Making a difference to foodbanks through impactful research
In 2023, Norwich Foodbank and Dr Sarah Hanson have been striving to improve the service of foodbanks for their users. Hannah Worsley, Project Manager at Norwich Foodbank, wanted to discover how a foodbank could do more. How could it improve its service to benefit the lives of foodbank users who are struggling to overcome significant issues such as food and fuel poverty? How could the service advise foodbank users in Norwich so that they would be less likely to require the service in future?
Hannah explains that the research was vital in the face of the escalating cost-of-living crisis and the economic uncertainty of those living in, or edging toward poverty: “we used to see mostly short term or one-off crises such as a payment that didn't come in or one that unexpectedly went out; a broken appliance; or a relationship change, and a small amount of support or advice - and food - made a significant difference. Now we're often hearing from people that they can't see what's going to change and how things will improve, and occasionally from our advice partners that there's no new income available and no more cuts that can be made. That's a scary place to be and the winter is always busier so it's even more concerning.”
“We're often hearing from people that they can't see what's going to change and how things will improve. That's a scary place to be.”
The ‘Making a Difference’ project originated from Hannah’s proactive nature and determination. She approached Dr Hanson with the idea through their shared connection of the Norwich Food Network. “It’s a been a real piece of partnership research with Norwich Foodbank,” says Dr Hanson. “It’s shown that UEA can be really responsive. We did the research that they wanted to do on their terms.”
Hannah Worsley is keen to understand the needs of Norwich Foodbank’s users through research and sees collaboration with UEA as a path towards a better service. “We wanted to find out whether what 'we' think is helpful to people is actually what is wanted and needed by those we serve. It's very easy to have ideas and think we know what will help, but without independent research and hearing from the people we serve, we can't know what's working.”
“Embedded financial advice and a more holistic approach to interactions with foodbank users shows promise in reaching those in need”
The cost-of-living crisis is of course a contributor to the increase in foodbank use, but another factor is benefits processing times and payroll dates. For those precariously living on a paycheque-to-paycheque basis, sudden loss of income can cause disastrous consequences. There are providers and interventions in place to help people in these situations; however, knowing they exist may be the issue. “What we wanted to understand was if we put advice workers into a food bank, could they help people with debt relief orders? Could they help people with housing problems? Could they sit and talk to people about the many benefits that go unclaimed?” explains Dr Hanson.
The first study, A qualitative exploration of a financial inclusion service in an English foodbank, therefore, sought to answer these questions. It found that embedded financial advice and a more holistic approach to interactions with foodbank users shows promise in reaching those in need, suggesting that such an approach could help users to avoid the need for future foodbank support.
The Making a Difference project’s second paper explores the lived experiences of foodbank users who also received fuel vouchers. The researchers identified four common themes in the participants’ experiences: “(1) bewilderment in using foodbank services; (2) the need to make trade-offs between food and fuel; (3) feeling shame at using the services; and (4) missing out on pleasurable eating practices.”
“The sense of shame of needing to ask for help is huge”
Recruitment for such a sensitive and emotive subject was difficult, Dr Hanson explains: “We took a long time to get even the small numbers of people we recruited.” However, some participants were eager to be involved. She describes how one foodbank user stated “I want my story to be told. I want people to understand.” In the case of this vital research, it allowed foodbank users to make their voices heard at a time when many of them feel immense shame; a feeling which was common among the participants. “The sense of shame of needing to ask for help is huge,” says Dr Hanson.
Another barrier was misunderstanding over the consequences of involvement – the fear that discussing their struggles would be detrimental to their financial or familial situation. Dr Hanson describes how “there’s a common misconception that you, the researcher, might tell somebody about the participant and that their Universal Credit may be affected.”
Discussing the achievements of the Making a Difference project, Dr Hanson describes how it has proven that “it’s money well spent having advisors [at foodbanks] and providing fuel vouchers. That’s the key thing.” However, it has also provided an insight into the feelings of volunteers. Dr Hanson describes how “when you’re volunteering, you are continuously hearing some pretty distressing stories, so one of the outputs was to stop at the end of the session and debrief, to spend some time together.”
The research also guided suggestions as to how volunteers can be further upskilled and supported to provide an improved service for foodbank users. “We’ve done workshops with the volunteers to say ‘what you do is actually more skilled than you probably realise.’ Volunteers are recognised but this gave them that extra bit of recognition and confidence,” says Dr Hanson. Hannah explains how Norwich Foodbank has already implemented the recommendations regarding volunteers: “We have put on two well-being workshops and recruited a brand new paid role of Volunteers and Campaigns Coordinator which will help us better look after and listen to our volunteer workforce.”
The insights gleaned from this project could potentially have crucial future impacts if its recommendations are listened to. “Perhaps it bolsters the argument that actually supporting people to get benefits is really important because it saves money in the long term,” says Dr Hanson, alluding to the use of a financial inclusion service in the foodbanks. Hannah hopes that the research will inform foodbank provision elsewhere, stating, “we can continue to share the findings and learnings with other foodbanks (and the Trussell Trust) so we can all better support our volunteers AND our clients. And perhaps do a review of the same work in 12–24 months to explore what's improved or changed.”
The Making a Difference project was rightly nominated for the Consultancy of the Year in the Impact and Innovation Awards 2023, recognising the contribution it made to Norwich Foodbank and foodbank provision in the local community. Hannah speaks highly of the collaboration; “we'd not done anything like this before – we work with hundreds of different referrers and some have created reports on their work, but nothing like this where we posed the idea and were involved. Sarah [Dr Hanson] was brilliant and I can't say this enough. There was so much back and forth getting the questions right, so it wasn't just us asking for the answer we wanted.”
Through her collaborative approach to research, Dr Hanson is demonstrating that universities and researchers are not separate from the communities around them, but instead bodies of expertise and curiosity within their communities; they are as eager and willing to benefit the local population as the global one. She is concerned that to members of the public, academics sometimes seem inaccessible; a stereotype she is keen to disprove through engagement with local groups. “When I get introduced to participants,” says Dr Hanson, “people say ‘She’s Sarah from UEA, but she’s normal’. It’s the greatest compliment.”