Introducing Footy for Food

Richard Heathcote

A new non-profit organisation hopes to address UK food poverty through the power of football.

Let's start with the context. The basic principles behind Britain's food banks are simple. Food is donated by those who can spare it, and is distributed to those who require it. Anybody wanting to claim food has to be referred by one of a number of governmental or charitable agencies, but as a general rule they are open to anybody who requires them, to anybody that is hungry and unable to afford food.

This, it seems, applies to more and more people each day. The Trussell Trust, Britain's biggest provider of food banks, released figures in April stating that they had distributed more than 900,000 food parcels from 404 banks in 2013-14, a 163 percent rise from the previous year. The Trust warned that this was only a partial picture of food poverty, and concluded that the rise was due in large part to the impact of government austerity policies that have either reduced or delayed benefit payments.

The government, naturally, deny any link between their policies and the rising figures. National attention was drawn to the issue recently when the Mail on Sunday, showing its customary delicacy, ran a purported exposé. "No ID, no checks... and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims" ran the headline, as their journalist revealed that it was possible for an individual to be given food despite not actually needing it, just as long as that individual was prepared to lie, consistently and convincingly, to everybody along the way.

Quite what the paper was hoping to achieve is unclear. They insisted this was a public-spirited investigation; it came across as a deeply cynical and overtly political smear job, an attempt to delegitimise the conclusions of the Trussell Trust. If the latter, then it backfired rather cutely: donations to the Trussell Trust topped £107,000 in the aftermath. The food bank in question was dismissive: "We help everyone sent to us, with no discrimination. Of this, we are proud. We are not here to interrogate, we are here to treat people with dignity."

Into this heavily politicised context comes Footy for Food, a new non-profit organisation hoping to support the work of Britain's food banks through the footballing efforts of Britain's population. The idea is attractively simple: at a series of locations around the country people will turn up to play football, and the price of admission is nothing more than a donation, anything from a tin of tomatoes to a lorryload of porridge oats. WIll you play footy for food? asks their slogan.

"Really this has been about taking something everyone's passionate about and using it to create something new," says Footy for Food CEO Richard Loat. "There's a real movement around street football, I've personally always grown up playing football and loving the beautiful game and after starting something successful abroad, I wanted to bring it home to the UK."

Abroad, in this case, was Canada, where Five Hole for Food has been running since 2010. ('Five hole' is an ice hockey term referring to a goal scored between the goalie's legs.) In that time, over 500,000 pounds of food has been raised by a series of cross-country tours and distributed to local food banks. Now, the intention is to mirror that success in the UK. "This is the birthplace of the game, and it made sense to bring the concept of Footy for Food to the UK so we can really tap into that football passion, but also use it to bring communities together to help each other."

Key to the whole enterprise is the notion that games take place in unusual settings, where football isn't normally played. In the street, in other public spaces; anywhere a couple of goals can be thrown up. A picture on Five Hole for Food's website shows a game taking place on a helipad. This is part of a wider strategy of "disruptive philanthropy," an alternative to the traditional models of charitable giving (annual monetary donation, and so on) that Loat believes has the power to shake up traditional models of charitable donation, and to engage people who might otherwise feel excluded.

"You have a generation that has a stronger sense of altruism than ever before but they don't identify with the current giving platforms. We change that by focusing on a unique, shared experience to both bring people together and to raise food and funds for the food bank. The intention is to disrupt current more conservative ways of giving and prove that collectively we can make some fairly significant impact."

The first UK tour kicks off in Belfast on 5 June, and will take in Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester before ending at Somerset House in London on 14 June. A pilot will take place in Paris later the same month, and Loat is keen to see tours going throughout the continent in the near future. "We're really excited that things are starting here in the UK, and the hope is to use the UK as a launching pad for Europe."

"Truly, it doesn't matter your loyalties or your background," he concludes. "At the end of the day and despite our differences we're all football fans, and that's really at the root of this." Surely not even the Mail could argue with that.

Footy for Food can be found on Twitter, on Facebook, and at their website. Full details of the upcoming Footy for Food tour are here.

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