Trussell Trust foodbanks have handed out food parcels to over 240,000 people in the UK since April 2012. The organisation hands out emergency food parcels to people in extreme need with food donated by shoppers, businesses and local volunteers.
Due to limited resources and storage space, foodbanks are often forced to work on a strict system.
Hackney foodbank weighs what food is given out to each of their clients to keep a check on their supplies and to make sure they keep a record of what food they have.
To get a food parcel, clients have to give a voucher signed by an agency to the foodbank.
These foodbank vouchers are signed forms allocated by a range of different agencies, such as Job Centres and support groups. There are over 50 various agencies that are able to give out vouchers and in some cases, the Police are also able to give vouchers to those they meet who need emergency support.
Liza Cucco, Manager of Hackney foodbank, said that clients are only supposed to use three vouchers. A foodbank is a ‘sticking plaster’, offering emergency support – not long-term care. However, depending on the client’s situation, there are some people that a foodbank would support for longer.
Liza explained that some of her clients require food parcels for a longer period of time.
“For example, when someone is waiting on the border agency for their immigration status. Sometimes that might take six months, and during that time, they might be on a very low income.
“We can’t help them every week; we just don’t have the resources. But, we will help them more than three times over the course of those six months.
“There are times in which three weeks might not get somebody into the support that they need long-term. But, we do try to be strict about it.”
These extreme situations are mostly pre-arranged with the foodbank. Liza said that a foodbank is “not long-term support and we want to make that as clear as possible.”
She stresses to agencies how a foodbank works, asking them “to be really considerate about who they give vouchers to. If a certain agency is sending people to us and it is questionable about whether or not that person is really in quite a lot of need – we do back to the agency to confirm with them: ‘the foodbank is the only support available to your client?’
“We do try and manage the agencies’ expectations of what we are able to do, so that we are really targeting the people who are in crisis at that moment.”
But what does a foodbank do if an agency doesn’t work with the foodbank within the pre-arranged system?
Liza Cucco explained: “It’s not easy. Ultimately we can’t babysit everyone. I don’t want to be a crazy person, chasing up people, making sure everyone has a legitimate need. It’s not kind, or a useful way to spend my time.
“But, we do want people to be using us for what we are here for. The only way we can enforce that is by stressing it all over again and by following up with agencies and checking in with people.”
Do clients ever take advantage of the food voucher allocation process?
Liza said that it hasn’t happened so far at the Hackney foodbank.
She said: “We’ve had a couple of suspicious cases, but we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. By and large, almost everyone we see is really obviously in quite a distressing situation. I don’t think that’s really happened.
“We’re very careful about disclosing information; we take data protection very seriously. But, we do have a system where we can flag up if people have come more than three times. If we notice that someone has come multiple times, from different agencies, we do try and keep an eye on what’s going on.”
What does a foodbank do if someone tries to use multiple vouchers?
“In the past, we have had someone come to the foodbank with vouchers from five different agencies. We did have to follow up with the support workers. I think that this individual was not clear that they couldn’t have multiple vouchers. They were trying to work around the system, but they were doing so because they were in a really difficult situation.”
She explained that Hackney foodbank tries to operate on a personal level. The best way to make sure that people are getting adequate support and the help they need is to meet each client.
Liza said: “Right now, we’re small enough that I do meet most of my clients. But, that won’t always be the case. We do try and get to know the people who come in.
“We do let them know that everything has been donated by people in Hackney – it’s just a ramped up version of sharing a cup of sugar. That’s how we think of it.
“I think people understand what is going on here. They’re not inclined to take advantage of it.
Liza stressed that she always tells her clients that there is no shame in needing to visit a foodbank. She said: “It’s a part of being in a community with each other. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about and there’s nothing to feel bad about.
“I find that really difficult, when people are embarrassed to come, or feel really guilty being helped. Life is really difficult. We need each other and we can help each other.”