Flash Says…

Archive for February 2014

Ever wanted to donate to a food bank, but not known what to give or how to help? A food bank was set up in my area during 2013, but then for months I held back because I wasn’t sure quite how to donate. I read several online discussions which reached different conclusions, and the more I pondered, the more complicated it seemed! I wanted my donation to be appropriate, but ended up over-thinking it. Eventually I phoned my local food bank to find out – and here is what I learned. Read this article, find a food bank, make a shopping list, get donating!

Food poverty is a topic close to my heart. When I was a student, there were no food banks – but there were many occasions when I had no money for meals. I walked down busy streets in the evening looking for dropped pennies, then went into the supermarket just before closing time, hoping for some discounted bread so that I could afford toast to go with a 3p can of baked beans. One night I stood outside the Beigel Bakery in Brick Lane, counting my pennies, trying to work out what I could afford to eat. A passing stranger pressed a pound coin into my hand, said “Get yourself something sweet” and walked away as I called out thanks. That night I bought six beigels, some with filling, to share between myself and my partner; it was the only thing we ate that day. It is telling that twenty years later, that stranger’s act of kindness is still imprinted in my memory. So, now that I’m able, regularly donating to a food bank is my way of paying it forward. We never know when we will find ourselves in that position, and you can be sure that people using this service are not there by choice.


What I bought for a food bank with £20. If you’re not sure what to get, start here.


Find your local food bank and ask what they need.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Locating your nearest food bank is probably best achieved by typing your locality and “food bank” into google. Otherwise, the Trussell Trust runs many of them, but several are run by other groups or individuals – mine is organised by a Children’s Centre. If you’re still having no luck, try asking a nearby church, or your local council, who should know where food bank services are provided.

When I initially asked what would be most appreciated, I was told “anything! We would be grateful for anything at all, thank you!” While this is a kind thing to say, it isn’t actually helpful – it didn’t tell me what would be inappropriate, or if there was anything they might prefer me to supply. So, although I would urge you to ask your local group what they most need – as well as what they have plenty of – I provide a list below, giving you some items which will always be welcomed, as well as a heads up on which things you should check before including.

It is important to be aware of the needs of users in your community, so here are a few points for thought:

  • Fuel poverty – not everyone can afford to run a stove, so include some items which can be eaten cold, or just require boiling water. There may also be service users who are living in temporary accommodation and don’t have access to a kitchen – make sure you include things for them to eat.
  • Short term vs long term need – does your food bank cater for people over the longer term, or those who have lost benefits for a few weeks but will be ok thereafter, or a mix of both? People with short term needs will probably just require basic food items to get them through. Those with longer term needs may not have cutlery, cooking equipment, can openers, and may also need additional items for cooking such as vegetable oil and salt.
  • Following on from the last point, if your food bank doesn’t ensure everyone has access to a can opener, then it might be better to provide some canned items which come with ringpulls.
  • Weird and wonderful items – assume that people using food banks have only basic cooking skills, so they won’t know what to do with that jar of octopus tentacles that’s been at the back of your cupboard for months, nor do they want olives or caviar – they’d rather you spent the money on something simple and filling that will go further.
  • Special diets – because I live in a very multicultural area, I had initially thought that I ought to consider halal food items. In fact, Muslim people tend to seek help from the community at their mosque, rather than a food bank – so this is less of an issue. My local food bank merely distinguishes between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. I asked about other special diets such as coeliac or dairy free, but they see very few people with these requirements and are able to cater for them from their regular stock. So I would suggest you include a good selection of vegetarian food – in any case, this is more affordable than meat and fish – but don’t spend money on expensive halal / kosher / gluten free items, unless your local food bank has said that this is something that they need.

Remember that food banks receive lots of donations from Harvest Festivals, and at Christmas time. However, it’s during the summer holidays, when parents have to feed children who would otherwise eat at school, when their needs can be forgotten. If you are able to make a regular donation – be it monthly, quarterly, or just annually – then please think about the time of year and find out when your food bank’s stocks run low or when there is the greatest need.

Basic / value priced items are perfectly fine. In fact, they are preferable in many cases. It’s simple: a food bank is providing SOMETHING to people who have NOTHING. They are not going to be brand-conscious or judgemental as to what has been offered. If you have a choice between buying two cheap bags of pasta, or one branded bag of pasta, buy the cheaper ones – that way twice as many families will be fed. Even if you choose to donate the most expensive Scottish salmon, a can of cheap tuna may be handed out in preference if that is what will expire soonest. So spend your money wisely and get as much as you can (of a decent basic quality) in order to help as many people as possible. Even just a few pounds will go a long way.

