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A food bank or foodbank is a non-profit, charitable organization that distributes food to those who have difficulty purchasing enough food to avoid hunger.
In the United States and Australia, food banks usually operate on the "warehouse" model. They act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller front line agencies; and usually do not themselves give out food directly to the hungry. After the food is collected, sorted, and reviewed for quality, these food banks distribute it to non-profit community or government agencies, including food pantries, food closets, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, orphanages, and schools.
Outside North America and Australia, the "front line" model is often found. Such food banks give out most or all of their food directly to the end users. For both models, the largest sources of food include for-profit growers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers who in the normal course of business have excess food that they cannot sell. Some foodbanks receive a substantial proportion of their food from individual donors, including their volunteer workers. There is considerable overlap with food salvage, food rescue and gleaning, although not with freeganism or dumpster-diving.
The world's first food bank was established in the US in 1967, and since then many thousands have been set up all over the world. In Europe, which until recently had little need for food banks due to extensive welfare systems, their numbers grew rapidly after the lasting global inflation in the price of food which began in late 2006, and especially after the financial crisis of 2007–08 began to further worsen economic conditions for those on low income.
The growth of food banks has been broadly welcomed, most especially by those on the right of the political spectrum, but also by many on the left, who see them as evidence of active community that is independent of the state. However, academics and commentators have expressed concern that the rise of foodbanks may erode political support for welfare provision. Researchers have reported that food banks can be inefficient compared with state run services, and that some people feel ashamed at having to turn to them.
With thousands of food banks operating on six of the seven continents, there are many different models.
A major distinction between food banks is whether or not they operate on the "front line" model, giving out food directly to the hungry, or whether they operate with the "warehouse" model, supplying food to intermediaries like food pantries, soup kitchens and other front-line organisations. In the US, Australia and to an extent in Canada, the standard model is for food banks to act as warehouses rather than as suppliers to the end user, though there are exceptions. In other countries, food banks usually do hand out food parcels direct to hungry people, providing the service that in the US is offered by food pantries.
Another distinction is between the charity model and the labour union model. At least in Canada and the US, food banks run by charities often place relatively more weight on the salvaging of food that would otherwise go to waste, and on encouraging voluntarism, whereas those run by unions can place greater emphasis on feeding the hungry by any means available, on providing work for the unemployed, and on education, especially on explaining to users their civil rights.
In the US, cities will often have a single food bank which acts as a centralized warehouse and will serve several hundred front line agencies. Like a blood bank, that warehouse serves as a single collection and distribution point for food donations. A food bank operates a lot like a for-profit food distributor, but in this case it distributes food to charities, not to food retailers. There is often no charge to the charities, but some food banks do charge a small "shared maintenance" fee to help defray the cost of storage and distribution.
For many US food banks, most of their donated food comes from food left over from the normal processes of for-profit companies. It can come from any part of the food chain, e.g. from growers who have produced too much or whose food is not sufficiently visually appealing; from manufacturers who overproduced; or from retailers who over-ordered. Often the product is approaching or past its "sell by" date. In such cases, the food bank liaises with the food industry and with regulators to make sure the food is safe and legal to distribute and eat.
Other sources of food include the general public, sometimes in the form of "food drives", and government programs that buy and distribute excess farm products mostly to help support higher commodity prices. Food banks can also buy food either at market prices or from wholesalers and retailers at discounted prices, often at cost. Sometimes farmers will allow food banks to send gleaners to salvage leftover crops for free once their primary harvest is complete. A few food banks have even taken over their own farms, though such initiatives have not always been successful.
Many food banks don't accept fresh produce, preferring canned or packaged food due to health and safety concerns, though some have tried to change this as part of a growing world wide awareness of the importance of nutrition. As an example, in 2012, London Food Bank (Canada) started accepting perishable food, reporting that as well as the obvious health benefits, there were noticeable emotional benefits to recipients when they were given fresh food.
