Why The BMJ is partnering with the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) for The BMJ Appeal 2020-21

Over the past decade, The BMJ’s annual appeal has grown in scale, and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for our chosen charities. Given the impact of the pandemic on the health and livelihoods of so many people here in the UK, The BMJ team decided that this year we would support a charity focussed on addressing food poverty and hunger in the UK. 

The charity we have chosen to support for The BMJ Appeal 2020-21 is the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). You can donate to the campaign here: https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/bmj.

IFAN works across the UK to support a range of independent food aid organisations, including over 400 independent food banks, while advocating on their behalf at a national level. Its vision is of a country without the need for emergency food aid and in which good food is accessible to all. 

The charity is calling for the root causes of food poverty to be addressed while supporting local organisations working to tackle the immediate effects of food poverty. As well as supporting independent food banks and community food aid projects, the charity collects data on independent food bank use in the UK. And it campaigns for everyone to be able to afford food for themselves and their families. 

Independent food banks have seen an increase in demand for their services since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, with people requiring their services more often and a new cohort of people reaching out for the support of food banks for the first time. During 2020, use of food banks has remained higher than ever before, for younger people, households with children, single households, those with physical or mental health conditions, working households bringing insufficient wages and for people with no recourse to public funds. Comparing May 2019 with May 2020, independent food banks across the UK saw a 177% increase in the distribution of emergency food parcels. 

Alongside the increase in demand for their support, food banks have also faced additional challenges in adhering to restrictions and rules while often losing a significant volunteer cohort to shielding requirements. Services usually based on a collection model, and undertaking just a few deliveries a week, have now increased that number to hundreds. The need for food bank teams to work within social distancing restrictions, and to provide staff and volunteers with personal protective equipment has also added to the workload and operation costs.

Families have been disproportionately impacted by financial strains resulting from covid-19, and Marcus Rashford’s powerful campaign has shone a spotlight on the pressing issue of child food poverty. In June, Rashford sent a passionate letter to all MPs asking for them to reconsider their decision to end free school dinner vouchers. “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry? Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now.”

The long-term impact on the NHS of the rising numbers of people living with food insecurity will also be considerable. People with long-term health conditions are disproportionately represented among those using food banks, and providing balanced and adequate nutrition, while catering for special diets and the need for culturally appropriate food, poses a considerable challenge for food banks. 

Most people living with food insecurity go hungry or resort to cheaper unhealthier foods rather than use a food bank, with an impact on their long-term health that will affect the NHS for many years to come. In 2005, food related ill health was found responsible for about 10% of morbidity and mortality in the UK costing the NHS about £6 billion annually. People living on low incomes are more likely to more likely to become obese, or suffer from heart disease, type 2 diabetes or health-related conditions. Families living in deprived areas are far more likely to visit A&E and be impacted by long-term conditions. 

IFAN is run by a small core team but reaches hundreds of thousands of people through its member organisations. Providing support to the charity will mean that it can continue to advocate for the changes that would reduce the need for food banks while it supports its members to provide a stop gap for the hungry in communities across the UK. 

IFAN doesn’t lose sight of the fact that emergency food parcels don’t solve the poverty driving increased food bank use. The organisation and its member organisations would like to be in a position to close their doors because they were no longer needed. The charity is calling for urgent focus on long-term solutions rather than the perpetuation of an emergency response to food poverty. Ultimately food poverty isn’t about the absence of food but rather the absence of the means to buy that food and to be able to afford a healthy and nutritious diet. 

Please donate generously to The BMJ Appeal 2020-21. Donations can be made here: https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/bmj.

Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator, Independent Food Aid Network.

Tom Moberly, UK Editor, The BMJ.