Food banks battle shortages after coronavirus panic buying

Empty shelves of toilet paper are seen at a supermarket, as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world, in London, Britain March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Food banks across Britain are struggling to cope with demand from vulnerable people as consumers worried by the coronavirus outbreak empty supermarket shelves, charities said on Friday.

Many said they were already struggling to feed regular users and were preparing for a rise in demand as people without secure jobs were forced to take time off work unpaid because of the disease.

“Even before this we were already struggling,” said James Quayle, manager of the North Paddington Food Bank in London.

“It’s just getting more difficult now,” he added, saying demand had risen even as donations fell, partly because more shoppers were going online to buy their groceries and not dropping donations into supermarket bins.

The chief executive of the Trussell Trust, a charity that supports food banks across the country, said the spread of coronavirus had created an “unprecedented challenge and uncertain future” for the sector.

“It is possible that food banks will face increased demand as people lose income, at the same time as food donations drop or staff and volunteers are unavailable, due to measures rightly put in place to slow the spread of infection,” said Emma Revie.

“All of this comes when food banks are already dealing with a record level of need for emergency food.”

Most food banks rely on donations of non-perishable products from businesses and individuals and use financial donations to buy fresh goods. Many supermarkets have collection bins to allow shoppers to donate.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases across Britain rose to 590 on Friday and 10 people have died. The country likely has as many as 10,000 people infected, the government’s chief scientific adviser said on Thursday.

The outbreak has prompted panic shopping, with shelves in many British supermarkets emptied of basic items such as pasta, toilet paper and canned food on Friday for the first time since fuel protests prompted panic buying two decades ago.

Daphine Aikens, founder and chief executive of London’s Hammersmith & Fulham foodbank, said there were enough supplies to last a few weeks, but she was gearing up for shortages.

“We’re not offering snacks at the moment and (at) some of our sites we’re not offering drinks,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Normally it’s a sociable and friendly service. Now we’re paring back.”