It’s 9am in December on Tiber Square, a community space at the centre of one of Liverpool’s most diverse postcodes. The temperature is -5°C. Braving the cold, a small crowd is forming, sharing jokes amid anxious glances at the square’s frozen floor. Their concern is warranted. Given the icy surface, it is unlikely the community food pantry will be going ahead as normal.
Anticipation builds as the mobile pantry arrives, a purple van embossed with the logo of Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF) – a red and blue hand clasped to indicate the unity of rival Everton (blue) and Liverpool (red) fans – alongside slogans, including: “Hunger doesn’t wear club colours.”
Out jumps a woman called Cherise to give orders to the volunteers, indiscernible from the crowd in their coats and gloves. “We are just giving out halal chicken, cakes and milk today”, she announces as an orderly queue forms to the side of the square away from the ice. There is no pantry today, but those in attendance will not go hungry.
The regular food pantries are a bit like mobile food banks – mini-markets which set up in various locations across the city. These are areas which could be classified as “food deserts” where cheap, healthy food options are scarce. The mobility of the vans allows FSF to access needy and isolated people within these areas. Patrons pay a fee of £3.50 for which they get a shopping basket and can choose ten ambient (long shelf-life) items. They also receive a bag of mixed vegetables and a bag of selected meat, providing a total shop worth about £25.
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Combined with music streaming from the van, along with other community activities such as book and clothes exchanges, health screenings and cooking classes, the model serves to remove the stigma around food bank usage and helps people reconnect with their community.
As one of the users tells us when asked how they would describe their pantry: “(It’s) friendly; supportive. (People are) always asking where I’ve been when I’ve not been down for a couple of weeks.”
Beginning with a single wheelie bin for donations, the FSF movement has inspired an expanded network of similar organisations across the UK. Now, there are around 20 other fan-led groups regularly collecting in support of food banks or pantries from Kilmarnock to Southampton. While in Belfast stronger partisan lines are being crossed with fans uniting across the sectarian divide to fight hunger in both communities.
But the contradiction between the economic wealth of the Premier League clubs and local levels of poverty is not lost on the organisers. As Everton fan and FSF co-founder, Robbie Daniels, pointed out to us:
There’s a massive disparity and the clubs may have thought they were doing enough through their own charities, but we’ve shown them fans collecting for other fans of the club who are starving, and they have started to listen and get involved.
Within the past decade, food bank usage has become commonplace in Britain with food poverty moving from the exception to the norm. 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.
Elsewhere in football, it was a campaign launched by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford that helped spark a national conversation about the need to provide free school meals during the COVID pandemic to children from households on universal credit.
The north-west of England has been badly hit by high levels of food insecurity, and – along with Wales and the north-east – has the highest levels of accesses to emergency food services in the UK. These areas, along with households across the UK, continue to feel the economic pinch driven by over a decade of government austerity measures brought in by David Cameron’s coalition government in May 2010.
This pinch was exacerbated by the pandemic, higher utility bills and cuts to welfare in the form of reduced universal credit payments to the nation’s poorest. Compounding this situation even further is the highest level of inflation in over 40 years deepening the cost-of-living crisis. This rise means the average basket of food from a supermarket has increased by around 12% in the 12 months leading up to July, with some staples increasing by up to 34%.
In addition, by October 2022 annual energy bills trebled to more than £3,500 in 18 months. By April 2023 this rose to £6,600 and by spring 2024 a typical family will potentially face bills which are 500% greater than pre-pandemic prices, with six in ten families on the lowest income living in “fuel poverty”.
The fact is British household earnings are failing to keep pace with household costs at a time when state support is at its most inaccessible. In 2023, in certain parts of the UK, just having a healthy meal and staving off the cold poses a serious challenge. As one pantry user told us: “I take my last medication at seven, then read in bed as it’s warmer.”
Joy and heartbreak
Within this series of grim realities, the FSF network operates to support its local communities. Since April 2021 our small team of researchers from the Sport Business Scool at LJMU, which included Clay Gransden and Matthew Hindmarsh, has spent time with the network, volunteering at pantries, and interviewing other volunteers to understand their roles. We have also been surveying 176 food pantry users to measure the impact of the movement. Many of the people we spoke to experienced a great deal of joy from supporting others, but there was no escaping a pervading feeling of sadness caused by the impact of food poverty.
