Should we try to design-out Foodbanks?

In 2017, the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest foodbank charity, handed out 1.3m food parcels to an estimated 666,000 people.

Foodbanks in the UK are under tremendous pressure. From their inception, Foodbanks were supposed to be a temporary solution to ‘food poverty’, but they’ve slowly become permanent fixtures in UK towns and cities. Welfare reform and a desire to move people into work are arguably key causal factors. In 2017, the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest foodbank charity, handed out 1.3m food parcels to an estimated 666,000 people. Given that Foodbanks are run entirely on donations, this level of demand feels unsustainable.

Most formal Foodbanks require those people accessing them to have been referred by an agency working within the community before they will issue a food parcel. This means that Housing Associations account for a great many referrals made to UK Foodbanks, which got us thinking:

Is it right for us to be taking rent off our customers whilst at the same time referring them to Foodbanks, or should we be working with our customers differently in order to provide more sustainable solutions?

To help us understand more about the current UK Foodbank landscape I spent some time visiting Foodbanks and talking to the people who work in them as well as those people who access them. During a short piece of discovery work I visited two Foodbanks and spoke to volunteers from a third. I also spoke to seven Bromford Neighbourhood Coaches who have referred customers to Foodbanks over the past 6 months as well as social workers and other representatives who offer outreach services to Foodbanks customers. Most importantly, I spoke to customers themselves.

Based on the insight gathered during my short qualitative investigation, the overriding reason for customers accessing Foodbanks is a change in circumstance which often includes, but is by no means limited to, the introduction of Universal Credit. When I first embarked upon this discovery work I hadn’t anticipated that the Foodbank ecosystem would be so complex. In the UK, Foodbanks exist despite a developed economy and established welfare state. The increasingly emergent conflation with food waste / food redistribution means that Foodbanks have become part of an ecosystem which itself forms a wicked problem in which many actors play varied roles and politics makes it hard for any single organisation to make any real headway when it comes to unpicking it all.

Whilst it may be too complex for us to attempt to design out Foodbanks, it is perhaps, even more so, inappropriate for us to even think about trying. There are however some potential opportunities we might wish to explore in order to help both minimise the impact on Foodbanks operating within our localities and support our customers in new and different ways:

  • Developing our coaching approach - how we work with customers, i.e. the advice, guidance and support we are able to offer

  • Developing our onboarding approach - what we expect of customers at sign-up, i.e. financial outlay

  • Development of new types of community based / driven services - i.e ways to strengthen communities

  • Working closely with all Foodbanks in our areas - i.e. providing outreach services to both Bromford and non-Bromford customers who live in our communities

There is no one size fits all way of doing this, but through our localities approach we are ideally positioned to design a platform for nurturing community asset-based services which foster community resilience and help address the above opportunities. A few years ago the Design Council ran a funding stream called Independence Matters. Seven Teams won funding to look at ways of ‘limiting the effects of changes in circumstance that diminish our ability to exercise choice and control as we move through life’. These are a good source of inspiration:

The Amazings | Gusto | Casserole | Room for Tea | Grow Cook Share | Incredible Edible

To progress this work there are several key questions we might wish to follow:

  • How might we limit the impact of universal credit?

  • How might we find ways to limit the financial pressures that come with a new tenancy?

  • How might we better anticipate changes in circumstance and help people prepare for their change?

  • How might we build a localities based platform for developing new services that connect communities?

  • How might we find ways to support people to maintain choice and control as they move through their lives?

We will be looking at how we might introduce some of this work into our exploration pipeline in the new year. If this post has sparked your interest we would really like to hear from you.




Simon Penny, Design Lead

Service designer, passionate about using design to find innovative solutions to the most pressing social issues.