Summer can be a challenging time for food banks, especially in regions where school children are usually given regular free meals during term time. Spikes in demand can coincide with periods where donations fall due to folk being on holiday.
The world's first food bank was the St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Arizona, founded by John van Hengel in 1967. According to sociology professor Janet Poppendieck, hunger within the US was widely considered to be a solved problem until the mid-1960s. By the mid sixties, several states had ended the free distribution of federal food surpluses, instead providing an early form of food stamps which had the benefit of allowing recipients to choose food of their liking, rather than having to accept whatever happened to be in surplus at the time. However, there was a minimum charge and some people could not afford the stamps, leading to severe hunger. One response from American society to the rediscovery of hunger was to step up the support provided by soup kitchens and similar civil society food relief agencies - some of these dated back to the Great Depression and earlier. In 1965, while volunteering for a community dining room, van Hengel learned that grocery stores often had to throw away food that had damaged packaging or was near expiration. He started collecting that food for the dining room but soon had too much for that one program. He thought of creating a central location from which any agency can receive donations. Described as a classic case of "if you build it they will come", the first food bank was created with the help of St. Mary's Basilica. Food banks spread across the United States, and to Canada. By 1976, the precursor to Feeding America had been established. As of the early 21st century, their network of 200+ foodbanks provides support for 90,000 projects. Other large networks exist such as AmpleHarvest.org, created by CNN Hero Gary Oppenheimer which lists some 6,400 food pantries (1 out of every 5 in America) that can utilize overproduction of fresh produce.
It was not however until the 1980s that U.S. food banks began to enjoy rapid growth. A second response to the "rediscovery" of hunger in the mid sixties had been extensive lobbying of politicians to improve welfare. Until the 1980s, this approach had greater impact. In the 1970s, U.S. federal expenditure on hunger relief grew by about 500%, with food stamps distributed free of charge to those in greatest need. According to Poppendieck, welfare was widely considered preferable to grass roots efforts, as the latter could be unreliable, did not give recipients consumer-style choice in the same way as did food stamps, and risked recipients feeling humiliated by having to turn to charity. In the early 1980s, president Reagan's administration scaled back welfare provision, leading to a rapid rise in activity from grass roots hunger relief agencies. According to a comprehensive government survey completed in 2002, over 90% of food banks were established in the US after 1981. Poppendieck says that for the first few years after the change, there was vigorous opposition from left, who argued that state welfare was much more suitable for meeting recipients needs. But in the decades that followed, food banks have became an accepted part of America's response to hunger. Demand for the services of US food bank increased further in the late 1990s, after the "end of welfare as we know it" with President Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. In Canada, foodbanks underwent a period of rapid growth after the cutbacks in welfare that took place in the mid-1990s. As early as the 1980s, food banks had also began to spread from the United States to the rest of the world. The first European food bank was founded in France during 1984. In the 1990s and early 2000s, food banks were established in South America, Africa and Asia, in several cases with van Hengel acting as a consultant. In 2007, The Global FoodBanking Network was formed.
Some U.S. cities have organizations that provide dog and cat food for pets whose owners qualify for food assistance. For example, Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen in Lawrenceville, Georgia is considered the largest pet food aid agency in Georgia, distributing over 800,000 pounds of dog and cat food in 2012. Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen was started in 1997 by Tom Wargo, a repairman who was working in an elderly woman's home when he noticed her sharing her Meals On Wheels lunch with her pet cat because she couldn't afford cat food. Daffy's was one of seven non-profits recognized by Barefoot Wine in 2013 through a $10,000 donation and by being featured on labels of the vintner's Impression Red Blend wines. Pet Buddies Food Pantry in Woodstock, Georgia is another example of an establishment that provides food aid for pets.