We volunteered at each location for between two and six months before carrying out the surveys. We did this to build trust as we believe: the more trust, the more honest the answers. We collected responses and short stories about the realities people were living and the role of the FSF service in their lives.
The majority of pantry users were aged over 40 with 39% over 65. While a quarter were in full-time employment, and 73% were either retired or unemployed. Asked how important the service was to them out of ten (with ten being the most important), over 80% selected eight or above, the most common answer being ten. But, overall, the results we gathered were heartbreaking. Take Paul for example. Paul was in his early 40s and was using the pantry for the first time when we spoke to him.
I have got depression, anxiety and I really have nothing … I didn’t eat yesterday and have £5 in my account that I’ve been given … but then I’ve seen this … this is great it’s what I need to feel better … I am going to come next week to see if I can volunteer.
Our survey was an attempt at capturing people’s experience and one of the hardest questions was, “how do you feel when you are here?”. To assist a list of emotions was offered such as anger, fear, embarrassment, joy, acceptance, and sadness. Somewhat surprisingly the most common answer was joy (36%), followed by acceptance (33%).
As one pantry user offered: “Everyone is in the same boat and [the pantry] creates a neighbourhood feel … [There’s] no stigma in coming to use the pantry.” Due to the environment, many respondents said initial feelings, such as embarrassment, had been replaced by joy and acceptance as they moved to regular attendance. As another user told us:
It’s eye-opening. A year ago, it was lifesaving. It was hard to go to initially but it has helped me keep my head above water. I’m really grateful for the service. Been part of allowing me to get back on track.
Our surveys also underlined how some 63% of respondents had been frequenting the pantries for over a year. This indicated how important the pantries have become in the medium to long-term survival of the communities they serve.
‘Football supporters as a force for good’
FSF first emerged in 2015 from the two Liverpool boroughs of Walton and Anfield in recognition of the growing issue of food poverty. These areas are synonymous with both football and deprivation, playing host to two of the Premier League’s closest rivals, Everton and Liverpool respectively, along with two of the UK’s most deprived communities.
In recognition of the growing food poverty crisis, an unlikely alliance between two grassroots supporter groups – The Blue Union (Everton) and The Spirit of Shankly (Liverpool) was formed. Since then, the organisation has grown in both size and importance.
The monolithic stadiums of Goodison Park and Anfield, the respective homes of Everton and Liverpool, sit 896 metres from each other across Stanley Park nestled within rows of terraced housing like two spaceships from another world.
Standing to the side of the mobile pantry van as patrons wound their way around the pop-up market set up on cold and windy day in late February, its driver is co-founder Daniels, who works full time for the charity, a rare staff member the organisation desperately needs but struggles to afford.
Daniels is a former taxi driver in his 50s. Short, with greying hair, what he lacks in stature he makes up for in personality as he hands out bags of fresh meat with a smile and a line or two of banter alongside his wife Linda. Daniels talked passionately about the movement: “We got into this because things are bad right … and we need to change the perceptions around who football fans really are.”
With both groups of fans, there is a sense of pride in acting without corporate support as they have stood in solidarity against several issues over the years, such as the fight for truth around the Hillsborough disaster and the “twenty is plenty” campaign (a battle against overpriced away tickets). Sitting in the van as the Wednesday pantry was winding down, Daniels said:
It is a movement, it’s fan activism, we’ve all protested together against our own clubs … trying to get the price of away tickets down with fans from Newcastle, Manchester and that … it’s showing football supporters as a force for good; look how it’s spreading.
This spread is seen as vital considering the compounding crises faced by communities. Merseyside is host to areas of the UK hardest hit by the rises in the cost-of-living, a region consistently left behind by a central government which has faced accusations of favouring wealthier Conservative areas in the south-east when it comes to allocating funding.
It is within this context that FSF, and its army of over 60 volunteers, has sought to stave off some of the worst affects of food poverty by building a service which in the words of another co-founder, Dave Kelly, “helps people up, not just out”.
FSF has met this aim through a successful programme of grassroots fundraising and activism which supports the successful application of the “food pantry model”. A model that champions a community atmosphere and a market format which can make the experience more positive for users. After finishing his stint handing out numbered tickets to patrons so that they wouldn’t need to queue, a man in his 60s nodded his head to the sounds of ELO and added:
This is a much better way of doing it … I have worked at food banks and places, this pantry and the difference is incredible.
