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Food banks know what is going on – we need to help them tell their story.

December 2, 2013

Food Bank Pic

I have recently finished (in partnership with Voluntary Action Sheffield, Involve Yorkshire and Humber, the Manor and Castle Development Trust and the Yorkshire and Humber PHO) a rapid review of Food Banks in Sheffield, which is available here – Sheffield Food Bank Rapid Review 2013. One of the issues that emerged from this work was that most food banks will only accept referrals from 3rd party agencies.

As Simon Mould – the founder of the Trussell Trust states in an article in the Guardian.

“The trust drew up strict rules to ensure it did not get dragged into doing the state’s job. It would only give out food parcels to clients who come with a voucher given to them by accredited local welfare professionals – teachers, GPs or social workers.”

On its website the Trussell Trust notes that:

“Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, CAB and police identify people in crisis and issue them with a foodbank voucher. Foodbanks partner with a wide range of care professionals who are best placed to assess need and make sure that it is genuine.”

In our interviews it was clear that receiving referrals from 3rd party agencies takes pressure off volunteers who do not feel comfortable being placed into an assessment role – making judgements about who should or not receive support.

In Sheffield the range of referring agencies is quite broad – it includes:

Statutory Sector

  • Health Centres
  • Homeless and Travellers Team
  • Mental Health Support Team
  • GPs
  • Social Services
  • Multi-Agency Support Teams
  • Hospitals

Voluntary Sector

  • Age UK
  • Homeless Charities
  • Asylum Seekers Organisations
  • Churches
  • Development Trusts
  • Advice Centres

Not all food banks take referrals from all of the above. You will note that food banks are very cautious about taking referrals from any agencies funded by DWP.

I think that receiving referrals serves two other important purposes.

First – it keeps the people who receive support from food banks ‘in the world’. By this I mean that if people were able to just go directly to food banks it would be even easier for statutory agencies in particular to just leave the challenge of responding to their needs to the Food Bank sector itself. It would increase the ghettoisation and invisibility of this group of often vulnerable people.

This means that every time that a doctor or welfare rights worker makes a referral they too are reminded not just of the existence of the food bank but of the person they are referring.

Second, the food bank referral vouchers also provide an opportunity for food banks to analyse which agencies are referring most and if necessary either challenge this with the agency concerned or raise the social policy reasons for this. For example there was some real concern that some social workers were using food bank referrals as an alternative to spending crisis funding.

The Trussell Trust does use voucher information to pull together a picture about what is going on – it shares some of this information nationally. However not all food banks are members of the Trussell Trust and we found that not all food banks in Sheffield routinely collect data and fewer analyse it. I suspect that this is true across the country.

It is clear that for many volunteers their primary motivation (and rightly so) is in providing succour to their clients. Many are not directly interested in providing data to local systems and organisations. Indeed some are wary about doing it – being concerned about aligning themselves too closely with statutory agencies.

Important Local Data

Referrals are local, while national information is tremendously helpful in drawing this issue to the attention of government it is just as important that local agencies and politicians also get and use this information about their citizens and services. These small organisations are an important bellwether for keeping in touch with often vulnerable and easily ignored people.

Foodbank referral vouchers have the potential to be an important tool to understand what is actually happening on the ground. As our local report highlights one of the issues that local commissioners and Joint Strategic Needs Assessment leads  should consider is how they can support food banks in gathering intelligence and analysing it.

What do you think?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2013 10:38

    Reblogged this on thepositivevoice.

  2. Mike Pedler permalink
    December 4, 2013 09:12


    Musing on the fact that Food Banks are not simple help to the needy as I imagine them. (Is there such a thing as simple help to the needy?) Instead they seem hedged about with the need to be watchful, careful and now clearly, well-documented. There is something disturbing about this and its good to hear at least that the volunteers know what they’re there for….. although I don’t think I detect any irony in your remark that they are “not directly interested in providing data to local systems and organisations”?


    • December 6, 2013 00:14

      Hi Mike

      Hmmm – I agree there is something disturbing about this – I know that food bank volunteers genuinely want to help people and are thoughtful and concerned about their growing role and worried that they become an alternative to statutory provision. They were certainly clear that they did not want their existence to be used as justification for cutting access to welfare support by DWP in particular. But their primary motivation is practical help – not campaigning for system change. Thats OK by me – we need people to do both. Just as in the welfare rights world there are those providing practical support and those who gather the information to campaign locally and nationally. I suspect that because food banks are a comparatively new phenomenon in this country some of the debates around use of data and independence from statutory provision are less well tested than they might be in other sectors such as welfare rights/citizens advice…….but I could be wrong!

      Best wishes


  3. October 7, 2020 04:27

    Hi there,

    Really interesting to read this – from 2013 but more relevant than ever today.

    I just wanted to add that at we have created software that allows Food Banks to easily track and monitor all this data. We did some interesting work during the first UK Covid lockdown which you can read about here – helping homeless communities in Northampton.

    I’m just getting a new blog post together which shows how we can help automate and track the voucher system you see popularised via the Trussell Trust – hoping to get it out in the next day or two.

    If anyone would like to chat about it, my email is

    Kind regards, Steve

  4. October 7, 2020 04:34

    Hi there,

    Great to read this article from 7 years ago – but it feels like its never been more relevant.

    We’ve been providing software to support Food Banks recently, helping them to track how they are helping, optimising operations, including the voucher style system you see facilitated by the Trussell Trust software.

    In the case study we saw an amazing increase in impact once data was gathered for better decision making, and in this particular case it also really helped raise more donations.

    If anyone would like to talk about Food Bank operational optimisation, my email is – would be great to hear from you 🙂

    Kind regards, Steve.


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