Following the financial crisis of 2007–08, and the lasting inflation in the price of food that began in late 2006, there has been a further increase in the number of individuals requesting help from American and Canadian food banks. By 2012, according to Food Banks Canada, over 850,000 Canadians needed help from a food bank each month. For the United States, Gleaners Indianna Food bank reported in 2012 that there were now 50 million Americans struggling with food insecurity (about 1 in 6 of the population), with the number of individuals seeking help from Food banks having increased by 46% since 2005. According to a 2012 UCLA Center for Health Policy Research study, there has been a 40% increase in demand for Californian food banks since 2008, with even married couples who both work sometimes requiring the aid of food banks. Dave Krepcho, director of the Second Harvest Food Bank in Orlando has said that even college educated professional couples have begun to turn to food pantries.
By mid-2012, US food banks had expressed concerns on the expected difficulty in feeding the hungry over the coming months. Rapidly rising demand has been coinciding with higher food prices and with a decrease in donations, partly as the food industry is becoming more efficient and so has less mislabelled and other slightly defective food to give away. Also there has been less surplus federal food on offer. Additionally, there have been recent decreases in Federal funding, and Congress have been debating possible further cuts, including potentially billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food stamp programme). In September, Feeding America launched Hunger Action Month, with events planned all over the nation. Food banks and other agencies involved hope to raise awareness of the fact that about one in six Americans are struggling with hunger, and to get more Americans involved in helping out.
The first European food bank was founded in France during 1984. The first Italian food bank was established in 1989. Similar to the UK, foodbanks have become much more common across continental Europe since the crisis that began in 2008, and especially since austerity began to take effect from late 2010.
In Spain, food banks can operate on the warehouse model, supplying a network of surrounding soup kitchens and other food relief agencies. The Spanish federation of food banks (FESBAL) helped to feed about 800,000 people during 2008-2011, according to the Carrefour foundation.  By October 2014, Spain had 55 food banks in total, with the numbers who depend on them having increased to 1.5 million.
In Belgian, food banks helped about 121,000 people during 2012. That was an increase of about 4,500 compared with 2011, the biggest increase since the start of the 2008 crises. Belgian food banks account for about 65% of all food aid given out within the country.
The number of food banks has increased rapidly even in Germany, a country that has weathered the crisis relatively well, and has not needed to implement severe austerity. In 2012, professor Sabine Pfeiffer of Munich University of Applied Sciences said there has been an "explosion" of food bank usage.
While many European food banks are run by civil society with no government assistance, there is a project funded by the EU, the Most deprived persons programme (MDP), which specialises in supplying food to marginalised people who are not covered by the benefit system and who may be reluctant to approach the more formal food banks. Food is largely given out by Catholic churches. However, the EU is due to end funding for the MDP in 2013. Similar to the US, the EU no longer expects to need to buy much food to help farmers, as with high global food prices, market surpluses are now much less frequent, So there is less food available to hand out to food banks. In October 2012, the European Commission proposed a new Fund to replace the Most deprived persons programme.
There has been rapid growth in the provision of foodbanks since hunger in the UK became a prominent issue after the financial crisis, and austerity that followed it from late 2010 and their use is increasing. Almost all UK food banks are co-ordinated by The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity based in Salisbury which serves as the UK's only food bank network. In 2004, Trussell only ran two food banks. Before the financial crisis, food banks were "almost unheard of" in the UK. In 2007–2008, there were 22 food banks in the Trussell Trust Foodbank Network; by early 2011, The Trussell Trust supported 100. As of May 2012, they had 201. By August, 252. The rate of increase has been rising rapidly. In 2011, about one new food bank was being opened per week. In early 2012, about two were being opened each week. By July, The Trussell Trust had reported that the rate of new openings had increased to three per week. In August, the rate of new openings spiked at four per week, with three new food banks being opened in that month for Nottingham alone. By October 2012, the rate of increase had fallen back to about two or three per week. According to a May 2013 report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, about half a million Britons have used food banks. The Trussel Trust reports that their food banks alone helped feed 346,992 people in 2012-13.
