Some food banks operate on the "front line" model, giving out food directly to the hungry, such as many European ones. Others operate on the "warehouse" model, supplying food to intermediaries like food pantries, soup kitchens and other front-line organisations, such as in Nepal, North America and Australia.
St. Mary's Food Bank was the world's first food bank, established in the US in 1967. Since then, many thousands have been set up all over the world. In Europe, which until recently had little need for food banks due to extensive welfare systems, their numbers grew rapidly after the global increase in the price of food which began in late 2006, and especially after the financial crisis of 2007–08 began to worsen economic conditions for those on low incomes.
The growth of food banks has been welcomed by commentators who see them as examples of an active, caring citizenship. Other academics and commentators have expressed concern that the rise of foodbanks may erode political support for welfare provision. Researchers have reported that in some cases food banks can be inefficient compared with state-run welfare, and that some people feel ashamed at having to use them.
With thousands of food banks operating around the world, there are many different models.
A major distinction between food banks is whether or not they operate on the "front line" model, giving out food directly to the hungry, or whether they operate with the "warehouse" model, supplying food to intermediaries like food pantries, soup kitchens and other front-line organisations. In the US, Australia and to an extent in Canada, the standard model is for food banks to act as warehouses rather than as suppliers to the end user, though there are exceptions. In other countries, food banks usually do hand out food parcels direct to hungry people, providing the service that in the US is offered by food pantries.
Another distinction is between the charity model and the labour union model. At least in Canada and the US, food banks run by charities often place relatively more weight on the salvaging of food that would otherwise go to waste, and on encouraging voluntarism, whereas those run by unions can place greater emphasis on feeding the hungry by any means available, on providing work for the unemployed, and on education, especially on explaining to users their civil rights.
In the US, cities will often have a single food bank which acts as a centralized warehouse and will serve several hundred front line agencies. Like a blood bank, that warehouse serves as a single collection and distribution point for food donations. A food bank operates a lot like a for-profit food distributor, but in this case it distributes food to charities, not to food retailers. There is often no charge to the charities, but some food banks do charge a small "shared maintenance" fee to help defray the cost of storage and distribution.
For many US food banks, most of their donated food comes from food left over from the normal processes of for-profit companies. It can come from any part of the food chain, e.g. from growers who have produced too much or whose food is not sufficiently visually appealing; from manufacturers who overproduced; or from retailers who over-ordered. Often the product is approaching or past its "sell by" date. In such cases, the food bank liaises with the food industry and with regulators to make sure the food is safe and legal to distribute and eat.
Other sources of food include the general public, sometimes in the form of "food drives", and government programs that buy and distribute excess farm products mostly to help support higher commodity prices. Food banks can also buy food either at market prices or from wholesalers and retailers at discounted prices, often at cost. Sometimes farmers will allow food banks to send gleaners to salvage leftover crops for free once their primary harvest is complete. A few food banks have even taken over their own farms, though such initiatives have not always been successful.
Many food banks don't accept fresh produce, preferring canned or packaged food due to health and safety concerns, though some have tried to change this as part of a growing worldwide awareness of the importance of nutrition. As an example, in 2012, London Food Bank (Canada) started accepting perishable food, reporting that as well as the obvious health benefits, there were noticeable emotional benefits to recipients when they were given fresh food.
Summer can be a challenging time for food banks, especially in regions where school children are usually given regular free meals during term time. Spikes in demand can coincide with periods where donations fall due to folk being on holiday.
