Sophie Orpen has a problem. A message has popped up on her computer screen in a London office block telling her that half a tonne of surplus spinach is sitting on pallets in Staffordshire. In five days it will have started to rot; or, if she can get chiller trucks to deliver it fast enough to some of the 10,500 food banks and charities on her list, it will have been eaten by people who really need the vitamins.

Meanwhile, on a nondescript industrial estate in Nechells, Birmingham, they have their own issues. A dozen or so warehouse workers are wearing anxious expressions along with their reflective jackets. The Tesco lorry is an hour late and they need it to be full of free food — but, I’m told, “It’s like a box of chocolates, we never know what we’re getting.”

The office and warehouse are run by FareShare, a nationwide food redistribution charity. What they do is, in theory, simple: take some of the two million-tonne annual surplus that’s generated by the UK’s food industry and use it to feed hungry people.

If you thought of food banks as something small-scale, homegrown, benignly amateurish, then a visit to the Nechells operation would make you think again. It covers 11,000 square feet. It has seven paid staff, including seasoned industry professionals; half a dozen delivery vans; six huge walk-in chiller units and a freezer unit; and a roster of more than 60 volunteer pickers, drivers and crew. On an average day it receives, sorts and distributes about seven tonnes of food from five truck deliveries.

This is just one of 31 such hubs operated by FareShare across the UK; FareShare is one of a number of redistributors; and those redistributors are just a cog in a much bigger machine. In fact there is a whole new division of the logistics business: Britain’s hidden infrastructure of hunger.

Unseen by most of us, a parallel food supply chain has sprung up across the UK. From small beginnings it grew during the financial crash of the late 2000s and has now mushroomed to encompass leading freight companies such as Palletforce, supermarket chains including Tesco and Sainsbury’s, redistributors such as FareShare and Neighbourly and a clutch of smaller local outfits. Tens of thousands of volunteers keep the system moving. The entire enterprise may be motivated by altruism rather than profit, but it goes about its work with a businesslike vigour, efficiency and ambition.

Volunteers chat among the fresh produce

Volunteers chat among the fresh produce


And the system works. From FareShare’s head office Sophie had that spinach sorted and distributed to scores of food banks in good time. In Nechells, when the truck finally arrived and the forklift rolled up, it had 1.4 tonnes of food, an impressive haul that was rapidly unloaded, weighed, logged, sorted, allocated and sent on to food aid charities across Birmingham. It’s all in a day’s work for a charity that redistributed 54,000 tonnes of surplus food last year — enough to make 128 million meals.

Everyone involved is on a mission to feed those who can’t afford to feed themselves, and as the cost of living crisis bites, they’re doing it on an industrial scale. And therein, some say, lies the problem. They’re doing it too well.

Feeding millions: how food banks work

Nobody is sure how many food banks exist across the UK. The best guess hovers a little under 3,000 (by comparison, McDonald’s has about 1,300 branches) but it’s hard to measure as they are not overseen or regulated by a central body; rather, like the little ships that plucked soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk, they are a spontaneous public response to a perceived emergency. Most, though, belong to one of two bodies: the Trussell Trust, with a network of about 1,400 food banks, or the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), with about 550. The rest are a patchwork of unaffiliated operations run by the Salvation Army, hospitals, universities and others.

The food they give out comes from a wide range of sources. Many rely heavily on surplus food redistributors such as FareShare; others mostly depend on direct donations from shoppers — that tin of beans or packet of pasta you pop into the collection box on your way out of Tesco. Some have set up direct arrangements with caterers and retailers to chip in, and lots will use financial donations to stock up at the cash and carry if they’re running low. In an ad hoc network, resourcefulness is everything.

The big outfits at least broadly agree on what food banks do. They provide emergency food parcels, free, to those “in crisis” — ie with nothing in the cupboard and no money to go shopping. Plenty of people are in that position: according to data released this year by the independent think tank Food Foundation, about a million adults reported that they, or someone in their household, went a whole day without eating because they couldn’t afford food. The role of food banks is to stop those people from starving, not to sustain them long-term. So much is accepted: beyond that, the perspectives start to differ.

