, disabled individuals, former convicts, unemployed persons, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to food insecurity and may thus seek support from their local food banks.9,10,11

The rise in demand has forced the Lugo Food Bank in Spain to refuse new users. (Carlos Castro/Getty Images)
The rise in demand has forced Lugo Food Bank in Spain to refuse new users. (Carlos Castro/Getty Images)

Are food banks here to stay?

Some researchers believe that the increasingly prominent presence of food banks in high-income countries indicates that the government is failing to fulfil its duty to citizens.12 Others believe that food banks play an important complementary role to State-sponsored welfare programmes and allow citizens and businesses to make a meaningful contribution to society.1 The role of food banks in our society is especially highlighted during crises. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, food charities were critical in providing aid to the most severely affected members of society.13 Many went to great lengths to continue operating despite lockdown measures and supply chain disruptions.13 However, the current system of food banking may not be sustainable in the long term due to its reliance on surplus food. In the future, technological innovations are likely to make food production more efficient than it currently is, and this, in turn, will leave food businesses with fewer kilos of surplus food. Food banks of the future must recognise their roles as temporary solutions to the systemic problem of food insecurity and work together with other actors in the food system to make sure that everyone has equal access to safe and nutritious food in sufficient quantities.

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