Always needed:

Essential food items which can be eaten cold, or made up with boiling water from a kettle, for example:
• Smash (powdered potato)
• Couscous (plain or flavoured)
• Instant noodles
• Tea and instant coffee
• Rice pudding in cans
• Cereal
• Longlife milk
• Longlife fruit juice

Canned items that can be heated and used to make up a meal:
• Meat and fish, such as canned tuna or frankfurter sausages
• Canned vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweetcorn
• Pies (e.g. Fray Bentos or Princes’ Steak and Kidney)
• Canned desserts, such as sponge puddings

Cooking oil is always in demand.


Usually wanted:

The following basics are very useful. I’ve only put them in the “usually” list because many food banks are inundated with certain items (such as sacks of rice, or cans of beans) and may prefer to receive an alternative. So if you’re not able to check, these items will almost certainly be appropriate and welcomed, so please donate them; but if you are able to find out what’s in demand, that would be even better. I know our own food bank have enough cans of baked beans for several years!
• Rice (these usually can’t be split into individual portions, so buy several smaller bags rather than a large sack, even if it seems less cost efficient)
• Pasta (any type that can be cooked in hot water)
• Canned pulses such as lentils or beans
• Canned tomatoes

Toiletries are usually given out by food banks. I’m told that men’s needs are often forgotten. Also, I was told that nappies are the one thing that are always needed and will definitely be used. So I would suggest:
• Shampoo / 2 in 1
• Shower gel
• Disposable razors
• Nappies (disposable, unisex)

Flavourings help to bring plain meals to life, and are inexpensive. They are important if your food bank provides long term support for people who will no longer have these in their cupboard:
• Mustard
• Salt and pepper
• Stock cubes
• Herbs and spices
• Tomato puree

Children’s lunchbox items are usually welcomed too, such as:
• Cereal bars
• Dried fruit
• Juice boxes


Check before donating:

Sanitary items are often welcomed, but not always. Some food banks have a supply of toiletries and say “take what you need”; others provide pre-prepared bags and would not feel able to have that conversation with whichever member of the household has come to collect groceries. So always check that your own food bank can use these items. However, if they say yes, I would make sure to include some in every donation. Give pads, not tampons, as a pack of pads can be used by young teenagers as well as mothers, and those of all cultures and beliefs. Don’t be tempted to donate Mooncups or other unconventional items – when you’re at your lowest ebb and having to ask for help at a food bank, you don’t want someone’s hippy ethics forced upon you. It may be well meaning, but this is not the time for it.

Baby formula and foods may also be welcomed, but they are expensive, so before buying, check that your food bank accepts them and currently has a need for them.

Pet food is accepted by some food banks, but not all. My local organisation takes the view that they are there to feed people. (If someone opts to give their tuna to the cat, that’s their choice.) If you have excess pet food to donate, check out local animal rehoming centres instead.

Sweets and treats: Many food banks will take these, and appreciate the importance of a treat to boost morale now and then – who doesn’t love a choccie bikkie? However, some organisations prefer that only healthy food is donated (some even request only wholegrain cereals!) While I think it is good to include something to enjoy as well as essential food items, I recall sending luncheon vouchers as a gift to a homeless friend. I asked her to please spend 50p of the £10 vouchers on something she’d enjoy – a bar of chocolate, for example. I really wanted her to have something to savour for a moment. But she told me that she just didn’t think she could honour that – she needed the money too much, and that 50p could be another bag of pasta. So if you are planning to include treats in your food bank donations I would encourage you to add them as an extra, rather than instead of essential items which could send someone to bed with a full stomach. And make sure that whatever you donate will be welcomed.

Non-food items such as toilet roll and laundry powder might be accepted, but it depends on whether your food bank has the capacity to administer them, and whether they are providing long term assistance rather than short term aid. If you’re not sure, I would leave them off. As a student I used to scrounge loo roll from public toilets and wash my clothes by hand in the sink, so if people have to make do without these items it is better than going hungry. Unless you know they are welcome, spend your money on food.

Fresh food can sometimes be used, particularly items like apples and potatoes which can survive for a couple of weeks. Again, check whether your food bank has the capacity to handle them – you might be better off donating excess from your garden or allotment to a charity which provides hot meals to homeless people (ask local churches to find out where).