Staff and volunteers pack emergency parcels at a food bank at St Margaret’s Church in Streatham Hill, south London

Staff and volunteers pack emergency parcels at a food bank at St Margaret’s Church in Streatham Hill, south London


The Trussell Trust takes a rigorous approach. Founded in a shed in Salisbury in 2000 and inspired by a passage from Matthew’s Gospel — “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” — it grew rapidly, mainly through churches keen to address hunger in their local communities. The trust provides its members with a blueprint for setting up and running a food bank, from health and safety guidelines to procedures for weighing and recording donations, to what each food parcel should contain depending on the number of mouths it has to feed and for how long.

You can’t just rock up and get food. Clients must be referred by an agency such as social services, job centres or schools who have acknowledged they’re in need of emergency help. There’s usually a limit to how many referrals you can get, such as one three-day food parcel a month. Even with those limitations in place, Trussell provided more than 2.1 million food parcels in the UK over the past year.

Ifan is less prescriptive. It emerged in 2016 as an umbrella organisation for grassroots food aid providers, which all operate in their own way. Many allow “self-referrals”, so those in need can just turn up; a handful blur into another, fast-growing sector — the social supermarkets.

A relatively new model, social supermarkets provide long-term help to those whose regular income isn’t sufficient to cover bills and food. They charge a nominal fee — about £4 — for a weekly shop worth up to ten times as much on the high street. No referrals are required; customers pick their own food; and, unlike many food banks, social supermarkets usually have the facilities to stock meat, fresh fruit and veg, rather than just “ambient” (tinned or dry packaged) goods.

The different bodies don’t always see eye to eye. Ifan in particular takes an overtly political, campaigning approach. “A charitable response is not the answer,” says Sabine Goodwin, the national co-ordinator of Ifan. “We don’t want food banks to have to exist. People simply don’t have enough money to eat, that’s what needs fixing.”

She’s also critical of FareShare. “They refuse to call out the policies driving food poverty in the first place. And many of our members say it’s not cost-effective to use them.” To help cover its costs FareShare — whose goals are as much about reducing the environmental impact of food waste as they are about feeding the hungry — charges food banks about 15 per cent of the retail value of the donations it takes from the food industry.

Donations arrive from a local branch of Sainsbury’s

Donations arrive from a local branch of Sainsbury’s


Not surprisingly, FareShare sees it differently: “We don’t believe that surplus food is the solution to food insecurity or poverty — it is up to politicians to find permanent solutions. But for as long as surplus food exists, we seek to achieve the maximum social benefit from it.”

As for the charges, all that warehouse space, cross-country haulage, power and staff expertise has to be paid for somehow, and FareShare says the charities it supplies food to can typically save about £500,000 a year, though that will vary hugely depending on the size of organisation.

Goodwin is one of many who suspect that something troubling lies behind the increasing reliance on the voluntary sector to feed the hungry. Its effectiveness was tacitly accepted by the government when it gave FareShare tens of millions to provide food aid during the pandemic — but that very effectiveness may be exacerbating the problem: in more normal times it could provide a temptation for a government keen to limit public spending and welfare benefits. Brutally put, if volunteers prevent citizens from starving, the state doesn’t have to.

Food bank users: ‘How did I get here?’

Behind the arguments about ways and means, there are people being fed. What does it feel like to be on the receiving end?

“I never thought I’d be in this position,” says Michael. He’s in his late forties, well spoken, presentable; but when his career fizzled out he found himself living alone and dependent on benefits. “After my rent I have to survive on £65 a week universal credit. It’s just not enough to pay your bills and have enough left to eat around here.”

“Around here” is the upwardly mobile suburb of Earlsfield in southwest London. There’s still deprivation here, but it has gentrified fast in recent years. It now boasts shabby-chic coffee shops and a branch of Gail’s bakery, which does a roaring trade in sourdough loaves for £4 each.

St Andrew’s Church in Earlsfield, southwest London, provides chic surroundings for this food bank

St Andrew’s Church in Earlsfield, southwest London, provides chic surroundings for this food bank


A few doors down from Gail’s, Michael sits outside Earlsfield food bank and wonders what happened to his life. “I was doing fine, then it all changed. The companies I worked for will only employ young people who live at home these days, because they can pay them less.

“I’m surviving on bare essentials. These people” — he nods towards the volunteers — “they’re angels. But it can’t change the fact that when I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is worry about money. I go on worrying all day. It’s absolute hell.”

