In the UK, there are almost twice as many food banks as there are McDonald's, and while it's a scandal they should need to exist at all, they're a lifeline for 2.17 million people who use them.
Typically, food bank users are handed parcels with items to feed them and their families for three days. Although users can flag various allergies and dietary requirements, they don't have much say in what they're given.
Now though, one of the country's 2,500 food banks, in Hackney, is pioneering a different take on how the system operates. Phone to Food — a scheme devised by Hackney Food Bank and Face Donate — gives digital credit to people who've been referred to the food bank, allowing them to spend it in shops, including local NISA stores and Ridley Road Market.
One Hackney Foodbank visitor told Londonist: "I can choose what I need for me and my son. Going to a food bank makes you feel inappropriate: with Face Donate I can go to the shop, pick what I need and pay with my phone: this makes me feel normal.
"Sharing the receipts is great, so people don't fall in temptation. I hope the project continues and gets adopted by every food bank in the country."
As well as giving food bank visitors more choice over what they have for their meals — including fresh produce instead of just packets and tins, plus kosher and halal options — there are other benefits, too. Pat Fitzsimons, CEO of Hackney Foodbank, explains: "For the food bank, this new system also brings real efficiencies and cost savings. By giving out digital credit we can reduce the man-hours and expense of collecting, sorting, storing and distributing food."
Already tested out successfully as a pilot, the plan is now to roll out Phone to Food across all of Hackney Food Bank's distribution centres, in Hoxton, Dalston, Upper Clapton, Stoke Newington and Haggerston.
Demand for Hackney Foodbank has more than doubled since before the pandemic, while donations are half what they were this time last year. The food bank is in need of financial donations in particular, and is keen to hear from Hackney stores who'd like to participate in Phone to Food.