Recent data from the Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) shows that the food banks within its network served 40 million people across 44 countries in 2020, a 132 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The rise in demand is, of course, because of COVID-19 pandemic, which is driving rapid changes in food availability, affordability, and geographic accessibility, reports in Nature Food find.

According to GFN’s study, food banks across the African continent, which served 169 percent more people than the previous year, represent the highest increase in people served through food banks globally. And in the United States, at least 60 million people turned to charitable food assistance in 2020, and food banks are serving 55 percent more people than before the pandemic, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization and second-largest U.S. charity.

“There are people who need help right now in the form of food…We are unapologetic about being here to provide people the food they need in the moment. And we are working diligently to be a part of solutions that make it less likely that they will find themselves in those [food] lines in the future,” Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America tells Food Tank.

But food banks are taking opportunities to do more than meet the increased demand for food. Many are also working to provide creative, flexible, and innovative ways of dealing with systemic issues in the food system.

Research from WhyHunger and Duke University shows that food banks are devoting more efforts toward organizing and advocacy work to help address root causes of hunger. Food banks are also working to better address community’s wants and needs during times of hardship.

Cath Wallace, a member of the Scottish anti-poverty organization Poverty Truth Community, tells Food Tank that some emergency food banks may assume a “you take what you’re given” approach. But, she says, this perspective can disempower those in need.

As a result, many food banks are reshaping traditional models to help community members retain agency while visiting food banks. These nonprofits are giving clients options over the food they receive, allowing people to maintain privacy, and offering career training and other resources.

Food Tank is highlighting just a handful of food banks implementing different models that can enable people to preserve their dignity while accessing crucial services.

1. Desarrollo en Movimiento (DEM), Guatemala

A nonprofit food bank in Guatemala, DEM works to reduce food loss and waste as it provides hot meals and food kits to the most vulnerable populations in all 23 of the country’s departments. Working with the departments of Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz, they serve communities that predominantly belong to Indigenous Maya groups including the K’iche’ or Q’eqchi. DEM has adapted its food distribution model to build relationships with Indigenous community leaders and provide culturally appropriate foods. As part of their onboarding, employees of DEM go through a multi-day training, part of which focuses on the history of Indigenous peoples in the country. Between January to September 2021, DEM served 1,026,382 kilograms of food.

2. Despensa Social, Red de Alimentos, Chile

Red de Alimentos, a private nonprofit organization that developed and implemented the first food bank in Chile, recently inaugurated the Despensa Social. The Despensa Social is a pantry in the city of San Bernardo that aims to provide food for adults over 60 in vulnerable situations, giving them greater agency to choose what they want to take home. Participants receive a specific time they can access the pantry and can pick up eight to 10 kilograms of food a week, like fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and beans, as well as personal hygiene products. Along with nutritional support, the Despensa Social works to address the safety and health of seniors accessing the pantry.

3. Food Banks Canada, Canada

Food Banks Canada is a national charitable organization that represents and supports the food bank community across Canada. Since the start of Canadian food banking in 1981, Food Banks Canada has served First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Kirstin Beardsley, Chief Network Services Officer of Food Banks Canada, says that the organization is having “more deliberate conversations” around food sovereignty, which is “a recognition that colonialism took away Indigenous populations’ self-sustaining access to food.” They are also taking a more active approach to consider the role that food banks should play in providing support and advocating for Indigenous populations’ best interests.

4. Foodbank Vietnam, Vietnam

Established in 2016, Foodbank Vietnam is a nonprofit organization helping to provide access to free food while also carrying out programming against food waste. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization launched community refrigerators in Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City. The community fridges are stocked with fruits, vegetables, and eggs, which food companies and restaurants supply. The fridges focus on providing food for vulnerable communities and those who could not work due to pandemic restrictions. Instead of receiving cooked meals from donors, the community fridges in Vietnam allow people to receive free food to cook themselves, allowing for greater agency and ability to choose products.

5. Food for All Africa, Ghana

In 2015, Chef Elijah Addo founded Food for All Africa, a non-profit organization with a mission to fight hunger and food waste through technology, diversity, and innovation in Ghana. The organization offers a Monthly Feeding Program that provides packages of rice, beans, cooking oil, maize and other foods for families in need. To help ensure an equitable distribution of food, Food for All Africa also runs a Mobile Food Bank Kitchen, which distributes hot, ready to eat meals. In 2016, the nonprofit also launched the School Feeding Program. Along with establishing school kitchens in remote primary schools, the program also supports students’ mothers to develop their skills and obtain jobs.

