Bristol Poverty Institute’s Foodbank Volunteering Day 2023

On 21st December a group of Bristol Poverty Institute staff and colleagues from across the University headed to the north of the city to volunteer at the North Bristol and South Gloucestershire foodbank. With the cost-of-living crisis hitting everyone hard, foodbanks are facing a horrible combination of lower donations and higher levels of need, so they are really low on stock of many key items. As part of the volunteering day, we were therefore asked to each bring several bags worth of donations to contribute, and the group (and their friends and family) were more than happy to oblige. Between us, we brought a mountain of bags of store cupboard items, toiletries, and some festive treats. Our donations were further bolstered by generous contributions from members of the University’s Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation who enthusiastically engaged with the BPI bake sale I organised to raise additional funds for the foodbank.

Photos of baked goods for the bake sale

Thanks to fantastic efforts from our volunteer bakers and kind donations from our colleagues we raised over £200 from the bake sale, enabling me to arrive at the foodbank with a literal car-full, including dozens of tins of pulses, beans and vegetables, 36 packs of rice, 12 litres of UHT milk, 360 stock cubes, herbs and spices, a couple of kilos of coffee, 45 toothbrushes and 15 tubes of toothpaste, boxes full of shower gels and soaps, multiple packs of sanitary products, 12kg of washing powder, and 45 loo rolls, among other things.

Photos of shopping for foodbank

The day itself was busy and quite physically demanding but in a manageable and rewarding way, so definitely helped us to burn off those bake sale cookies and cakes! We arrived and were given a briefing and tour from the foodbank manager Shauna. Shauna told us that they normally help around 1500 people per month, but that they are receiving many more requests than they can manage at the moment. She explained that people receiving help from the foodbank need a referral – from a doctor, school, the job centre, or citizen’s advice, for example – and that they operate a voucher system to ensure that the right people are receiving the support. Their aim is to support people without developing reliance on it, and to try and work with people to find longer-term solutions. Shauna went on to explain that donations this year had been particularly low, although there had been a bit of a boost in the run up to Christmas as people got into the giving spirit. Nonetheless, the foodbank had had to spend over £100,000 on supplies over the past year, using a combination of donated funds along with their emergency savings. Shauna explained that it had been necessary for them to buy so much this year because on average they are giving out twice as many items as they are getting donated, so they need to purchase more themselves to make up the shortfall.

Photos of the foodbank warehouse

We were then split into four teams, and got to work. One team were boxing up all of the donations we’d brought with us, making sure everything was weighed and accounted for. The second were working through crate-upon-crate of donated items checking expiry dates and suitability, and labelling them accordingly. The third group – my group – then took these labelled items and sorted them into crates for different categories, such as tinned fruit, soups, cereals, rice/pasta/noodles, and items for special dietary requirements including vegan, halal, and gluten-free. It was the fourth group’s task to then take these crates to the relevant part of the warehouse, and sort them within the stock piles according to their expiry dates to ensure that the shortest-dated items are distributed first and therefore minimising waste. It took a little while to get to grips with what went where, but pretty quickly we established a good rhythm and the time then flew.

We were all really interested to learn a bit more about what the foodbank can and can’t donate. For example, we were asked to take out anything containing alcohol – even in small quantities, such as canned soup with some red wine on the ingredients list – as even minute amounts undetectable to the palate can trigger cravings and relapse in recovering alcoholics. Similarly, anything with poppy seeds had to be discarded due to the opiates they may contain. We also learned that they don’t give out any sugary drinks, such as fizzy drinks or pre-mixed fruity drinks, due to the weight and the relatively high sugar content. A lot of people receiving help from the foodbanks have to carry their items home on foot or on public transport, so they have to balance the nutritional value of an item with its weight. It was really interesting to learn more about this, and really useful to bear in mind when making donations in the future.

Photos of volunteers undertaking foodbank activities

It was really rewarding to feel like we were making a small difference, but a harsh reminder of the challenges foodbanks and their customers are facing. So, if you’re reading this and can afford to please do consider donating to your local foodbank. They welcome both monetary donations and donated items. There are various ways to donate, including dropping items off directly during the foodbank’s opening hours or alternatively popping a few bits into the donation boxes near the checkouts in most supermarkets. Some foodbanks, including the one we volunteered at, have a list on their website of the items they currently need the most – and the ones they don’t – to help you decide what to give. Please remember not to donate anything containing alcohol or poppy seeds, or anything with a short shelf-life or that needs to be refrigerated. Hopefully one day we’ll live in a country where people don’t need foodbanks to survive, but in the meantime we can hopefully make a bit of difference by supporting them.

A big thank you from the BPI to all of our volunteers, to the foodbank team for having us, and for everyone who contributed to the bake sale!

Photograph of BPI volunteers