FSF was born partly out of disaffection with the way regular food banks were run via a system of referrals that can present a barrier to some. This is because local health and social care providers tend to hold the keys to many food banks and ask probing questions or set limits on attendance (for example, three times in six months). So the fans decided to go it alone, establishing the first FSF pantry in April 2019. From then, due to the efforts of the fan organisation, grassroots activism and other community groups, funding and resources have been raised to start and maintain other pantries across the city.
There are currently six pantries run by FSF in deprived areas of the city, plus a Sunday breakfast club in Birkenhead. Each pantry serves between 80 and 150 people, but this figure is rising as the economic crisis affects the financial stability of more households.
Together, FSF pantries serve 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. At the lower end, FSF provides for around 33,400 people per year, and has so far served an estimated 90,000 people in 2023 – an increase from 75,000 over the previous 12 months. Most pantry users are regulars and in the surveys talked about how the service affected their lives. One user wrote: “It’s very helpful. The opportunity to get support with food, particularly with the increases in costs of everything. £3.50 to get food is lifesaving.”
“Lifesaving” or “lifeline” were common terms used when describing the pantries, indicating how close many people are to destitution when faced with the price of living in the UK today. And the format of the pantry as a social space reduces stigma, as one anonymous user described:
You don’t feel embarrassed, even people who work have to rely on the food pantry. There will always be someone to chat to if you are struggling. You will never ever be judged.
Hunger doesn’t wear club colours
The establishment of FSF is one part of the changing face of football fandom. In the UK, fans have come a long way since the 1970 and 80s when fighting between rival supporters on the terraces and in the streets surrounding the grounds was commonplace. Fan culture during this era was also a far cry from social and racial tolerance and could be a vessel for the opposite.
However, in 1989 the Hillsborough disaster would send shockwaves through Liverpool and the wider football community, reverberating across the country and sowing the seeds for the sense of unity and solidarity we see in evidence with FSF today. Ian Byrne MP is the former head of the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ group and co-founder of FSF. He was there on the day of the disaster which was caused by poor event management and policing and which lead to the deaths of 97 fans. But the truth of what happened at Hillsborough would not come to light for decades. As Byrne pointed out while we chatted over mugs of tea in his sparse constituency office:
Hillsborough changed everything … your political awareness goes off the scale and you see injustices everywhere … you start contemplating the power of football.
While not as ferocious as other football rivalries, this fandom divides families and the city, with Merseyside council bins being coloured purple, a blend of red and blue to avoid disagreement.
The Hillsborough disaster brought the fans together in collective mourning and has remained an example of solidarity with both clubs showing signs of open unity each anniversary and throughout the ongoing campaign for justice.
Indeed, earlier in 2023, Kelly broke his lower back in a freak accident on the day of Everton’s Hillsborough anniversary game. Many would regard Kelly, a man in his late 60s, as the engine behind the FSF movement. He’s a tireless campaigner and despite the serious injury, he refused to get in an ambulance until after he had laid a wreath at the memorial on behalf of the Everton fans. This not only gives an insight into Kelly’s character, but also denotes just how deep the solidarity runs when it comes to Hillsborough.
Catholics and protestants united
Sitting in the “solidarity café” in West Belfast, a community space set up by local councillor and head of FSF Northern Ireland, Paul Doherty, that began in his garage, he explained how they have united catholic and protestant fans in the fight against hunger. “Both communities are suffering,” he said. Rival groups now spend time together collecting food and funds outside football stadiums. Doherty added:
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 exited reaction of the children is the same regardless of which community you are in.
In Belfast, as elsewhere, hunger pays no heed to allegiances, food poverty is pervasive and fans are beginning to take notice of the power they have to provoke change.
In Liverpool, like many cities across the UK and Europe, football is woven into the fabric of social life. As Pauline, a middle aged woman who runs Vauxhall food pantry with a quiet determination, told us on a day after the pantry:
You have to have interest in football. It’s part of everyday life. When you grow up and you haven’t got a lot, you focus on football … are you a red or are you a blue?