In the U.S. and sometimes in Canada, food banks don't typically give food direct to the hungry. Instead they act as warehouses, supplying front-line agencies like this Californian soup kitchen. (Picture taken in 2009, and shows members of the United States Navy serving visitors.) The world's first food bank was St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona, founded by John van Hengel in 1967. According to sociology professor Janet Poppendieck, hunger within the US was widely considered to be a solved problem until the mid-1960s. By the mid-sixties, several states had ended the free distribution of federal food surpluses, instead providing an early form of food stamps which had the benefit of allowing recipients to choose food of their liking, rather than having to accept whatever happened to be in surplus at the time. However, there was a minimum charge and some people could not afford the stamps, leading to severe hunger. One response from American society to the rediscovery of hunger was to step up the support provided by soup kitchens and similar civil society food relief agencies – some of these dated back to the Great Depression and earlier. In 1965, while volunteering for a community dining room, van Hengel learned that grocery stores often had to throw away food that had damaged packaging or was near expiration. He started collecting that food for the dining room but soon had too much for that one program. He thought of creating a central location from which any agency can receive donations. Described as a classic case of "if you build it they will come", the first food bank was created with the help of St. Mary's Basilica, which became the namesake of the organization. Food banks spread across the United States, and to Canada. By 1976, van Hengel had established the organization known today as Feeding America. As of the early 21st century, their network of over 200 food banks provides support for 90,000 projects. Other large networks exist such as , created by and World Food Prize nominee Gary Oppenheimer which lists nearly 9,000 food pantries (1 out of every 4 in America) across all 50 states that are eager to receive surplus locally grown garden produce from any of America's 62 million home or community gardeners.
In the 1980s, U.S. food banks began to grow rapidly. A second response to the "rediscovery" of hunger in the mid-sixties had been extensive lobbying of politicians to improve welfare. Until the 1980s, this approach had greater impact. In the 1970s, U.S. federal expenditure on hunger relief grew by about 500%, with food stamps distributed free of charge to those in greatest need. According to Poppendieck, welfare was widely considered preferable to grass roots efforts, as the latter could be unreliable, did not give recipients consumer-style choice in the same way as did food stamps, and risked recipients feeling humiliated by having to turn to charity. In the early 1980s, president Reagan's administration scaled back welfare provision, leading to a rapid rise in activity from grass roots hunger relief agencies. According to a comprehensive government survey completed in 2002, over 90% of food banks were established in the US after 1981. Poppendieck says that for the first few years after the change, there was vigorous opposition from the left, who argued that state welfare was much more suitable for meeting recipients needs. But in the decades that followed, food banks have become an accepted part of America's response to hunger. Demand for the services of US food bank increased further in the late 1990s, after the "end of welfare as we know it" with President Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. In Canada, foodbanks underwent a period of rapid growth after the cutbacks in welfare that took place in the mid-1990s. As early as the 1980s, food banks had also begun to spread from the United States to the rest of the world. The first European food bank was founded in France during 1984. In the 1990s and early 2000s, food banks were established in South America, Africa, and Asia, in several cases with van Hengel acting as a consultant. In 2007, The Global FoodBanking Network was formed.
Some U.S. cities have organizations that provide dog and cat food for pets whose owners qualify for food assistance. For example, Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen in Lawrenceville, Georgia is considered the largest pet food aid agency in Georgia, distributing over 800,000 pounds of dog and cat food in 2012. Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen was started in 1997 by Tom Wargo, a repairman who was working in an elderly woman's home when he noticed her sharing her Meals On Wheels lunch with her pet cat because she couldn't afford cat food. Daffy's was one of seven non-profits recognized by Barefoot Wine in 2013 through a $10,000 donation and by being featured on labels of the vintner's Impression Red Blend wines. in Atlanta, Georgia is another example of an establishment that provides food aid for pets. The St. Augustine Humane Society in St. Augustine, Florida, distributes over 1,600 pounds of pet food each month to families who are experiencing economic hardship and cannot afford to feed their pets.
The College and University Food Bank Alliance, which formed in 2012, has 570 campus food pantries nationwide. On-campus food pantries were available at 70% of State University of New York locations by 2019.
Following the financial crisis of 2007–08, and the lasting inflation in the price of food that began in late 2006, there has been a further increase in the number of individuals requesting help from American and Canadian food banks. By 2012, according to Food Banks Canada, over 850,000 Canadians needed help from a food bank each month. For the United States, Gleaners Indiana Food bank reported in 2012 that there were then 50 million Americans struggling with food insecurity (about 1 in 6 of the population), with the number of individuals seeking help from food banks having increased by 46% since 2005. According to a 2012 UCLA Center for Health Policy Research study, there has been a 40% increase in demand for Californian food banks since 2008, with married couples who both work sometimes requiring the aid of food banks. Dave Krepcho, director of the Second Harvest Food Bank in Orlando, has said that college-educated professional couples have begun to turn to food pantries.
