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The sadness of social distancing: the impact of lockdown on food banks

The sadness of social distancing: the impact of lockdown on food banks

Hannah Rich reminds us that much of the church’s social action is not just about meeting material needs, but social needs too. 30/04/2020

The introduction of Universal Credit rendered 2019 a record year for many food banks in the UK, with the number of parcels requested in some places already surpassing expectations. ‘Unprecedented’ is not therefore a word that is used lightly to describe the increase in demand since the onset of the lockdown period five weeks ago. Unemployment has risen sharply and for some households, the twenty per cent reduction in income brought by a furlough period has meant the difference between financial security and insecurity. I heard from one food bank this week that they had run out of food completely on one occasion, which is unheard of, but had also been thankful for the financial support of their whole community which has allowed them to continue their work.

Systems that were only ever designed as short–term solutions to extreme need have overnight found themselves in greater and more indefinite demand than they might ever have anticipated. Whilst it is not true that the virus itself is the ‘great leveller’ some claim it to be, the economic impact has already caused wider swathes of the population – and a more diverse demographic – to have recourse to both Universal Credit and food banks than ever before. Last week, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme heard from a city worker who had lost her job and couldn’t afford food and mortgage payments while she waited for her benefit claim to be processed. 

On top of this, food banks are also having to change many of their practices, reducing the human interaction involved at every stage of the process. The value of food banks has always been more than just the parcel of food that changes hands, in ways that are compromised now.

‘One of the sadnesses of this time is that we are not able to spend time talking to guests, hearing their stories and really getting to know them in the way that we would normally,’ Revd Haydon Spenceley, team rector of Emmanuel Church in Northampton which hosts the Weston Favell food bank, told me this week. ‘This relational part of the work is a key tenet of what we do and who we are, and to not be able to do it in the same way is a real challenge.’ Some, but by no means all, of the food bank’s guests and volunteers are able to interact online but it isn’t quite the same.

Every visit to the food bank, before the current restrictions came in, began with a cup of tea and a chat with a befriender, a volunteer whose designated role is as simple as the title suggests: to befriend people and offer a listening ear and a conversation while food parcels are packed. The befrienders are integral to the work of food banks, as I’ve observed countless times during my GRA:CE Project research with churches operating food banks across the country. I won’t ever forget the image of a volunteer offering a plate of hot, buttered toast to a woman so exhausted that she fell asleep face first into it, before they gently carried her to a sofa where she could nap while her parcel was prepared behind the scenes by another team of volunteers. In lunch clubs, the food itself is often almost incidental to the conversation and compassion it can facilitate.

A couple of years ago, I wrote naively about how the difference between church–based food banks and high street banks was that they necessarily focussed on human contact, representing ‘physical spaces in the heart of every geographic community… which are not about to disappear in favour of the internet’. Not only has this proven false with respect to congregational worship, but aspects of church social action have also moved online thanks to the pandemic; food bank voucher referrals are now done by email rather than over a cup of tea in person.

Now, most food banks have moved to a home delivery model. Social distancing is being felt acutely by those, both volunteers and guests, for whom food banks represent human contact as well as a package of items to line the store cupboard. Many of the befrienders I’ve met in food banks fall into the category of people being asked to shield or self–isolate because of their age and are grieving the time they spent volunteering and all they gained from it themselves. In Revd Spenceley’s words, ‘the relational aspect of the food bank is so key, not just for our team to serve and support guests, but from the way that we are taught so much by the guests and gain from knowing them too.’

Similarly, I remember a time as a student when I volunteered to help with some gardening as part of a church project in the local community. Instead of tackling a jungle of weeds, the older woman who’d asked for our help handed us three potted plants, which we quickly planted into a larger pot, before going inside for a hot drink. It rapidly became apparent as she force–fed us another chocolate biscuit and we listened to stories about her late husband that the woman’s primary need was human interaction, enabled by the church’s offer of ‘gardening help’.

Whilst we are rightly rushing to tackle the growing economic difficulties triggered by the Covid–19 pandemic when they present themselves at food banks, it is important that we don’t forget that so much of the church’s social action is not just about meeting material needs, but social needs too.

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 Image: Nikolay Litvak/

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

Watch, listen to or read more from Hannah Rich

Posted 30 April 2020

Coronavirus, GRA:CE Project, Social Action


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