Don’t give…

Opened and out-of-date items probably won’t be accepted, but it is worth checking before you chuck them out. If the date was a “best before” rather than a “use by” and is not far over the limit it may still be useful. Opened items can’t be used unless they are individually wrapped.

Baking mixes should be avoided unless they only need water to be added. Giving a cake mix may seem kind, but the recipient may not have the eggs, oil or milk necessary to make up the pack. Don’t donate anything which requires the addition of extra items.

Alcohol – food banks don’t wish to accidentally enable alcoholics. This includes items such as Christmas puddings – make sure that nothing you donate has booze as an ingredient.


If you have no money but would still like to help out…


If you’ve been inspired by this but really don’t have any money spare to donate items, here are two other ways you might help:

Volunteer! Do ask whether you can help in some way, if you’re able to donate your time. It might be collecting from local groups having a food drive, sorting items or making up bags – you don’t necessarily have to engage with service users if you don’t feel comfortable with that (although, why not?)

BOGOF! If you see a “buy one, get one free” offer in the supermarket, why not choose that item instead of your usual brand, and set the free one aside to give to the food bank? As long as it’s a longlife item, it can probably be used.

And if you really have no money – and are having to decide whether to eat, or spend your rations on other items – please use a food bank if you need to. Some require a reference from your GP, benefits office or social services, but others – like near me – will take self-referrals, or those from other community organisations. Don’t be afraid to find out – it’s better than going hungry, and as I’ve proved, it can happen to anyone. There’s no shame in needing help, especially under the current government’s appalling austerity measures. Please, seek assistance if you need it.

On behalf of anyone who needs to use a food bank, thank you. I remember that kind stranger from my student days, and I’m sure the families fed by food banks will be touched by your generosity too.

Have you found your local food bank yet? Why wait? Go and add items for them to your shopping list! Let me know if you think of anything I’ve missed.

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Online shopping can be a lifeline for disabled people. If you’re not able to spend an hour pushing a trolley round the supermarket every week, you may depend upon companies to deliver your groceries. But who does best at catering for disabled customers? And what happens when it goes wrong?

I have mobility difficulties, and fatigue, from my condition. I don’t have the stamina to do a weekly shop in store, let alone push a full trolley or carry more than the lightest items from my car to the kitchen. But arranging for a grocery delivery isn’t simple either – I need to pace my rest and activity cycle around it, as well as my medicine schedule, to ensure I’m awake and as alert as possible in order to handle the delivery. I’ll clear the table, then rest; accept the delivery, then rest; put chilled items away, then rest; put store-cupboard items away, then rest – you get the idea. My entire day is dictated by the delivery. I’m not sure that non-disabled people realise quite how much other people need to plan in order to make the best use of the limited energy or capacities that we get, but it isn’t trivial.

I’ve tried every online supermarket that delivers to my street in east London – Asda, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. Each of them had different issues, but there are only two that I would try again, and one that I would tell every disabled person to avoid – I think you’ll be surprised at the outcome.

The disaster: Waitrose
Where do I begin? The complaint letter for this week’s delivery ran to 5 pages, so this will be a brief summary.

My delivery was due between 2-3pm on Thursday. When it didn’t show up, I phoned to find there were delays of up to 2 hours across London, due to heavy tube-strike traffic. Ok, these things happen – but I had clearly stated on the order that I am disabled and plan my schedule around the delivery. A call would have been nice – and what I would expect from a brand like Waitrose. By 5.30pm there was still no delivery so I rang back, and was told it might come that night (I gave them a deadline of 9pm), or else it might come the next day at 6pm, in which case they’d ring me after 2pm to let me know. Nothing came that night, so at 9pm I ate the only meal I had in the freezer, a chilli. Unfortunately I had oral thrush so it was agony to eat anything at all, let alone spicy food, and I went to bed having eaten maybe half a small meal that day.

On Friday, I was up by 2pm, but heard nothing. At nearly 7pm I chased to find out where my delivery was, and I was told it would come before 9pm. It finally arrived at 9.16pm – more than 30 hours late – by which time I was exhausted, wanted to be in bed, and again hadn’t eaten all day. Then I discovered that an unacceptable substitution for my drinks had been made, and in addition items totalling over £19 were billed but missing. This meant that I would have to get an in-store shop done in any case, since most of my planned meals couldn’t be completed.