By mid-2012, US food banks had expressed concerns on the expected difficulty in feeding the hungry over the coming months. Rapidly rising demand has been coinciding with higher food prices and with a decrease in donations, partly as the food industry is becoming more efficient and so has less mislabelled and other slightly defective food to give away. Also there has been less surplus federal food on offer. Additionally, there have been recent decreases in federal funding, and Congress have been debating possible further cuts, including potentially billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp programme). In September 2012, Feeding America launched Hunger Action Month, with events planned all over the nation. Food banks and other agencies involved hoped to raise awareness that about one in six Americans are struggling with hunger, and to get more Americans involved in helping out.
The first European food bank was opened in France in 1984. The first food bank in Italy was established in 1989. Similar to the UK's experience, foodbanks have become much more common across continental Europe since the crisis that began in 2008, and especially since austerity measures began to take effect from late-2010, after the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition launched their austerity programme to cut billions of pounds in public expenditure.
In Spain, food banks can operate on the warehouse model, supplying a network of surrounding soup kitchens and other food relief agencies. The Spanish federation of food banks helped to feed about 800,000 people during 2008–11, according to the Carrefour Foundation. By October 2014, Spain had 55 food banks in total, with the numbers who depend on them having increased to 1.5 million.
In Belgium, food banks helped about 121,000 people during 2012. That was an increase of about 4,500 compared with 2011, the biggest increase since the start of the 2008 crisis. Belgian food banks account for about 65% of all food aid given out within the country.
The number of food banks has increased rapidly in Germany, a country that has weathered the crisis relatively well, and has not needed to implement severe austerity measures. In 2012, professor Sabine Pfeiffer of Munich University of Applied Sciences said there has been an "explosion" of food bank usage.
While many European food banks have long been run by civil society with no government assistance, an EU funded project, the Most deprived persons programme (MDP), had specialised in supplying food to marginalised people who are not covered by the benefit system, who were in some cases reluctant to approach the more formal food banks. The programme involved the EU buying surplus agricultural products, which were then distributed to the poor largely by Catholic churches. The MDP was wound down in late-2013, and was replaced by the Fund for European Aid to Most Deprived (FEAD), which is set to run until at least 2020. The FEAD programme has a wider scope than the MDP, helping deprived people not just with food aid, but with social inclusion projects and housing. The actual methods employed by FEAD tend to vary from country to country, but in several EU states, such as Poland, its activities include helping to fund local food bank networks.
Research published in 2017 found there were over 2,000 UK food banks, with 651 being independent of the Trussell network.
Professor Jon May, of Queen Mary University of London and the Independent Food Aid Network, said statistics showed rapid rise in numbers of food banks during the last five years.
“There are now food banks in almost every community, from the East End of London to the Cotswolds. The spread of food banks maps growing problems of poverty across the UK, but also the growing drive among many thousands of people across the country to try and do something about those problems”.
Though foodbanks were rarely seen in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century, their use has started to grow, especially in the 2000s, and have since dramatically expanded. The increase in the dependency on food banks has been blamed[by whom?] on the 2008 recession and the Conservative government's austerity policies. These policies have included cuts to the welfare state and caps on the total amount of welfare support that a family can claim. The OECD found that people answering yes to the question ‘Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?’ decreased from 9.8% in 2007 to 8.1% in 2012, leading some[who?] to say that the rise was due to both more awareness of food banks, and Jobcentres referring people to food banks when they were hungry.
“Recent national survey data suggests that 8% of adults experienced not having enough money for food over 2016 – this figure is likely to be many times more than the number helped by food banks. We need ongoing national survey monitoring to understand the scale of food insecurity, who is at risk, and the implications for child and adult health and wellbeing.”
Those who are short of food are likely to frequently also be short of other essential products, like shampoo and basic hygiene products (e.g. soap, toilet roll and sanitary products). Some people must choose between buying food and buying basic toiletries.
As of January 2014, there were close to 1,000 UK food banks. The largest group co-ordinating UK foodbanks was The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity based in Salisbury. About 43% of the UK's foodbanks were run by Trussell, about 20% by smaller church networks such as Besom and Basic, about 31% were independent, and about 4% were run by secular food bank networks such as Fare Share and Food Cycle.