Close to half of those needing to use food banks have had issues with their benefits, though many have low-income jobs, but struggle to buy food after making debt repayments and other expenses. As had been predicted, demand for food banks further increased after cuts to welfare came into effect in April 2013; in April 2014 Trussell reported that they'd handed out 913,000 food parcels in the last year, up from 347,000 the year before. Several councils have begun looking at funding food banks to increase their capability, as cuts to their budgets mean they'll be less able to help vulnerable people directly.
Most UK food banks are hosted by churches in partnership with the wider community. They operate on the "frontline" model, giving out food directly to the hungry. Over 90% of the food given out is donated by the public, including schools, churches, businesses and individuals. The Trussell Trust had aimed to provide short-term support for people whose needs have not yet been addressed by official state welfare provision; those who had been 'falling into the cracks in the system'. The Trussell franchise has procedures which aim to prevent long-term dependency on their services, and to ensure that those in need are referred to qualified outside agencies. The charity suggests that the credit crunch caused an upsurge in the number of people needing emergency food. Since 2010, demand for foodbanks continued to increase, and at a more rapid rate, partly as austerity began to take effect, and partly as those on low incomes began to draw down savings and run out of friends of whom they were willing to ask for help. Unlike soup kitchens, most UK food banks are unable to help people who come in off the street without a referral - instead they operate with a referral system. Vouchers are handed out to those in need by various sorts of frontline care professionals, such as social workers, health visitors, Citizens Advice Bureau, Jobcentres and housing officials. The voucher can typically be exchanged at the food bank for a package of food sufficient to last three days. The year to April 2013 saw close to 350,000 referrals to Trussel foodbanks, more than double the amount from the previous year.
A small number of food banks have been set up outside of the Trussell system, in part as they don't like having to turn away people without referrals, although Trussell Trust foodbanks do help clients in need without vouchers to get one as quickly as possible. There is also FareShare, a London-based charity which operates some 19 depots on the US-style warehouse model. Rather than giving out food directly to individuals, FareShare distributes food to over 700 smaller agencies, mainly smaller independent operations like soup kitchens and breakfast clubs. Great emphasis is placed on reducing food waste as well as relieving food poverty. Fareshare operates on a business basis, employing a number of managers to oversee operations alongside their army of volunteers. Employee costs constituted over 50% of their expenditure in both 2011 and 2012. Additionally, charities receiving food do incur a charge for deliveries.
Another charity which operates on the US-style warehouse model and with a similar emphasis placed on reducing food waste as well as relieving food poverty is the Oxford Food Bank, which has a single base delivering to around 30 charities in the Oxford area. Although a much smaller enterprise than FareShare, it has a significantly lower pro-rata cost base as it employs no staff, with the whole operation up to director level run entirely by volunteers. This allows it to provide food at no cost to the recipient charities with all operating costs covered by grants and donations, supplying an estimated £25 of food at retail value for each £1 received in donations. In December 2012, it also started distributing food to needy families direct with the aid of local community centres and social services.
People who turn to food banks are typically grateful both for the food and for the warmth and kindness they receive from the volunteers. However sometimes food banks have run out of supplies by the time they arrive. Some find it humiliating to have to ask for food, and that the packages they receive don't always seem nutritious. Some food banks have tried to respond with innovative programmes; London Street Foodbank for example has begun asking donors to send in supermarket vouchers so that those they serve will be able to chose food that best meets their nutritional needs.
Britain's prime Minister David Cameron has welcomed the efforts of food banks; Caroline Spelman, his Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has described food banks as an "excellent example" of active citizenship. Labour MP Kate Green has a different view, feeling that the rise of food banks reflects people being let down by the state welfare system, saying "I feel a real burning anger about them ... People are very distressed at having to ask for food; it's humiliating and distressing."