6. FoodForward SA, South Africa

Established in 2009, FoodForward SA recovers quality edible surplus foods from the consumer goods supply chain and distributes it to community organizations serving those who need food around South Africa. The organization’s Mobile Rural Depot (MRD), which began in 2019, aims to drive social development in more than 25 under-served rural communities that face systemic disparities and post-apartheid marginalization, using edible surplus food as the catalyst. Each month, FoodForward SA deploys trucks loaded with food supplies to each depot region to deliver food to communities. Partner organizations from nearby communities then collect and redistribute the food. In 2020, the MRD program distributed nutritious food each month to 108 registered beneficiary organizations, which collectively fed more than 50,000 people in remote areas.

7. Korea Foodbank, South Korea

Based in Seoul, the Korea Foodbank initiated operations more than two decades ago with a mission to address issues of hunger and lack of housing as a result of the 1997-1998 financial crisis. The food bank recently introduced a food market model, which functions like a convenience store, allowing people to choose what they need. The market model has expanded to several major metropolitan locations across the country. The market model also provides greater flexibility and privacy for different populations to access food, including for single mothers, who may not want to take their children to a public food bank.

8. Leket Israel, Israel

Joseph Gitler established Leket Israel, a leading food rescue organization in Israel. In 2021, Leket began working with a food manufacturer in northern Israel to make four types of vegetable soup prepared without preservatives. The soups are packaged in half liter containers, frozen, and delivered to the organization’s nonprofit partners. The Soup Program brings meals to the housebound elderly, who may be too tired or ill to cook for themselves. Leket also hosts nutrition workshops, conducted in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or Amharic. With the support of senior dietitians from the Ministry of Health of Israel, these workshops help to address the growing problem of nutritional imbalance and obesity in Israel.

9. No Food Waste, India

In the South Indian city of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, No Food Waste began in 2014 as a food recovery and food waste management network connecting excess food to people in need. The organization recovers excess food from weddings, parties, and other events. One project, the Community Kitchens, focuses on preparing and selling hot meals that cost a couple of rupees—the equivalent to a few US cents. The goal of the kitchens is to provide meals for daily wage earners and others who would otherwise spend a larger portion of their daily earnings just on food. Women from different shelters and women’s self-help groups staff the community kitchens, and the food bank trains women in these positions to then move on to more permanent jobs. On average, No Food Waste serves more than 5,000 people a day across 15 cities.

10. Shanghai Oasis Public Service Development Center/Green Food Bank, China

In 2014 a local environmental group, the Shanghai Oasis Public Service Development Center, launched mainland China’s first food bank, the Green Food Bank in Shanghai. The food bank collects food and other daily necessities that would otherwise be wasted to help bridge the gap between food waste and demand. Recently, the organization opened a store in the Alibaba Group’s Taobao online marketplace, where every food item is sold for just RMB0.01, equivalent to less than a US cent. The option allows people to shop from the privacy of their homes and select products they need. The online store asks shoppers to provide their government-issued documents to ensure that low-income people, people with disabilities, and those most vulnerable are adequately supported.

11. The Food Bank Singapore, Singapore

Since 2012, The Food Bank Singapore has sourced more than 800,000 kilograms of food a year from their network of beneficiary organizations, which is then distributed to various food relief efforts.  In 2019, the food bank identified an urgent need to provide accessible, nutritious food at all hours for people, and launched the Food Pantry 2.0. This initiative uses vending machines and microwaves to automate food distribution, which people can reach around the clock. Through its network, the food bank identifies people in need and provides them with a type of debit card that operates on free credits, not cash, which they can redeem to receive food and are automatically reloaded each month. People can use this program approximately 25 times a month. The vending machines are currently spread across nine locations, and the food bank hopes to soon deploy 100 machines throughout Singapore.

12. Tider, Turkey

Originally launched in 2010 as the Food Banking Association, the non-governmental organization is a network of food banks that expanded operations in 2014 and became known as the “Basic Needs Association.” With this shift, the organization aims to provide more than just food and support, but recognizes a need in Turkey to ensure employment and development projects, giving priority to the economic and social empowerment of women in rural regions. To address the basic needs of people in Turkey and expand people’s agency and choice when accessing food, the organization created a Support Market in 2015. The market offers food, clothing, and cleaning and hygiene products free-of-charge depending on predetermined shopping limits. Approximately 645,503 people have benefitted from the food banks registered under the Tider network so far.

13. Tkiyet Um Ali (TUA), Jordan

Drawing inspiration from the Islamic concept of providing food for the underprivileged and assuming social responsibility for those who are less fortunate, her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein launched TUA in 2013. The food bank distributes a monthly food package to families in the network. With dignity and equity as a top priority, each family receives the same items, with the quantity of each package depending on family size. In addition to the food packages, TUA has also implemented a rehabilitation and employment program, which aims to train and support family members who receive the monthly packages. The programs give them opportunities to develop their skills and acquire practical work experience.

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Photo courtesy of Red de Alimentos, Chile