Before the 2008 credit crunch, food banks were "almost unheard of" in the UK. In 2004, Trussell only ran two food banks, but by 2007–2008, there were 22 food banks in the Trussell Trust Foodbank Network and by early-2011, the Trussell Trust supported 100. As of May 2012, they had 201. By August, 252. The rate of increase had been rising rapidly. In 2011, about one new food bank was being opened per week. In early-2012, about two were being opened each week. By July, the Trussell Trust had reported that the rate of new openings had increased to three per week. In August, the rate of new openings spiked at four per week, with three new food banks being opened in that month for Nottingham alone. By October 2012, the rate of increase had fallen back to about two or three per week.
Most UK food banks are hosted by churches in partnership with the wider community. They operate on the "frontline" model, giving out food directly to the hungry. Over 90% of the food given out is donated by the public, including schools, churches, businesses and individuals. The Trussell Trust had aimed to provide short-term support for people whose needs have not yet been addressed by official state welfare provision; those who had been "falling into the cracks in the system". The Trussell franchise has procedures which aim to prevent long-term dependency on their services, and to ensure that those in need are referred to qualified outside agencies. The charity suggests that the credit crunch caused an upsurge in the number of people needing emergency food. Since 2010, demand for foodbanks continued to increase, and at a more rapid rate, partly as austerity began to take effect, and partly as those on low incomes began to draw down savings and run out of friends of whom they were willing to ask for help. Unlike soup kitchens,[a] most, but not all UK food banks are unable to help people who come in off the street without a referral - instead they operate with a referral system. Vouchers are handed out to those in need by various sorts of frontline care professionals, such as social workers, health visitors, Citizens Advice Bureaux, Jobcentres and housing officials. The voucher can typically be exchanged at the food bank for a package of food sufficient to last three days. The year to April 2013 saw close to 350,000 referrals to Trussell Trust foodbanks, more than double the amount from the previous year.
A number of food banks have been set up outside of the Trussell system, some faith-based, others secular, in part as they don't like having to turn away people without referrals, although Trussell Trust foodbanks do help clients in need without vouchers to get one as quickly as possible. There is also FareShare, a London-based charity which operates some nineteen depots on the American-style warehouse model. Rather than giving out food directly to individuals, FareShare distributes food to over 700 smaller agencies, mainly smaller independent operations like soup kitchens and breakfast clubs. Great emphasis is placed on reducing food waste as well as relieving food poverty. Fareshare operates on a business basis, employing a number of managers to oversee operations alongside their army of volunteers. Employee costs constituted over 50% of their expenditure in both 2011 and 2012.
The Trussell Trust revealed a 47% increase in number of three-day emergency supplies provided by their foodbanks in December 2016 compared to the monthly average for 2016-17 financial year. Public donations in December 2016 meant foodbanks met the increased need in that month, but donations in January, February and March 2017 all fell below the monthly average of 931 tonnes for the 2016-17 financial year.
Although going for a few years by various small charities around the world, 2017 saw a significant increase in media coverage and take up of the reverse advent calendar. The UK Money bloggers campaign encouraging the public to give something to a food bank every day for 25 days was covered by The Mirror The Guardian and Inews and others. Emma Revie of the Trussell Trust said, "for too many people staying above water is a daily struggle".
Food bank use has increased since Universal Credit was implemented as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Delays in providing the first payment force claimants to use food banks, also Universal Credit does not provide enough to cover basic living expenses. Claiming Universal Credit is complex and the system is hard to navigate, many claimants cannot afford internet access and cannot access online help with claiming. A report by the Trussell Trust says:
“Rather than acting as a service to ensure people do not face destitution, the evidence suggests that for people on the very lowest incomes … the poor functioning of universal credit can actually push people into a tide of bills, debts and, ultimately, lead them to a food bank. People are falling through the cracks in a system not made to hold them. What little support available is primarily offered by the third sector, whose work is laudable, but cannot be a substitute for a real, nationwide safety net.”