Inside, the manager Charlotte White does her best to provide a respite — and with some success. Earlsfield might just be the chicest food bank in London. Under the Victorian brickwork of St Andrew’s Church plenty of fresh produce sits in crates alongside the packets and tins. After “guests” have been signed in (the bank is a member of Ifan and anyone can come, but they have to answer questions about why they need help) they can lounge on squashy sofas or sit on artfully mismatched chairs in a café area, eating a free cooked breakfast. If Soho House did food banks, they’d look like this.

The guests today are a mix of ethnicities and ages, from young families to pensioners. Some are defensive — embarrassment is a big bar to coming and guests have previously hidden in the bushes outside to avoid being seen by people they know. Some seem too ground down by poverty to care. Many, though, are chatty and upbeat. This is clearly a high point in their week, a social occasion as much as a chance to stock up, and there’s a surprisingly good vibe as the small army of volunteers, fresh from their morning pep talk by the formidable Charlotte, buzzes around packing bags of allocated food.

Behind the scenes, things are grimmer. Charlotte takes me to a storage unit out the back where she keeps the stock. It’s so empty it echoes. Earlsfield’s food comes largely from public donations, helped out by a local action group that supplies donations from a vegetable box delivery company.

New ‘guests’ at the Earlsfield food bank are asked to describe their needs in a questionnaire

New ‘guests’ at the Earlsfield food bank are asked to describe their needs in a questionnaire


“Last year we had so much stock we were planning to raise funding for another one of these,” Charlotte says. “Now, well, you can see. We used to feed 25 households a week. Now it’s up to 100 … but donations are down by a half in the past year. Everybody is tightening their belts.”

It’s a similar story, in very different surroundings, in Portsmouth. The King’s Centre food bank sits on the edge of Somerstown, one of the most deprived areas of a struggling city. The building, owned by a church, is modern, bare and utilitarian. “We’ve seen a 50 per cent upturn in the number of clients in the past three months and donations are down 60 per cent,” says Sam Hanson, the bank’s cheerful but realistic manager. They’ve never had to send anyone away hungry, but it’s getting hard.

In a back room another team of volunteers busily sorts the food they do have available. “We’ll process vouchers for about 40 households today, which will feed about 100 people,” says Sam, 32. The food bank is part of the Trussell Trust and clients are usually allowed six three-day parcels in six months. The bank handles only ambient food and you get what you’re given from a standard checklist: for a single person it’s a box of cereal, 500g of rice or pasta, some chocolate and biscuits, long-life milk, teabags, juice and ten tins — of soup, vegetables and so on. In the sorting room Spam sits beside tins of value chopped tomatoes. It isn’t appetising.

However, in the hall where voucher holders wait for their parcels to be made up, they’re grateful to receive the food and happy to be here. Helen, who is in her late twenties, tells her story with a warm smile. “I was a barmaid, a good one too, but I was made redundant during lockdown. I’ve got two kids and sometimes I struggle — universal credit just isn’t enough to live on. This place has made a massive difference to me.”

Daniel, who is in his fifties, came to Portsmouth more than a decade ago from his native Poland and worked for years as a chef. Lockdown did for him too and now he survives on the £50 each month that’s left from his universal credit after bills are paid. “I dream of having £20 a week for food — that would be such luxury,” he says. “Now I get big bags of potatoes from Asda, which are cheap. I boil them and pour half a tin of soup from here over them. And that is dinner.” He smiles too. There’s no resentment in his tone: he’s just glad of the soup.

Social supermarkets: dignity, not handouts

Back in Birmingham, a few miles from FareShare’s Nechells depot, Andy Brown looks approvingly at a tray of watermelons. “They’ll be popular,” he says. Andy, 54, is the brains behind the Oasis Pantry Hobmoor at South Yardley Methodist Church. It’s a branch of Your Local Pantry, a rapidly expanding network of social supermarkets that started in 2013 and now has more than 70 outlets. The area is deprived and, as they say, diverse: the clients are from 15 different ethnic groups. There’s a big demand for fresh rather than processed food.

FareShare’s depot in Nechells, Birmingham

FareShare’s depot in Nechells, Birmingham


Those watermelons look familiar, as do the glossy aubergines sitting alongside them. I watched them being unloaded from a truck at the Nechells depot the previous morning. Like the other Your Local Pantries, Oasis Pantry Hobmoor gets most of its food from FareShare — using surplus from the food industry rather than donations from the public.

