Why don’t supermarkets collect for food banks online?

A close friend recently confided that she’d been relying on her local food bank to feed her family, following the separation from her husband. With the summer holidays now here, the pressure of her situation was growing with a long summer ahead and no free school meals.

In a society where people can’t afford to feed themselves or their families, this didn’t come as a shock to me. There has been a lot in the news about food insecurity and hidden hunger and even though my friends works, she still needs support. Receiving food parcels to survive is the norm for hundreds of thousands of people — employed and unemployed — in the UK. In 2016/17 the Trussell Trust alone provided 1.2 million food packs to an estimated 590,000 different people.

From working closely with our 5,000 Online Centres across the UK — who have increasingly become involved in addressing food poverty over the last decade as demand in local communities has grown — I know only too well how vital food banks are.

With the news that that the Food Insecurity Bill will get its second reading in October, and following last week’s celebration of the winners of our Community Challenge Prize — a joint initiative with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which nurtures local community ideas to tackle poverty, powered by digital — I started to think about what more could be done.

There are food banks in store, so why not online?

I’m one of the 14% of the population that does the majority of their food shop online and overall, 48% of Brits do at least some of their grocery shopping online. So I was surprised and a little frustrated that there isn’t the option to donate (either money, food items or even my reward points) to my local food bank when I checkout online.

Although I hope a bag of pasta or a few tins of baked beans that I donate on the rare occasions that I venture into a supermarket is helpful, I’d like to do more and more regularly. I suspect that there are less obvious items — sanitary products, washing powder, formula, nappies — that the food bank requires to support people that I’d be happy to donate online when I do my shop.

The online grocery market is poised for strong growth over the next few years, forecast to reach £16.7 billion in 2021, so it’s a market not to be ignored.

I’m not saying that this will solve the root cause of the food poverty and fundamentally we all need to continue to bang the drum to see changes to the social security system, the availability of decent work and a halt to rising living costs that cause food poverty.

Match supply with demand

But what is needed is as much support as possible for the organisations providing food parcels and the safety net provided by the wider community sector. And ultimately a matching of supply (food donations) with demand (increasing food poverty and use of food banks).

So what more could be done, and how could digital and also the private sector play a role?

Online food banks

I’d like to see supermarkets creating virtual food banks to offer online customers the chance to donate to food banks online in the same way they do in store. Through the online system, customers could quickly and easily donate:

  • groceries and products, based on requests from food bank users
  • money
  • unused reward points.

This would help reach the 48% of the population that do some of their food shopping online. It offers a quick, simple and easy way for online shoppers to donate.

It could also help match supply with demand, as the supermarkets’ website could recommend much needed items for online shoppers to buy and donate, ensuring that the food banks and the people they support receive the items they most need.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Digital could completely revolutionise how people access & benefit from food banks.

Online shopping for food parcels

With an intelligent system backed up by verification of need — using similar processes to the current offline methods, based on referral by frontline professionals — why wouldn’t it be possible for a virtual food bank to allow food bank users to shop online for the items they most needed to receive, to use online credit (donated by online supermarket consumers) to select their essential items and either collect in store (a free service) or have home delivery?

This would have numerous benefits:

  • food bank users would potentially gain new digital & budgeting skills, helping to address poverty premium paid by low-income households
  • users could gain more control, being able to choose items to be included in their food parcel from a wider selection and with guaranteed stock levels, meeting their needs and preferences
  • accessibility challenges faced by housebound users would be addressed by the option to select home delivery
  • more discrete for those who are concerned about the social stigma of using food banks.

The benefits for supermarkets would include both new and more dedicated customers, as food bank users and food bank donors are likely to have increased loyalty to the pioneers in this field.

This would not be a replacement for existing food banks, or innovative initiatives like incredible edible which play a vital and incomparable role in local communities, but is an example of how digital technology could help to meet growing demand and make solutions to food poverty more tailored to need.

It’s an ambitious solution which would involve digital innovation, but as the seventh richest country in the world with over half a million people experiencing food poverty, drastic action is needed.

I’ll be writing and tweeting the CEOs of all the major supermarkets to ask what progress has been made in this area. If you feel inspired to take action, why not email your supermarket to suggest they make online donations a feature of their sites?