The event was attended by nearly 40 people from food banks, statutory service providers, council cabinet members and other voluntary sector organisations. It had initially been intended to be smaller, but there were many people who wanted to attend and it is evidence of the interest in food banks in Wolverhampton and the Black Country. As such, it is probably fair to say that it developed from being a round table event to being more of a discussion/workshop event, though this was what attendees wanted, so it seemed appropriate.
The event was advertised as being funded by the Social Policy Association and publicity was also given to the SPA’s work.
The starting point was a piece of research carried out by the University of Wolverhampton and Wolverhampton CAB looking at the experiences of food banks and food bank customers. It found:
- Food bank demand has grown significantly since 2012
- Many food banks have seen demand grow up to five-fold
- Many food banks are struggling to meet increased demands being placed upon them
- There is a growing demand for items such as clothing, cookware and furniture
- Increases in demand have not been matched by increases in food, volunteers, or facilities—meaning that many food banks are currently stretched to capacity
- People visiting food banks often have multiple problems in areas such as housing, health, employment and caring responsibilities—each of these can impact on the others
- Importantly, whilst the research focussed on Wolverhampton, the economies of the rest of the Black Country are very similar and it can be presumed that the experiences in Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell will be comparable.
The morning was characterised by excellent discussion, with food banks evidently being an important subject for many people and one on which people have strong feelings. Feedback from the food banks was that far from wanting money, there were calls for the following support:
- Most food banks need more volunteers
- Many food banks spoke of the benefits of more space to run other welfare activities, with many food banks now starting to provide clothing, cookware and furniture.
- Food banks would like more support to gain sponsored donations or getting supermarkets to do more
- Questions were asked about how can large organisations and food providers reduce food waste
- Some food banks spoke of benefitting from support with funding applications
- It would be useful to have a named officer in the local authority to support and co-ordinate provision
- There would be some benefit to better co-ordination and communication between food banks – perhaps even a Black Country network
- More campaigning around the factors that prompt increased food bank demand
- Continued and developing links with external agencies, which might cover areas such as health, welfare rights, etc, though this needs to be sensitive so as not damage trust between food bank users and providers
- Making links with businesses that day release staff for social investment
- The need for more events such as this to provide a focal point for networking
It was also recognised that increased food bank demand is symptomatic of poverty across the Black Country, especially in certain areas. Regeneration needs to be able to address these spatial inequalities.
In response to the event, the university has provided some funding to look at the extent of food bank demand across the Black Country, factors that are driving demand and also the range of providers involved. Currently, we do not know the exact numbers of people accessing food aid and there are a number of organisations operating ‘below the radar’.
The next steps once this is completed are to start working with food banks, local authorities and voluntary sector councils to look at how food banks are supported and co-ordinated.