UK food banks appealed for volunteers and supplies, fearing an increase in demand for food as Universal Credit was rolled out further.
According to a May 2013 report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, about half a million Britons had used food banks. The Trussell Trust reports that their food banks alone helped feed 346,992 people in 2012–13. Numbers using food banks are rising and more than doubled during the period 2012–2013. Reasons why people have difficulty getting enough to eat include redundancy, sickness, delays over receiving benefits, domestic violence, family breakdown, debt, and additional fuel costs in winter. Some clients of foodbanks are in work but cannot afford everything they need due to low pay."Foodbanks help prevent crime, housing loss, family breakdown and mental health problems."
Close to half of those needing to use food banks have had issues with their benefit payments. Sanctioning benefits was the single most frequent reason for food bank referrals and there has been criticism over sanctions being imposed for allegedly spurious reasons.
A joint report from the Trussell Trust, the Church of England, and the charities Oxfam and Child Poverty Action Group found that food bank users were more likely to live in rented accommodation, be single adults or lone parents, be unemployed, and have experienced a “sanction”, where their unemployment benefits were cut for at least one month
Delays in payment of housing benefit disability benefit and other benefits  and general bureaucratic issues with benefits can force people to use food banks. Many further people who need food banks have low-income jobs, but struggle to afford food after making debt repayments and all other expenses. Low-paid workers, part-time workers and those with zero-hour contracts are particularly vulnerable to financial crisis and sometimes need the assistance of food banks. As had been predicted, demand for food banks further increased after cuts to welfare came into effect in April 2013, which included the abolishment of Crisis loans. In April 2014, Trussell reported that they had handed out 913,000 food parcels in the last year, up from 347,000 the year before. Several councils have begun looking at funding food banks to increase their capability, as cuts to their budgets mean they will be less able to help vulnerable people directly.
Sabine Goodwin, Independent Food Aid Network researcher, said most food bank workers reported increasing demand for food aid.
“Many feel they are firefighting, finding a way to deal with the logistics of feeding more and more people, with no time to advocate for changes that would eradicate the need for food banks in the first place.”
According to an all-party parliamentary report released in December 2014, key reasons for the increased demand for UK foodbanks are delays in paying benefits, welfare sanctions, and the recent reversal of the post-WWII trend for poor people's incomes to rise above or in line with increased costs for housing, utility bills and food.
In 2013, the UK Government blocked a £22,000,000 European Union fund to help finance food banks in the UK. This disappointed Labour MEP, Richard Howitt, who assisted in negotiating the fund. Howitt stated:
It is very sad that our government is opposing this much-needed help for foodbanks on the basis that it is a national responsibility, when in reality it has no intention of providing the help itself. The only conclusion is that Conservative anti-European ideology is being put before the needs of the most destitute and deprived in our society.
Haroon Siddiqui notes that the rise in food bank use coincides with the imposition of austerity and feels the government are reluctant to admit the obvious link. Siddiqui noted that during the 2017 general election campaign, Conservative prime minister, Theresa May was asked about even nurses (then subject to a 1% annua pay freeze) using food banks and May merely replied, “There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks.” Siddiqui wrote further, "(...) the reasons people turn to food banks are quite plain (and there have been studies that support them). The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, has said that they help people with “nowhere else to turn”. Earlier [in 2018] it said that food banks in areas where the full Universal Credit service had been in place for 12 months or more were four times as busy."
Then-UK prime minister David Cameron said in the House of Commons in 2012 that he welcomed the efforts of food banks. Caroline Spelman, his , has described food banks as an "excellent example" of active citizenship. Labour MP Kate Green has a different view, feeling that the rise of food banks reflects people being let down by the state welfare system, saying "I feel a real burning anger about them ... People are very distressed at having to ask for food; it's humiliating and distressing." Cookery writer and poverty campaigner Jack Monroe wrote that those referred to food banks or given vouchers were "the lucky ones with a good doctor or health visitor who knows us well enough to recognise that something has gone seriously wrong" and expressed concern for those who lack this support.
Food banks need extra donations during the summer holidays because school children do not receive free school meals during that time. The rising cost of living and the rollout of Universal Credit are also blamed.
