Biscuits, shower gel and Christmas crackers: the best way to help food banks

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With the pandemic driving unemployment up and stretching Britain’s social welfare system to the limit, more people than ever are relying on food aid. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, expect a 61% increase in the number of food parcels needed this winter.

If you are in a position to help and want to support your local food bank, there are a number of ways to go about it. Donating food is a great place to start.

“The pandemic has engendered a time of national crisis and we desperately need a lot of different things but the most important thing for any food bank is having enough food,” says Daphine Aikens, chief executive of the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank. “Every food bank will have a website with a list of the things they urgently need but it’s mostly things like tinned soup and vegetables, long life milk and fruit juice.”

Some will accept fresh food but check ahead as the needs and facilities differ widely – not all have fridges, for instance. The only real blunder is donating food that’s already open or out of date. “You’d be amazed by the amount of out-of-date food we get,” says Melanie Rochford at Hackney Foodbank. “There’s not a lot we can do with a jar of half-eaten pesto or massively out-of date-soup.”

It is worth bearing in mind that food banks typically receive more tins of beans than they know what to do with. Jen Coleman, of the Black Country Food Bank, says it has more than 15,000. If in doubt, things like instant coffee, tea, biscuits and rice pudding keep for ages and can really add to a food parcel.

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During tough times, people don’t just need nutrition. Naomi Webb, an administrator at North Bristol Foodbank, says: “We accept a range of toiletries and cleaning products including deodorant, shampoo, shower gel, washing-up liquid and sanitary products that are absolutely vital for people who are struggling.”

With Christmas approaching it is worth noting that some food banks accept craft kits, toys and Christmas crackers as well as food. “We’re focused on taking care of the bare necessities, but it’s important to extend the spirit of Christmas to as many families as possible. Otherwise, many will sadly go without this year,” says Andrew Dorsey of Feeding Britain.

Food banks are also happy to receive financial donations, which provide vital flexibility. “Every £10 donation enables us to provide between 25 and 30 meals,” Dorsey says. “The flexibility provided by cash donations allows us to top up when we’re running low on specific essentials.”

Gary Nash, the founder of Eat or Heat, a food bank in Waltham Forest, says financial donations also help with running costs such as rent and broadband. He recommends donating via websites that charge charities low fees, such as Golden Giving. Another way to donate is through a site such as Bankuet.

Most food banks have social media pages and a like or a share can go a long way to spreading awareness. “We’ve definitely seen a huge increase in the number of people interacting with our social media posts since lockdown began,” says Webb.

But perhaps the most important thing to help those in need is using your voice to affect systemic change. Sign a petition, write to your MP or support a campaign such as Hunger Free Future, which the Trussell Trust launched this week, that lobbies the government to make food poverty a thing of the past.