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How Football Fans Organised to Fight Hunger

Before Marcus Rashford's free school meals campaign, football fans were bridging age-old rivalries to support foodbanks – and shame the government over its failure to tackle Britain's hunger epidemic.

Much of the inspiration for Fans Supporting Foodbanks came from a trip to a community centre in Anfield. “Me and Dave Kelly, we were both working with Unite the Union as organisers at the time and we were in a meeting with community leaders,” says Ian Byrne, one of the group’s co-founders. “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.”

As well as knowing each other from the trade union movement, Byrne and Kelly had worked together on the Football Supporters’ Federation’s ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ initiative, which successfully sought to cap the spiralling cost of away tickets in the Premier League.

As fans of Liverpool and Everton respectively, two clubs with a long history of fan activism given their mutual support in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, they knew how powerful a show of unity between the two sets of supporters could be.

Taking their cues from Celtic fan group The Green Brigade, who were already organising 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.

So it was that, in 2015, Fans Supporting Foodbanks was born, with a wheelie bin for donations and only a handful of supporters involved. Byrne now estimates that the group is responsible for 30 to 35 per cent of all the food supplied to foodbanks in the city. “It’s a sticking plaster, because we know foodbanks shouldn’t exist, but thinking about where we were at that time and where we are now – even worse – it had to be done,” says Byrne.

From the start, Fans Supporting Foodbanks looked to cut across Merseyside’s divided club loyalties and emphasise that they were an equal partnership between Liverpool and Everton fans. Their slogan is “Hunger doesn’t wear club colours,” while the group’s logo shows a red hand and a blue hand clasped in a show of unity and friendship.

The group also stresses that what they are doing is a form of solidarity, not charity. “I take great pride from the fact that, in ‘84 and ‘85, I belonged to a miners’ support group in Kirkby in Liverpool,” says Kelly.

“As someone who works for Unite, I also spent two years collecting food for the Merseyside dockers during their dispute. Now, don’t you dare tell me that was charity. It’s solidarity, it’s about working-class communities showing solidarity with each other and helping each other in their hour of need.”

Over the last decade, since the onset of Conservative austerity policies, both the number of foodbanks in Britain and the number of emergency food parcels handed out have soared. “It’s risen exponentially every year,” says Byrne.

“With the advent of Universal Credit and the five-week delay to the system when it came online in Liverpool, that just sent it into the stratosphere. The need has rocketed, the organisations that deliver the food have had to expand, solely thanks to government decision making and policies.

“It’s also down to where we’ve gone as a society: the gig economy, insecure work, zero-hour contracts and so on. A huge part of the economy has moved into that arena and we’ve moved away from where I was lucky enough to be, in the ’80s and ’90s, when many jobs had sick pay and secure contracts. We’ve moved as a society over the last 30 years, since Thatcher, into the model of where we are now.”

In mid-October, ahead of the Merseyside derby, Liverpool and Everton marked five years of Fans Supporting Foodbanks by emblazoning their logo on the players’ pre-match warm-up tops. While the group’s growth has largely been down to the heartfelt response of people on Merseyside, they have also built bridges with both clubs and received official support.

They have reached out to Liverpool’s Muslim, Jewish and Sikh communities, among others, and tried to break down barriers with their collective work to combat food poverty. Selected as Labour candidate for Liverpool West Derby last year, Byrne was elected and is now working to enshrine the right to food in UK law as an MP.

In 2017, inspired by what was going on in Liverpool, Newcastle supporters decided to set up the NUFC Fans’ Foodbank. From there, a grassroots network of football fans providing mutual aid has gradually spread across the country.

“Following the election [in 2019] – after a few years where we’d all hoped that things might change and, obviously, they didn’t – me and a few friends, all matchgoing fans, decided to start one up,” says Alex Timperley, one of the founders of the Manchester City Fans’ Foodbank Support. Manchester United supporters had already done the same and, as with Fans Supporting Foodbanks, they now work together across Manchester’s traditional dividing lines.

Fans Supporting Foodbanks try to support newer groups and often help them get off the ground with initial donations, with fans calling up on a near weekly basis asking for advice on how to replicate their set-up elsewhere. “They really helped us along in the early days,” says West Ham fan John Ratomski, who helped to establish Irons Supporting Foodbanks. “It’s fan activism and it shows football fans at their best, really.”

Despite a belated increase in government spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic, foodbanks faced a record spike in demand at the start of lockdown – including from many who had never needed to use one before – and have forecast a massive increase over the winter.

Unable to collect matchday donations, Fans Supporting Foodbanks and their extended network quickly pivoted to online fundraisers and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds collectively. In Liverpool, collaborating with Merseyside PPE Hub, they helped to manufacture and distribute supplies to frontline workers for free.

“Both clubs and the fans were fantastic,” says Byrne. “We kept providing food but we also worked to distribute PPE in the city, then country-wide, so it’s been a busy period since March.”

With elite football still behind closed doors, they were given an inadvertent helping hand when the Premier League announced that games outside of Sky and BT’s broadcast deals this season would be made available to watch on a pay-per-view (PPV) basis for £14.95 each. This led to a massive backlash at the exploitative pricing and, at the suggestion of the NUFC Fans’ Foodbank, supporters started donating £14.95 to foodbanks en masse while boycotting pay-per-view.

Fan groups from all 20 Premier League clubs are now asking supporters to redirect their PPV money to community causes, which could in turn lead to new fan foodbanks being established. During and after Liverpool’s PPV fixture against Sheffield United in late October, Fans Supporting Foodbanks raised over £125,000 thanks to the boycott. Across their network and beyond, fan groups have raised tens of thousands more to support those most in need.

Outside the Fans’ Supporting Foodbanks network, there has been a noticeable increase in small-scale foodbank collections at all levels of football. In non-league, where some supporters had been allowed back into grounds in limited numbers, it’s not uncommon to see donation points even at games with a few hundred people in attendance.

While football fans may have stepped in where the government has failed, however, there is still hope that one day it won’t be necessary. “What I’d say, and we operate on this policy, is: ‘Close us down, close us down now and get behind the right to food campaign,’” says Kelly. “If the UK sees itself as a civilised society, then enshrine the right to food in legislation.”