‘You’re showing the country an alternative to ever more people having to rely on food banks’Andrew Forsey, National Director of Feeding Britain
On Thursday 20th April, the lead contacts from Feeding Britain’s regional partners came together to share best practice, ideas and experiences to help shape the network’s priorities going forward. We were kindly hosted by the brilliant Number Seven Citizens’ Supermarket and Café in Birkenhead and were joined by partners from across the UK including Warrington, Derbyshire, Sheffield, London, Nottinghamshire, and North Tyneside. We hope for this in-person Network Gathering to become a biannual event, to help strengthen partnerships within our network,and to enable the workshopping of ideas and the exchange of vital resources and information. It is clear that this work is needed more than ever, and that it is only by coming together that we can hope to devise the best solutions that will not only tackle the current cost of living crisis but will ensure long-term change and the sustainable provision of food and support going forward.
The two main activities on the agenda were table discussions on both food supplies and wraparound services given the significance of these topics to creating effective and sustainable food projects. When thinking about food supplies, the main concern was the need for a reliable supply of high quality nutritious food, including fresh, frozen, chilled and ambient produce, that is both affordable and sustainable. This was a particularly important conversation given that supply of surplus has recently dropped in both quality and quantity with many projects spending a significant amount on food, often directly from supermarkets. Whilst large projects may have the funding to purchase food from different sources, smaller ones often rely solely on FareShare and surplus, with many food projects having to compete for limited supplies of food. As such, the issue of logistics is key, with projects ideally seeking food that is delivered straight to them, whilst the importance of sourcing food that meets the cultural and dietary needs of food club members was also raised.
The discussion centred around much of the fantastic work already taking place within the network with it becoming clear that having local, regional and national discussions, such as this, is crucial to enabling projects to share challenges and solutions in order to find ways forward. In addition to the sharing of innovative ideas, such as initiatives to encourage public donations and the development of partnerships with local institutions including sports clubs and universities, what became most apparent in the discussion was the importance of building effective relationships within local communities. Whether that be strengthened networks between local food projects to enable them to share surplus food, or starting collective buying networks to enable food projects to purchase supplies directly from wholesalers and producers, it is apparent that we can find strength and efficiency in working together and pooling resources. The success of local partnerships with businesses, markets and community gardens demonstrates the willingness and ability of local community members to help support food projects and it seems simply a question now of finding ways to coordinate these efforts and ensure support is being channeled in the most helpful direction. The role of technology came up as a key player in this, whilst the impact of cooking programmes and meal kit boxes was also discussed. Overall, it was clear that there are already many successful processes in place to help ensure a sustainable source of good quality, varied and nutritious food, and that we need to continue to build on these via local, regional and national partnerships that not only share supplies but also solutions.
Beyond the supply of food, the table discussion on wraparound support and advice demonstrated just how valuable such services are, especially when it comes to providing pathways out of poverty and reducing the need for emergency food provision. Many projects within the Feeding Britain network provide advice services directly within food project spaces, with it clear from these discussions that this is crucial to their success as people are able to get the information they need on-site in a place in which they feel safe. Of course, access to confidential space for the advisor on site is important, and may not be possible for all projects. Many members of our network have found it works well to host a mixture of drop-in sessions and bookable appointments, as well as for advisors to have more specialist teams, equipped to deal with more complex issues, to which they can refer people. This means food projects can offer a truly high quality wraparound service in areas such as debt, benefits, domestic abuse, fuel, housing, mental health, and employment. Furthermore, in addition to advice services, many projects have benefitted from organising extra activities and opportunities to supplement their food provision. For example, running Healthy Start Champion programmes has resulted in greater uptake of Healthy Start, whilst social groups, such as Knit and Natter, Men’s Groups, and Arts Groups, have helped to foster a greater sense of community. Some sites are also offering Credit Union services which can offer members on low incomes access to safe savings and credit options.
There were warnings that advice services are hugely over-stretched at the moment as there have been major cuts in funding and capacity. However, some solutions were put forward to help take advantage of expertise already existing within the community, such as by partnering with universities, for students to provide debt and benefits advice as part of their placements, or with training partners, to whom a space could be offered at an affordable food club to deliver their programmes in exchange for free training for food club volunteers or members. Ultimately, one of the key takeaways was the importance of listening to what people actually want and need, rather than making decisions on their behalf, and of helping people to maximise their incomes and access what they are already entitled to. In order to achieve this, the importance of digital inclusion work in affordable food clubs was stressed, including providing devices to enable people to apply for benefits and Healthy Start.
Overall, the day was a welcome opportunity to share ideas with like-minded and passionate partners. Feeding Britain could not be prouder of the example being set by its partners who are leading the way in tackling food insecurity in the UK and this gathering simply confirmed the importance of the work being carried out that provides both tangible solutions and makes a real difference in people’s lives. Thank you to everyone who came and we look forward to the next!