As yet another crowd of volunteers sets up the shelves and display fridges in the slightly run-down church hall, Andy takes me through how it works. “You pay £4 to shop here. For that you can choose ten items, three worth more than £1.50, seven less — everything is laid out on labelled shelves. Plus you can have unlimited fresh vegetables and bread. Anyone local can come — we just ask a few questions about your need. Our members usually leave with £20 to £30-worth of food.”

He’s interrupted by a question from a volunteer. “What are we supposed to do with four ducks, frozen together in a block?” A tricky one, but Andy has a solution — you get the feeling he usually does. The ducks will be thawed, separated and used for a local community lunch club (he has his fingers in a lot of food aid pies).

He reckons the £4 fee doesn’t go far towards covering their costs — so why charge it? “It’s about dignity,” he says without hesitation. “If I’m getting food from here, I’m not getting a handout. And it’s real money: you’ve got to remember that the £4 for our members might be as painful for them as the £40 at Asda is for you.”

The shop won’t open for two hours, but outside a queue is already forming. No one wants to give their name, though people are happy to chat. “It’s about survival,” says an anxious-looking young man. “We’re all struggling for food. If we didn’t have this, we’d run out.”

“I’m already going without,” says a middle-aged man, with a hint of anger. “I used to get in trouble for just taking food when I didn’t have any. I don’t do that any more. This is better.” He’s not the first person to tell me that without food aid he would be shoplifting for his meals.

“The queues are twice as long as they used to be,” says a young mum with her child in a pushchair. “More people are having to use it. It’s our lifeline.”

Back inside I ask Andy how he sees the future. Ifan wants to work itself out of existence. FareShare aims to grow. Would he like Oasis Pantry Hobmoor to be here in five years’ time? He takes a moment to think.

FareShare delivery drivers drop off supplies at a food bank in Birmingham

FareShare delivery drivers drop off supplies at a food bank in Birmingham


“There is an environmental reason for it, it uses surplus food. For many of our members it helps fight social isolation — this is a gathering place for the community. And lots of members are volunteers too, so they can be skilled up in shop work, which improves their employment chances. So yes, I’d like it to still be here … but for those reasons. Not, as we are now, for keeping people alive.”

The system creaks: ‘there just aren’t enough donations’

Andy is, I’d say, a sober man — he was a head teacher before becoming a self-described “activist and entrepreneur” — and keeping people alive is what he thinks is at stake here. Trouble is, he and those like him can do that only if enough food comes into the system. The Earlsfield and Portsmouth food banks, which rely heavily on individual donations, have seen sharp falls this year along with increased demand. Research from Ifan shows that 80 per cent of its members have struggled to get enough supplies in the past four months.

At FareShare, too, they’re concerned. The charity’s model relies on food industry players — retail partners such as Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Aldi and a host of smaller companies — donating their surplus free. Will they keep doing it?

“Surpluses are never going to go away, they’re part of the supply chain — the shops and producers can’t always get their demand forecasts right,” says Simone Connolly, 44, chief executive of FareShare Midlands. After a rainy summer bank holiday, for example, staff knew they were in for a glut of barbecue-ready meat that was approaching its best-before date. (Most food charities will still hand out food after this date, but ask for a note from the manufacturer that it is still good to eat. Once it hits the use-by date, though, it may be unsafe and can’t be passed on.) But this type of glut — which can benefit the food banks — is not reliable.

Simone Connolly, the chief executive of FareShare Midlands

Simone Connolly, the chief executive of FareShare Midlands


“The cost of living crisis is affecting supermarkets too,” Connolly says. “They’re bearing down to reduce surpluses more than ever, and there’s now less in the system. At the same time the companies often can’t spare the drivers to deliver what there is to us. It’s hard to get food to our centres as quickly as we need to, which is key with fresh food.” The haulage issue is so pressing that FareShare’s national office is planning to invest about £700,000 a year in a fleet of its own lorries.

Despite it all, Connolly is positive about the charity’s future. “We’re not a sticking plaster solution propping up the government, we’re doing something positive and long-term.” On environmental grounds it’s a step in the right direction: food waste accounts for more global emissions than the entire aviation industry, so cutting it makes sense. “There’s always a crisis, always a challenge,” Connolly adds, “but I know we’re making a huge difference.”

Downstairs on the shop floor, some are not so sanguine. While his colleagues lug boxes and swap banter, one of the Nechells staff grimly surveys that Tesco delivery. It’s bigger than it has been over the past few days, but more is needed. I ask when this batch will be sent out to the food banks and social supermarkets.

