Are food banks facing compassion fatigue?

Olivia Miller
Picture by Getty Images

A research project by Kent's Professor of Social Policy, Peter Taylor-Gooby and Dr Tomas Petricek has investigated data from crowd-funding websites on donations to food banks and analysed how it differs over time and in different areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research shows a surge of public generosity at the onset of the crisis, but a worrying decline as the lockdown comes to an end – just as the number on benefits due to the loss of jobs continues to rise. Professor Taylor-Gooby and Dr Petricek said:

‘Food banks reported a tripling of demand in March this year as the coronavirus lockdown threw millions out of work. Many food banks faced an urgent need for money to buy in extra food and launched appeals through crowd-funding websites to help them do so. The public response was impressive, with a massive surge in support.

‘Food banks are held in high regard. In normal times they collect most of the food they give out from the public, but need to pay organisers, run vehicles and provide warehouses. Much of this comes through donations from supporters and grants from trusts or local government. Appeals to the general public through crowd-funding sites usually make up a relatively small part of their income. Now the situation has changed.

‘Our research traces the success of the various pandemic appeals on the main crowd-funding sites (GoFundMe, Just Giving and Virgin Giving) using original data-scrapping software. The findings indicate how the amount raised took off in step with the numbers of coronavirus cases and the numbers claiming out of work benefits. It is certain to be an underestimate of the scale of the public response since we are aware that a number of short-term appeals are made through the websites with a specific target. These may be completed and disappear before our next scrape takes place.

‘The results so far show great and unexpected public generosity. Many people gave money to help vulnerable fellow citizens. But the level of support is falling. As the numbers of cases declined from April onwards, so did the income from the appeals. Official statistics show that, although the pandemic is in retreat, the number of benefit claimants continues to rise. All commentators believe even more people will lose their jobs as furloughing is wound down and the recession bites home, with a possible further impact from Brexit. Demand for food parcels will rise further. We can expect more urgent appeals for funds.

‘Pandemic is widely seen as a common threat. Will people be as generous when we move into recession and very high unemployment? The indications of compassion fatigue are disturbing. Our future work will examine the trajectory of appeals and donations.’

Peter Taylor-Gooby is Professor of Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. His main research interests are in the current developments in the welfare state: the cuts and welfare state restructuring, the social divisions association with inequality and the struggles over multiculturalism.

Dr Tomas Petricek is a Lecturer at the School of Computing and a member of the Programming Languages and Systems Research Group. Dr Petricek works on programming tools for data science; functional programming and considers programming from the philosophical perspective.

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