“Some people, in the run-up to Christmas, think ‘oh, there’s a fancy packet of biscuits, that would be nice’ but we need basic things,” says Kathleen Neilly, who runs West Lothian food bank. Currently, that includes tinned meat and tinned vegetables, as well as personal care items such as shampoo and shower gel. She has enough pasta to last around a year. Other food banks report ongoing shortages of long-life juice and milk. Check your local food bank’s latest shopping lists. Many are within the Trussell Trust network, or can be found through the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), and many have their own social media accounts.
But also treats
They can make a big difference, says Mike Beckett, chief officer of Colchester food bank, especially children’s treats. “You can explain to an adult about eating healthy, but it’s more difficult to explain it to a child who is upset, and a chocolate bar might cheer them up. In a crisis, [a treat] can give respite to parents.” He recommends a multi-packet bag of sweets, biscuits or crisps “as long as they’re individually wrapped inside. We can open them up and put some in each parcel.”
Give tin openers
Tins with ring pulls are always welcomed but tend to come from the more expensive supermarkets. “We give people all these tins and they don’t have a tin opener,” says Neilly.
“Corned beef wasn’t that expensive and lots of people donated it, but we’ve seen that drop off massively because of the price,” says Jen Coleman, CEO of Black Country food bank. Billy McGranaghan, founder and chief executive of Dad’s House, a support organisation and food bank in London, says it buys tins of tuna and sardines every week to keep stocks up.
Go for food that can be eaten cold
Most food banks report clients are increasingly asking for food that requires no cooking. For some, it’s about saving energy, but some don’t have access to cooking facilities or even a kettle. Pots of instant noodles or porridge that just need hot water are useful. Rajesh Makwana, director of Sufra, a poverty action group and food bank in north London, says his team give out “no-cook” parcels. “They’re limited in terms of nutrition,” he says. “Things like breads and biscuits. No pasta, no rice. We’d give some tuna, so you can just open that, stick it on some bread and eat it. It’s really minimal stuff.” Neilly keeps a stock of tinned sweetcorn, which can be eaten cold.
Or that requires minimal cooking
Tinned potatoes are versatile and can be microwaved, and tinned meals such as curries or stews are popular. Neilly isn’t a fan of canned pies “mainly because they take half an hour in the oven”. But other food banks might welcome them: “A couple of them for a family, with some veg, is great,” says Coleman.
Avoid anything with alcohol
You might think a Christmas pudding with brandy is a treat, but, says Neilly: “We don’t do any alcohol at all. We don’t know what the background of our client is.”
Don’t forget personal care items
All the essentials – toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant, shower gel, shampoo, sanitary products, nappies. McGranaghan says shaving foam is often overlooked. Some food banks give out cleaning products, but others don’t, so check.
It’s about dignity. “When someone’s feeling low and they come to a food bank, the last thing they want is out-of-date food. It’s soul-destroying,” says McGranaghan.
Avoid heavy items
A big bag of rice or pasta might seem like good value, but in a carrier bag with tins, it can become too heavy when you have to walk or rely on public transport. Multipacks are fine – they’re separated before they’re given out.
Get to know what your local food bank needs
Alexandra McMillan, founder of Legendary Community Club, a food justice group in south London, says people have asked for food for their pets, particularly cat and dog food. For Colchester’s Beckett, donations of plastic bags – clean and sturdy – are welcome, and his warehouse manager “loves it when people either drop donations off there, or get an online order delivered [straight] to our warehouse”. Follow your local food bank on social media to get information about fundraising – anything from larger events to donating raffle prizes.
Increasingly, this is more helpful for food banks than food. It allows them to plan, buy what they need – often in bulk and at better prices than you can get in the supermarket, as well as get fresh fruit and vegetables – and best serves their clients’ specific needs. Money also covers overheads such as rent, fuel costs for vans and energy bills, and means some food banks can choose to give out vouchers, rather than food. Donations of pre-packed bags of food means people “don’t get the autonomy to make their own decisions,” says McMillan. “Cash has a positive psychological impact.”
Billy McGranaghan estimates he has lost “90% of financial donations in the last three or four months”. He says Dad’s House welcomes food donations – “we can use everything: we’ve got vegetarians, vegans, people who eat halal, people with intolerances” – but having money means they are able to help clients top up their pre-paid energy meters. “They are really key in keeping families warm, and being able to cook the food we can give them.”
Help out in other ways
Ask your local food bank what else they need. It might be skills, says Makwana: “They may need to set up a website, or some admin work, fundraising.”
Could you help in big ways? “A lot of food banks might say yes if they were offered use of a warehouse or given a building,” says Beckett. “At the moment, we’ve got a building that is rent-free, but that’s going to run out and we’re going to have to move.”
Write to your MP
Finally, question why food banks are needed in the first place. “We’d ask anyone wanting to donate to a food bank also to write to their local MP calling for urgent action to tackle the growing poverty behind food bank use,” says Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of IFAN – there is a template on their site. “Food parcels clearly don’t solve poverty: it’s vital there are collective calls to MPs about the need to reverse the normalisation of food banks in the UK.”