At every stage I had to chase Waitrose for information. I always stated that yes, I understand that these things happen, but I need to be kept in the loop so I can schedule my rest. I also told them that I needed food to take my medication, and milk for my meal-replacement breakfast shakes. I explained how critical it was to know what was happening – even if it was just to say “we haven’t forgotten you”. Everyone I spoke to sounded kind, sympathetic, said they completely understood my needs, assured me they were on the case… then didn’t call back as promised, and the delivery didn’t come when they’d said to expect it. They kept me hanging on for two days – and that destroyed me, physically, from exhaustion and pain. I spent most of the weekend in bed recovering.

Although Waitrose volunteered a £20 goodwill voucher, I’m not sure I’d trust them again so it might never get spent. Good communications are crucial when things go wrong, and this was an experience that I never wish to repeat.

Access fail 1: Ocado

I used Ocado for several weeks. Every single week they would phone to see if I could accept the delivery up to an hour early, or sometimes just ring the doorbell to find out. Every single time I told them that I carefully scheduled my wake-up, and my pain medication, so that I would be ready to get out of bed just before the delivery slot, and they must NOT come early and must NOT phone before the delivery slot, that compromising my sleep made me ill. Every single time I was promised this had been noted on my account. Every single time it happened again, and even if I made them wait outside until the booked time, I was now awake and in pain.

They even once pressganged a cleaner of mine into taking a delivery – she told them she couldn’t but they insisted, and she didn’t speak enough English to make it clear that she wasn’t allowed. After all, it’s me paying for it! Of course, that was the week when there were inappropriate substitutions – which my cleaner didn’t know about and couldn’t reject. Eventually I gave up, having given Ocado every chance to stop turning up early.

Access fail 2: Tesco

I thought I’d give Tesco a try. They had an advertising slogan: “We deliver to your door – your fridge door”. That sounded great! What happened when they turned up? The driver told me that they weren’t allowed to enter people’s houses – something about an alleged theft and not being covered by insurance. I quoted the advert and made it clear that if I could carry groceries into the house, I wouldn’t need to order them online. The driver grudgingly brought the shopping into my kitchen, but I didn’t feel I could trust him to do so again.

On a second occasion their driver tried to force my PA to accept the delivery rather than spend 2 minutes fetching me to come downstairs, saying that they don’t care who signs, it just has to be an adult over 18 – this was the nail in the coffin for Tesco.

Slight access fail: Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s delivered to me just before Christmas. They arrived on time and only had a few substitutions. However, as I was checking the items and handing carrier bags back to the driver, he asked “So, what’s wrong with you then?” Wow.

I considered how to respond – I didn’t want to disclose honestly, nor did I think it was the place to give him one of my more cutting responses, so I just said “er – how is that any of your business?” He was flustered, so I went on to educate him that it is just not appropriate to ask that kind of thing, and that medical matters are private. To be fair, the poor guy apologised profusely. I would consider ordering from them again, as long as they’ve trained their staff in which topics make appropriate conversation (if in doubt, the weather is always a safe bet) and what is completely unacceptable, especially when you are in someone’s home and they may feel vulnerable.

The winner: Asda

Yes – Asda! To be honest, I only tried them because I was fed up with my experiences of other retailers. I would never consider doing my weekly shop in their physical store – it’s always busy, the customers seem to be preoccupied and rude (I’ve been shoved into by several unsupervised children), they don’t stock all the products I want (such as artichoke hearts in oil and a decent sparkling wine) and their staff rarely offer help with packing – assistance to the car is out of the question.

However, when it came to an online delivery I was able to pick items that were suitable, and the website even ordered them by price which helped me select the range I needed for each product. Admittedly their delivery slots are 2 hours long which made it a little harder for me to plan my day, but you know what you’re getting. The drivers are friendly, they delivered to my dining table without quibble, the few substitutions made were sensible, and the whole experience was as positive as it could be. Sure, I needed to sneak out for a few top-up items elsewhere, but that’s the same with most deliveries, due to substitutions or just running out of things a few days earlier than I’d expected.

Even if you – like me – are the sort of person who prefers M&S and Waitrose for their high quality products, when it comes to online shopping, give Asda a go. As a physically disabled person, I found I could rely on them and they hit the mark. And don’t be sucked in by offers of money off or free champagne – give Waitrose the widest berth possible.

Let me know your experiences of online shopping in the comments below.