Food bank closures reported as coronavirus outbreak impacts voluntary sector

Concerns about spreading Covid-19 to elderly volunteers and service users and dwindling food supplies are said to be hindering operations.

Cans of food being carried in a box
Cans of food being carried in a box

At least four food banks are closing and “many” more are considering doing so as the impact of the coronavirus outbreak tightens its grip on the voluntary sector.

A member of the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), the Cwmtawe Action To Combat Hardship (Catch) food bank in Ystalyfera, near Swansea, has closed for at least a week after two people on their premises were thought to have contracted Covid-19.

Eight of the charity’s regular volunteers are either aged over-70 or have health issues or family connections that make them vulnerable, and the remaining five are not able to step-up to the extent required to keep the food bank operating.

Catch volunteer Ian Graham said the charity needed to protect the safety of volunteers and ensure the operation itself did not become a means of transmission.

He told the PA news agency: “We are trying to work out how to go forward.

“The base line has to be those last two considerations, and therefore we are looking at keeping the building absolutely ‘safe’, and probably having just one volunteer working in it at any one time, and relating to ‘clients’ entirely on a non-contact/social distancing basis outside the building.

“Even so, we are likely to need recruits to man a sustainable operation.”

The Manna Food Bank in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, also an Ifan member, has closed due to its three volunteers being aged in their sixties and seventies.

Cathy Baker, a co-founder, told PA: “For a long time, I have collected fresh produce, mainly from Tesco, and am looking at ways to facilitate making that available for them. Perhaps using younger volunteers.

“I have a lot of contacts in our neighbourhood, and whatever food items I am offered, I will figure out a way to get safely to those who need it.

“This crisis could especially hit those who are on limited income, and those who can’t get to the shops easily.”

Sabine Goodwin, Ifan coordinator, said she was aware that “many” members were considering whether to close.

She said: “Independent food bank teams across the UK will do all they can to keep operating during the coming months but their fragile systems depend on often older volunteers and a now critically challenged food supply.

“First and foremost the UK Government must do all that’s possible to provide the financial means to people on low or no income to manage during this crisis without needing to resort to food aid.”

It comes as the West Northumberland Food Bank (WNFB) in Hexham said it was closed indefinitely to “reduce social interaction to help stop the spread of Covid-19”.

The charity said it would deliver goods twice a week to people in need who requested help.

Earlier this week, Islington food bank said it had taken the “difficult decision” to close from next Tuesday to minimise the risk of infection to volunteers and clients.

The food bank said: “Our food supplies are running low, with donations down and supermarkets limiting how much we can order, meaning that soon we will not be able to give our clients full food bags.

“We need a minimum number of volunteers at each session to operate safely.

“Increasing numbers are self-isolating and this is set to increase further if restrictions on over-70s come in, as many of our volunteers are retired.”

The Trussell Trust said it had experienced a small spike in financial donations over the past few weeks.

A GofundMe page organised by food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe has raised more than £45,000 within a day of being set up.

Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie said some food banks were running out of certain items but that the organisation was not aware of any running out of all donations.

She said: “The resilience of food banks is nothing short of outstanding, and I know that wherever possible, volunteers will be working tirelessly to continue providing support to people unable to afford the essentials.

“But it’s hard for us to say exactly what this will look like in the coming weeks as each food bank in our network is a local charity, run by a community for their local community, and each will be affected differently.

“We’re therefore working closely with our network to understand each food bank’s situation, and how we can best support them.

“Wide-ranging conversations are under way with national partners, exploring how we can work together to help ensure people can access support in the coming weeks, how we get vital food to the places it’s most needed, and how we can help boost volunteer numbers in areas where extra volunteers may be needed.”

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