Several Asian countries have begun to use foodbanks; these include South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
In India the FoodBanking concept is being pioneered by the India FoodBanking Network to augment ongoing Government and Non Profit feeding programs, with the establishment of the Delhi FoodBank. IFBN acquires donated food in the form of grains, pulses, oil, spices etc. sourced on the basis of community food habits and makes these available through a network of mostly community owned agencies. These agencies and institutional programs include school feeding projects, shelter homes, Old age homes, substance abuse clinics, and after-school programs which cater to various needs.
Delhi food bank is an organisation that feeds, empowers and transforms lives in the New Delhi / NCR Region. They hold that their shared capabilities can make the basic aspiration of universal access to food a reality. They attempt to pursue this vision through high quality and standards for processes leveraged by technology to get the right aid to the right people at the right time.
Singapore Buddhist Lodge offers free vegetarian food to people.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are charity-run food banks that operate on a semi-commercial system that differs from both the more common "warehouse" and "frontline" models. In some rural LDCs such as Malawi, food is often relatively cheap and plentiful for the first few months after the harvest, but then becomes more and more expensive. Food banks in those areas can buy large amounts of food shortly after the harvest, and then as food prices start to rise, they sell it back to local people throughout the year at well below market prices. Such food banks will sometimes also act as centres to provide small holders and subsistence farmers with various forms of support.
Formed in 2009, FoodBank South Africa (FoodBank SA) is South Africa's national foodbanking network and a member of The Global FoodBanking Network. FoodBank SA's vision is "A South Africa without hunger and malnutrition".
Since the 1980s foodbanking has spread around the world. There are over 25 countries with active food bank groups under the umbrella of The Global FoodBanking Network. Countries in the international network include Australia, Israel, Turkey, Russia, India, Taiwan, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Hong Kong, South Korea and the UK. There are also several countries with foodbanks but which have not yet joined the network, either as they don't yet meet the required criteria or as they have not applied.
An alternative facility offering food to the hungry can be found worldwide wherever there are sizable Sikh communities. Long before foodbanks were invented, Langar has been making free vegetarian food available to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.
The rise of food banks has been broadly welcomed. Not only do they provide a solution to the problem of hunger that doesn't require resources from the state, but they can be viewed as evidence of increasing community spirit and of active, caring citizenship. In the UK for example, Patrick Butler, society editor for The Guardian, has written that the rise of foodbanks has been most enthusiastically welcomed by the right, but also by many on the left of the political spectrum, who were often "nervously excited" about them. However there has been considerable concern expressed by some researchers and politicians. Drawing on the United States's experience after the rapid rise of food banks in the 1980s, American sociology professor Janet Poppendieck warned that the rise of food banks can contribute to a long term erosion of human rights and support for entitlements. Once food banks become well established, it can be politically impossible to return responsibility for meeting the needs of hungry people to the state. Poppendieck says that the logistics of running food banks can be so demanding that they prevent kind hearted people from having time to participate in public policy advocacy; yet she also says if they can be encouraged to lobby politicians for long term changes that would help those on low income, they often have considerable credibility with legislators. As of 2012, senior US food banks workers have expressed a preference to remain politically neutral, which political activists have suggested may relate to their sources of funding.
Rachel Loopstra from University of Toronto has said foodbanks are often inefficient, unreliable and unable to supply nutritional food. She said a survey in Toronto found that only 1 in 5 families suffering from food insecurity would turn to food banks, in part as there is a stigma associated with having to do so. Elizabeth Dowler, Professor of Food & Social Policy at Warwick University, said that most British people prefer the state to take responsibility for helping the hungry. Hannah Lambie-Mumford, from Sheffield University, echoed the view that some users of food banks find having to ask for food humiliating, and also that food banks volunteers should be encouraged to advocate for long term solutions to the underlying causes of poverty and hunger.
Olivier De Schutter, a senior United Nations official charged with ensuring governments honour their obligation to safeguard their citizen's Right to food, has expressed alarm at the rise of food banks. He has reminded the governments of the advanced economies in Europe, Britain and Canada that they have a "duty to protect" their citizens from hunger, and suggested that leaving such an obligation to food banks may be an abuse of human rights.