What To Donate (And Not To Donate) To Food Banks As Cooking Costs Rise

Your dried chickpeas are no use if people can't afford to boil them.
K Neville via Getty Images

With household bills set to skyrocket in April, food banks and community hubs are already seeing the impact of the cost of living crisis.

In Cambridge – officially the UK’s most unequal city – around 150 households already use the Abbey Food Hub each week, and demand is only expected to grow.

Amid concerns about rising fuel costs, the charity’s CEO, Nicky Shepard, tells HuffPost UK that people “don’t want things that need to cook for a long time”. Hub users will choose packets of pre-cooked rice, for example, instead of uncooked rice that takes 20 minutes to boil.

It comes after Iceland’s CEO Richard Walker told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that some food bank users are refusing to take raw potatoes, due to rising cooking costs.

“It’s worth mentioning that the people we work with have been struggling since October or before,” Shepard adds. “For the people we’re working with, there’s not enough coming in to cover fuel costs now. So the increase is going to be devastating for people.”

A report from the Resolution Foundation suggests the lack of support offered in Rishi Sunak’s spring statement will mean a total of 1.3 million people in the UK will fall into absolute poverty, including 500,000 children.

Shepard says regular service users in Cambridgeshire aren’t talking about the April price hikes yet – they’re already living day-to-day and “probably haven’t thought that far ahead yet”.

Instead, it’s the people who are currently “only just managing” that seem to be the most anxious. She tells us about a mum-of-three, who recently had to take three weeks off work because her children had Covid. When her pay packet came through, she didn’t have enough for shopping and came to the hub for help. “I can’t imagine she’s going to cope when the fuel prices go up even higher,” Shepard says.

The food hub sees a lot of people in similar positions, who are managing on minimum wage, but an “emergency” pushes them over the edge. Care workers, retail staff, teaching assistants and dinner ladies all visit.

Shepard is cautious about sharing details of these stories with the media, because she doesn’t think “poverty porn” is helpful. “But I don’t want to sugarcoat it either, because things are bad, and they’re going to get worse,” she says.

“I spoke to somebody last week who didn’t have food or fuel and wasn’t able to take his medication, because he had to take his medication with food, and he didn’t have more than one meal a day.”

The Abbey Food Hub, which is organised by the charity Abbey People.
Abbey Food Hub
The Abbey Food Hub, which is organised by the charity Abbey People.

Some donations may be unhelpful

Nobody should have to choose between food and fuel, but this is the reality facing thousands across the UK right now. Because of this, some items being donated to food banks with the best of intentions might not be useful.

Abbey Food Hub has recently received a large donation of dried beans, for example, but people don’t want to take them because you have to boil them for about 40 minutes, which is costly.

The hub also regularly receives pasta but no pasta sauce, so Shepard would like to encourage those donating to ask themselves “what would help to make this a meal?”

As well as pre-cooked rice, pre-cooked mash is popular among service users and many also request microwave meals. Some choices are due to a lack of time to cook or confidence with cooking, says Shepard, but “the fuel issue is a whole other kind of level”.

Some service users are also cooking with a plug-in hob ring, instead of full kitchen facilities, so this is something to bear in mind.

So, what food should you donate?

As fuel costs rise, Shepard recommends donating food items that are quick and easy to cook. These include:

Tinned meat and tuna
Packets of pre-cooked microwave rice
Pot noodle and ramen noddles
Tea and coffee
Long life milk (UHT milk)
Tinned custard and tinned fruit
Rice pudding
Pasta with a jar of pasta sauce
Microwave meals (if your local hub can store them, check first).

Toiletries are also needed at most food banks and hubs. “We often we find parents will wash the children but not wash their own hair, because they don’t have enough shampoo, or they don’t want to use the hot water on themselves,” says Shephard. “The kids will be looked after, but they might skimp on their own personal care.”

What toiletries and other items should you donate?

Shower gel
Period products
Some hubs also take clothes. Always check first.

The above lists will work for the majority of food banks, but it’s useful to remember that every centre operates differently, so it can be helpful to ask what your local group is looking for, before making donations.

Pesh Kapasiawala, the founder of 3food4u, which runs food hubs in Waltham Abbey, Loughton, Chipping Ongar and Chigwell Row, has created a model that focuses on fresh food. Clients do not need a referral from social services, a church or their GP (as is the case with many foods banks).

The charity accepts some donations, but largely works with distributors who usually supply restaurants, supermarkets and schools, to intercept excess food that might otherwise go to waste.

“Around 80% of the food we give out is fresh,” he tells HuffPost. “But we still give the long life food because we do appreciate that people still need to have something in the cupboard as well for a rainy day.”

Fresh food is often associated with high cooking costs, but Kapasiawala believes giving it out in volume can still help those facing high bills.

The majority of food banks give out parcels that need to be topped up at the supermarket, he says. Instead, 3food4u gives out three or four bags of shopping to clients – often worth £100 – with the aim of providing everything needed for a week of meals.

“You can save that £100 and use it to pay for energy costs, or pay for other things like rent arrears,” he says. “And you don’t have to worry about food now.”

If you’re unsure of the best way to help your local food bank, Shepard says setting up a direct debit, if you can afford to, is often helpful.

“There’s so much insecurity around where the next part of funding is coming. And there’s many others like us.” she says. “We know we can offer the service for six months, but from that point forward, it gets a little bit woolly.”

Kapasiawala and Shepard stress that people don’t tend to come forward for help until they’re really struggling – and they’ve both noticed recent increases.

“We’ve seen a lot of new people coming into the food hub over the last few weeks,” Shepard says. “And at the point somebody comes in and says ‘I’ve been referred’, you can guarantee that they’ve got nothing in the house, and they probably haven’t eaten all day.”