Food banks: how do they work?

Approximately 13 million people in the UK are living below the poverty line.

The reality is that some families have been left struggling to choose between paying bills and eating.

But there is help at hand. The Trussell Trust charity fed almost 347,000 people across the UK between April 2012 and April 2013 via food banks.

We explain what a food bank is, how they work and how you can offer or receive help.

What is a food bank?

They provide free basic food to low-income families hit by crisis that is not their fault, such as redundancy, unexpected bills or reduced working hours.

Since 2004 The Trussell Trust has launched 400 food banks nationwide. The first one was opened in Salisbury in 2000 and operated from a garden shed.

How do they work?

People donate non-perishable food and volunteers then sort it out and pack into emergency boxes.

Some food banks don’t require a referral but the majority require food bank vouchers in order to use them.

You can get a food bank voucher from a front line professional, like a doctor, social worker, adviser at Citizens Advice Bureau or police.

You can get up to three vouchers (only one at a time) for any one crisis, giving you a total of 9 days worth of food.

A voucher can be exchanged for 3 days of food at a distribution centre.

Where is your nearest food bank?

Visit the Trussell Trust’s website to find your nearest food bank at

There are also a number of private food banks – these are run by local churches or charities. You may find them advertised in the local paper.

FoodCycle helps connect people within their local community to help reduce food waste and poverty. Like food banks they are maintained and run by volunteers who usually have arrangements with local supermarkets to cook food for the homeless and poor. There are 18 locations around the UK.

FairShare is a charity which uses food that would otherwise be wasted at the manufacuring end of the chain and gives it away to the homeless and poor. Donors include Sainsbury’s and Nestle.

What to do if you need help?

You can be referred to a food bank for lots of different reasons – but it can be difficult to get a voucher unless you are facing extreme circumstances.

You can get a food bank referral from:

  • Doctor
  • Jobcentre
  • Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Social worker

You might get a referral if:

  • You’ve been made redundant or have reduced working hours
  • Unexpected bills have left you with no money
  • A change in your circumstances has affected your entitlement to benefit or the reduced the amount you receive
  • A payment of benefit has been delayed
  • You are turned down for a crisis loan
  • Ill health
  • Domestic abuse
  • You have a low-income or are in debt

How can you help?

Donate food – Find your local food banks and call them to ask what they need most and where to drop it off.

Donate time – Volunteer at your local food bank. Find out more information on their website – call or email them to find out more.

Donate money – If you don’t have time to donate then you can always donate money. Either directly or via the Trussell Trust’s website.

Have you ever used or helped out at a food bank? Tell us about your experiences in the comments box below.

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