If it looks like a food bank, and smells like a food bank, it still might not be a food bank

At our church, we run a regular food club. Food clubs look quite a lot like food banks. In that, some people come and get food. We get food in, we give food out, it is mainly targeted about people in financial need. In many ways, it looks a right lot like a food bank. But, it isn’t.

You don’t need to be referred to be part of our food club. Anyone can join it. You don’t need a voucher, you can just turn up. You don’t only get a handful of trips, you can come every time it is open. Though not all, some food banks run like this too.

The most significant difference is that our food club isn’t free. Everyone who comes has to be a member. So, to join in, you have to pay a one-off yearly subscription fee. Then, each time to come, you also have to pay a smaller shopping fee. Which is to say, if you come to our food club, you are buying in to be a member and paying every time you shop with us.

What makes it different to a standard shop is that you don’t pay for what you buy. Instead, your shopping fee entitles you to a certain amount of items from the shop. Also, items are grouped together in categories so that you are only entitled to a certain amount of products from each group. You cannot mix and match items across groups. You either take your item from the group or you leave it, but the grouped foods mean you are entitled to a range of food rather than all of one kind.

We do it this way for several reasons. First, we think it is more dignified. We don’t think anybody is served well by receiving handouts. Instead, we think it is more dignified for people to buy in to the club rather than rely on handouts.

Second, we think it is important to not just give people handouts that will free up money they could spend on food but they are choosing to spend elsewhere. Whilst the food club offers shopping at knock-down prices, it expects people to take some responsibility for organising their finances to buy in. We are not in the business of simply freeing up people’s cash but asking them to actually buy in.

Third, whilst we would help people with crisis support where it may be needed, we do not do this long term. We have no interest in keeping people in crisis mode. Instead, though we may offer crisis relief periodically for somebody, we want to move them out of crisis mode into the food club that comes with the need to buy in and requires financial responsibility. The aim is to ultimately move people away from crisis mode, into the food club and ultimately out of the food club to a position where they are able to operate without such support altogether. The food club provides a helpful stepping stone.

Fourth, this is supplemented by other things. It is no good helping people with food if they have other needs that are clearly going to stop them becoming self-sufficient. In our community, language barriers are a major factor in people being able to get into work. Therefore, we provide English Classes. Much like the food club, the English Classes are not intended to keep people forever at beginner level. Often, we take people when they cannot get onto college courses and they remain with us until they are able to get into college. But we provide English Classes alongside the food club. Similarly, we provide (or signpost people toward other agencies who can offer) other means of support so that various barriers that might exist to help them. A food club on its own may not address some of these issues, but alongside a wider package of support, we are less likely to see people kept in crisis mode and reliant upon us.

We do not want to see people kept reliant on us. We want to see people helped and supported so that they can move on from such support. We do these things because we think it is important to love and help people in our community. It also provides us with opportunities to build relationships with people in our community. But we want to do it in a way that actually helps and we’re convinced handouts are not it.