“Within a day,” he replies. “That’s the way it is, we’re living hand to mouth. We don’t have enough reserves, and if this goes on we won’t be able to fulfil the orders. There just aren’t enough donations.”

Britain’s voluntary infrastructure of hunger has been a spectacular success, feeding millions. At the same time many at the heart of the movement have had doubts, wondering if they’re being used to fill holes in an underfunded welfare safety net; if their very effectiveness has become part of the problem.

As the brutal economics of the coming year play out, there are signs that the infrastructure may start to crack under the strain. If it does, the question they face will change. It won’t be whether they should go on feeding Britain’s hungry. It’ll be whether they can.

The names of food bank users have been changed to protect their anonymity

Food bank diaries: dining below the breadline

What it’s like to survive for three days on an emergency food parcel

The Trussell Trust’s food parcels are designed to provide three days’ worth of healthy, balanced meals. So what’s it like to live on one?

I replicated a parcel, picking similar goods to those I had packed at the King’s Centre food bank in Portsmouth, and used the trust’s standard ration to feed a single person. Of course my experience could never be the same as that of someone in real need — I knew that after day three I could go back to eating whatever I wanted — but in culinary terms, at least, I hope it gives some insight. Here’s what I ate.

Day 1

Breakfast: Cornflakes, apple juice
Haven’t had cornflakes for years. They’re tastier than I remember … but not very substantial. At least I have long-life milk and plenty of teabags — the Trussell Trust throws in 40. Even for an addict like me, that seems a lot.

Lunch: Tin of broccoli and stilton soup
I was looking forward to this but it’s actively unpleasant, tasting of tinny reflux. Can’t afford to waste anything, though, so I eat it all. It gets more palatable as you go, like bad wine.

4.30: More cornflakes, apple juice
Because I’m famished.

Dinner: Tin of tomatoes, tin of tuna, spaghetti, dash of ketchup; tin of peaches for afters
I stew the tomatoes for a while to bring out the sugar, throw in tuna and ketchup. The result is rather tasty and there’s plenty of it. Don’t like the peaches much, though.

Day 2

Pre-breakfast: Four Hobnobs
I need energy for my weekly run and usually eat a banana. Biscuits do the job … but don’t feel like a healthy option.

Breakfast: Cornflakes, apple juice
I’m going through the milk too fast. I decide to keep the cornflakes-milk residue for my tea. Works fine.

Lunch: Tin of chicken and mushroom soup
Quite tasty. But still hungry afterwards. So …

2.30pm: Half a bag of nuts
Helps to keep the pangs at bay for a bit.

Dinner: Tinned potatoes, corned beef, ketchup
Thinking corned beef hash, I smash the spuds and fry it all up together. It’s horrible. But it’s what I have, so I finish the small portion, feeling at once hungry and nauseous. Can’t face pudding. Starting to feel very unhealthy. For the first time in my life I’m craving fresh veg.

Day 3

Breakfast: Cornflakes, apple juice
Still feeling sick. Corned beef does not agree with me.

11am: Rest of the nuts

Lunch: Half a tin of baked beans
It’s become clear I’ve not managed my parcel well. The beans are the only savoury item I have left. They aren’t much and they aren’t nice: slimy and cheap-tasting.

5pm: Six Hobnobs
I don’t want biscuits, I want something fresh, but this fills a hole. I dunk them, using the last of the milk for the tea.

Dinner: Spaghetti, remaining baked beans, ketchup
Call it spaghetti beanese. Call it what you like, it’s barely edible … but it’s filling.


As the three days went on I seesawed between ravenous and queasy. At the end of it I have chocolate, tinned fruit salad and rice pudding left over. Can’t face any of them.

The Trussell Trust says its parcels provide a nutritionally balanced diet. Maybe so — and there are certainly enough calories here. By the end of it, though, I felt sluggish and lethargic (and, not to put too fine a point on it, my digestive system was in no hurry either).

Having to eat meals I didn’t like was dispiriting. I’m no foodie, so I was surprised by how much this affected me. Meals should be a pleasure; this was almost totally joyless.

The parcel kept me fed, and if I’m ever in a position to need one I know I’ll be hugely grateful for it. Given the choice between eating like this and going hungry, of course you’d opt for the food parcel. But after three days I’m more sure than ever that it’s a choice nobody should have to make.


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