In total, around 3.5 million people rely on food banks in France. One provider, the Banque Alimentaire has over 100 branches in France, serving 200 million meals a year to 1.85 million people.
Delhi Food Bank is an organization that feeds, empowers and transforms lives in the New Delhi–NCR Region. They hold that their shared capabilities can make the basic aspiration of universal access to food a reality. They attempt to pursue this vision through high quality and standards for processes leveraged by technology to get the right aid to the right people at the right time.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are charity-run food banks that operate on a semi-commercial system that differs from both the more common "warehouse" and "frontline" models. In some rural LDCs such as Malawi, food is often relatively cheap and plentiful for the first few months after the harvest, but then becomes more and more expensive. Food banks in those areas can buy large amounts of food shortly after the harvest, and then as food prices start to rise, they sell it back to local people throughout the year at well below market prices. Such food banks will sometimes also act as centres to provide small holders and subsistence farmers with various forms of support.
Formed in 2009, FoodBank South Africa (FoodBank SA) is South Africa's national foodbanking network and a member of The Global FoodBanking Network. FoodBank SA's vision is "A South Africa without hunger and malnutrition".
Since the 1980s foodbanking has spread around the world. There are over 30 countries with active food bank groups under the umbrella of The Global FoodBanking Network. Countries in the international network include Australia, Israel, Turkey, Russia, India, Taiwan, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and the UK. There are also several countries with foodbanks but which have not yet joined the network, either as they don't yet meet the required criteria or as they have not applied.
The rise of food banks has been broadly welcomed. Not only do they provide a solution to the problem of hunger that doesn't require resources from the state, but they can be viewed as evidence of increasing community spirit and of active, caring citizenship. In the UK for example, Patrick Butler, society editor for The Guardian, has written that the rise of foodbanks has been most enthusiastically welcomed by the right, but also by many on the left of the political spectrum, who were often "nervously excited" about them. However, there has been considerable concern expressed by some researchers and politicians. Drawing on the United States's experience after the rapid rise of food banks in the 1980s, American sociology professor Janet Poppendieck warned that the rise of food banks can contribute to a long-term erosion of human rights and support for wellfare systems. Once food banks become well established, it can be politically impossible to return responsibility for meeting the needs of hungry people to the state. Poppendieck says that the logistics of running food banks can be so demanding that they prevent kind-hearted people from having time to participate in public policy advocacy; yet she also says if they can be encouraged to lobby politicians for long-term changes that would help those on low income, they often have considerable credibility with legislators. As of 2012, senior US food banks workers have expressed a preference to remain politically neutral, which political activists have suggested may relate to their sources of funding.
The emergence of "Little Free Food Pantries" and "Blessing Boxes," modeled on the "Little Free Libraries" boxes, has been criticized as feel-good local philanthropy which is too small to make a significant impact on hunger, for its lack of access to fresh foods, for food safety concerns, and as a public relations effort by Tyson Foods, which seeks to cut federal SNAP food assistance in the US.
Rachel Loopstra from University of Toronto has said foodbanks are often inefficient, unreliable and unable to supply nutritional food. She said a survey in Toronto found that only 1 in 5 families suffering from food insecurity would turn to food banks, in part as there is a stigma associated with having to do so. Elizabeth Dowler, Professor of Food & Social Policy at Warwick University, said that most British people prefer the state to take responsibility for helping the hungry. Hannah Lambie-Mumford, from Sheffield University, echoed the view that some users of food banks find having to ask for food humiliating, and also that food banks volunteers should be encouraged to advocate for long-term solutions to the underlying causes of poverty and hunger.
Olivier De Schutter, a senior United Nations official charged with ensuring governments honour their obligation to safeguard their citizen's right to food, has expressed alarm at the rise of food banks. He has reminded the governments of the advanced economies in Europe and Canada that they have a "duty to protect" their citizens from hunger, and suggested that leaving such an obligation to food banks may be an abuse of human rights.
Other criticism expresses alarm at "transnational corporate food banking which construct[s] domestic hunger as a matter for charity, thereby allowing indifferent and austerity-minded governments to ignore increasing poverty and food insecurity and their moral, legal and political obligations, under international law, to realize the right to food."