The football fans who are feeding the hungry

The fans of two of the Premier League’s closest rival football teams in Liverpool were the inspiration for Fans Supporting Foodbanks, a network of food banks that is addressing food poverty across the United Kingdom, as well as changing the image of UK football fans

It began in 2015 when, recognizing a growing food poverty crisis in the boroughs of Walton and Anfield, home to the Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs, two grassroots supporter groups – The Blue Union (Everton) and The Spirit of Shankly (Liverpool) – formed an alliance. Their slogan is “Hunger doesn’t wear club colours,” and their logo shows a red hand and a blue hand clasped in a show of unity and friendship.

A Tribune article in 2020 explains how it got started. Ian Byrne and Dave Kelly were at a community centre in Anfield. “We saw a queue for what we thought was the bingo, but we were told it was for the foodbank. They took us into the room where they prepared the food to be given out… because it was a community-led foodbank, it relied on donations and, obviously, the area was struggling and the donations were pitiful. What will stay with me for the rest of my life was a bag of pasta getting split up into sweet bags to be given out. It shocked me to my core.”

Taking their cues from Celtic fan group The Green Brigade, who were already organizing mass food donations at Celtic Park on an annual basis, Byrne, Kelly and fellow Everton fan Robbie Daniels decided to set up regular collections at Anfield and Goodison Park on matchdays.

That was in 2015. In April 2019, FSF established the first pantry. Currently it runs six pantries in deprived areas of Liverpool, plus a Sunday breakfast club in Birkenhead, serving between 6-700 people per week with a basket of food, meat, vegetables and other essential items. This figure rises in winter due to higher energy bills. So far, it’s served an estimated 90,000 people in 2023 – an increase from 75,000 over the previous 12 months. 

The pantries are like mobile food banks – mini-markets set up in areas across the city where cheap, healthy food options are scarce. For a fee of £3.50, patrons can choose ten long shelf-life items, and get a bag of mixed vegetables and a bag of selected meat – a total shop worth about £25.

Along with other community activities such as book and clothes exchanges, health screenings and cooking classes, the model removes the stigma around food bank usage and helps people reconnect with their community.

The Fans Supporting Foodbanks movement has inspired an expanded network of similar organisations. Now, around 20 other fan-led groups regularly collect in support of food banks or pantries from Kilmarnock to Southampton. In Belfast, fans unite across sectarian divides to fight hunger in both communities.

This kind of support is hugely important because British household earnings aren’t keeping pace with household costs at a time when state support is at its most inaccessible, says The Conversation. Between 2014 and 2015, for the first time, over a million people received an emergency food parcel from a charitable food distribution centre. Between April 2022 and March 2023, this number had risen to just under 3 million, with around a third going to children.

FSF, and its more than 60 volunteers, has built a service which in the words of co-founder, Dave Kelly, “helps people up, not just out”.

When travelling to away games, the FSF crew from Liverpool take donations to the collections of other fan groups. The symbolism of, for example, Liverpool fans bringing food to donate to the Manchester City fans is meaningful and has spurred other groups to follow suit. 

“The deprivation is everywhere, and none of us [fans] at any club can say that it’s not impacting my community … it’s in every corner of this country,” says Liverpool fan and FSF volunteer Donna Scully. During the week she is a director of a law firm but for the last seven years, she has donated her own time and the firm’s resources to run the Sunday morning Wirral Breakfast Club alongside FSF.

She leads a team that serves between 70-100 cooked breakfasts in the community hall. “We are all about treating people with dignity and respect,” she says. “Everyone thinks fans are about rioting and getting drunk but we want to show how we can really do something here, show how much we care about each other.

Photo by Hugh Russell, Irish News

In Belfast, the “solidarity café” began in Paul Doherty’s garage. Both Catholic and Protestant fans have united in the fight against hunger, said Paul Doherty, local councillor and head of FSF Northern Ireland, because both communities are suffering. Rival groups now spend time together collecting food and funds outside football stadiums. “There used to be fights outside the grounds here, now these are spaces we use to break down barriers … you notice when we go to deliver the food the excited reaction of the children is the same regardless of which community you are in.”

The Scottish network has grown from five to eight fan organizations in the past 18 months, including Glasgow Rangers and Celtic groups working together. There are similar stories elsewhere in the UK, motivated by a passion for their communities and a desire for change.

FSF has tied the movement to a broader fight against food poverty – the “Right to Food” campaign, which is led by Byrne, now MP for Liverpool West Derby. The campaign goals include universal free school meals for every child, “community kitchens” in much-needed areas and encouraging the government to reveal their plans for spending on food.

In late September 2023, the March for Hunger wound its way through Liverpool led by local school children. Parallel marches took place in London and Belfast demanding universal free school meals. Among the crowds were community and church groups, individual activists, and of course football fans, who added the voice of the terraces to the universal chant demanding the right to food.


Fans Supporting Foodbanks website

Football fans fighting food poverty: how a ‘lifesaving’ mobile pantry scheme spread across the country The Conversation, Nov. 8, 2023

How Football Fans Organised to Fight Hunger Tribune, Nov. 1, 2020

Cover image: Angele J/Pexels

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