Oxford Food Bank helps tackle UK food poverty
Organisation supplies leftover food from supermarkets to charities
The founders of the Oxford Food Bank, David Cairns and Robin Aitken, storing some of the food they salvage from supermarkets and food distributors that would otherwise go to waste. Photograph: Mark Hennessy/The Irish Times
The morning supply run from the Oxford Food Bank to dozens of charities had just left, leaving behind a few trays of apricots, Greek olives, lettuces, peppers and yoghurts in the walk-in refrigerators.
Nearby, boxes of Kelloggs cereals stood in piles next to rows of tins of Heinz beans, boxes of cup-a-soups, and fruit, lots of fruit.
Nothing stored in this industrial unit on the edge of Oxford is bought. Instead, everything comes from supermarkets or food distributors, left with too much stock that is nearing its use-by date, or taking up needed space.
However, the food bank’s founders, Belfast-born David Cairns and Robin Aitken, caution against images of evil supermarkets, pointing out that food waste is built into modern day shopping: “We want stuff 24 hours a day,” says Cairns.
Each day, 100 volunteers make the journey to collect provisions, which are then stored and separated, before being supplied to up to 60 charities in the city and the 15 miles around it.
Some of the charities are large, some are small. One nun, known to the volunteers as “Ma Smith”, used to feed 70 homeless once a week. With supplies from Oxford she is now doing it twice a week. A £2 million-a-year homeless charity similarly depends on the bank.
“What we send out helps them to keep their core budgets for what they should really be spending on,” says Aitken, a retired journalist, who founded the organisation with Cairns five years ago.
Back then, the two had been part of a group that started with more grandiose ambitions that “fell flat”. Aitken subsequently rang up Sainsbury’s to ask if they would donate unwanted food. “They said they would have a go.”
Aitken and Cairns drove to one of its local stores, “filled up the car to overflowing with £500 (€400)worth of food, drove to a park and ride, divided it up and took it off to five charities.”
Today, the food bank has taken on two full-time staff, pays £12,000 in rent for its premises, but has change out of a £50,000 budget: “We take a £1 and give it £20 worth of value.”
Food poverty has become a central issue in Britain on the back of this week’s all-party parliamentary report Feeding Britain, which investigated the dramatic growth in the number of food banks.
Understandably, most of the coverage focused on the inability of families to manage on the minimum wage, the impact of zero hours contracts and the hardship caused by benefit delays. However, the report also looks at less-emphasised problems, such as the difficulties many have with cooking or budgeting.
For those on the left of politics, the growth of food banks is an indictment of the current government’s welfare cuts, though their existence was first noted during the Labour era. For those on the right, they demonstrate that community ties still exist in British society, even if they would prefer not to talk about the banks themselves.
The Oxford Food Bank stays neutral, though Aitken and Cairns are clearly less than impressed by the way in which food poverty has been taken on by those who, in their view, are seeking to use it for political mileage.
“I worked in Walsall in the 1970s. Poverty was much worse then than anything that you see today. So too in the 1990s,” says Aitken, while Cairns adds, “It has become a cliché of ‘hard times’ Britain, but it is much more complicated than that.”
Involvement in food charities is also taken to indicate political allegiance, Cairns says, before noting how a woman once pigeonholed him as a Labour voter: “There was an automatic assumption that I was left wing because I was involved in a charity.”
However, the increase in food poverty does highlight the weakening influence of the blood ties that shored up families in past decades, and, indeed, the declining role of the Church of England in parish charity.
“When people say that the existence of food banks is shameful, I say that they are wrong. I say that it is a mark of honour, that it shows that people in Britain today still care about each other,” says Aitken.
Today, some of the Oxford Food Bank’s volunteers are retired, some are unemployed. Others fit in hours in between jobs and raising children. Everyone has their own reason for being there.
“There is simply a great feelgood factor. The work is enjoyable. People are busy, there is lots of physical activity, and you meet people. And people love you you for it when you turn up with supplies,” says Aitken.
In Cairns and Aitken’s view, the public’s habits dictate supermarket practices. “The companies are not some hideous monolith. They don’t want to waste food, if only because it is wasting money. But people expect to eat asparagus in December,” says Aitken.
“The system is a continuous line. Blockages have to be removed, otherwise everything will grind to a halt. If the blockages are not taken up by us, they go to waste. It’s like people complaining about traffic. We are the traffic,” Aitken declares.