Set against this backdrop, fan activism in these communities links to a wider shift in the perception of fans and their ability to enact social change. Recent research focusing on activism in the English Premier League (EPL) shows how in the past football fans have been perceived as a vocal minority, passive and a-political.
However, they have awoken to a shift in the identity of their clubs. Faced with a commercial onslaught, often coupled with overseas ownership, elite clubs are increasingly distanced from the communities that birthed them. Fans today are consequently facing up to this reality, as well as the power they hold and the possibilities unity affords them.
Partly because of fan movements like “Fans Against Modern Football”, “Movement for Safe Standing”, Football Supporters against Gambling ads, and the widespread campaign against the European Super League, there are now safe-standing terraces in existence or planned at various UK clubs, gambling adverts will be withdrawn from the front of EPL club’s matchday shirts from 2026 and the ESL was dead within 48 hours of its “launch”.
Combined support for the ongoing “Twenty is Plenty” campaign also saw the Premier League cap away tickets at £30 from the 2016-17 season, a fall from uncapped tickets that rose to £77 for some away fans.
This brings us back to the north-west, where the Everton and Liverpool supporters groups who energised the “Twenty is Plenty” campaign are the very same people who would go on to build FSF. Indeed, it was through organising a boycott of excessive charges to watch Premier League games on television that FSF was able to raise funds to help with the purchase of two mobile pantries and a lorry to spread solidarity throughout the city and around the country.
Dignity and respect
Often travelling to away games, the FSF crew from Liverpool utilises these strengthening networks to 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. As Donna Scully, a Liverpool fan in her 50s and FSF volunteer, told us:
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.
Scully knows this better than most. During the week she is a director of a law firm but for the last seven years, every Sunday morning she has donated her own time, along with resources of the firm, to run The Wirral Breakfast Club alongside FSF.
Beginning at 8am the club predominantly serves the homeless, but this demographic has shifted to include those in work and and with homes as the cost-of-living crisis bites. Married couple Robbie and Linda volunteer in the kitchen and pump out between 70-100 cooked breakfasts which are served by a small team led by Scully who, in her Liverpool shirt, fizzes about the community hall.
She serves tea and breakfast with a smile, knows all their names and their stories and checks up on everyone. She listens to their painful battles to gain support – nobody is turned away. It’s enough to make you weep. When asked about her motivation Scully replied:
We are all about treating people with dignity and respect … 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.
Speaking to other FSF movements from around the UK it has become clear how important the network has become. For FSF Dundee founder Marty Smith, a young man in his early 20s with a thick Dundee accent, “it’s genuinely really inspiring”.
The Scottish network has grown from five to eight fan organisations 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.
Despite the playful competitiveness, there is a serious mission shared by all we spoke to and volunteered alongside highlighted by Paul Khan, head of the Liverpool Supporters Association, the volunteer back in Liverpool: “Our vision is to eradicate food poverty.”
One of the criticisms faced by the FSF movement is by stepping into the void of government to bring food and essential services to underserved communities, they are legitimating a laissez-faire approach towards the welfare state which many argue sits neatly within the Conservative government’s ideology.
However, FSF is all too aware of this critique and has tied the movement to a broader fight against food poverty – the “Right to Food” campaign.
The campaign is led by Byrne and supported by several institutions including the Unite Union and city councils in Manchester, Brighton and Newcastle. Its goals include, bringing in universal free school meals for every child, rolling out “community kitchens” in much-needed areas and encouraging the government to reveal their plans for spending on food.
Tying the FSF movement to a campaign such as this is typical for social movements throughout history, however, never has a football fan-led movement taken on an issue of such scale and importance as national hunger and child poverty.
Enshrining the right to food in law would begin with children and then spread upwards, with the goal of ensuring that everyone has the resources or ability to access the food they need to live well. Indeed, the health benefits of simply eating enough food for the day are well known, as are the impacts on school attendance and long-term attainment.
As Byrne told us, the health benefits are obvious, “less measurable – but no less important – is the effect on individual human dignity and social cohesion over time in our polarised nations of food banks next to investment banks”.
Hunger marching on
The communities at the heart of FSF’s work display the changing face of fandom in the UK within cities where football is part of daily life.
What the activities surrounding the food banks show is the ability for local solutions to national problems. Where successive governments and policy responses have failed areas such as Toxteth in Liverpool (home of the Lodge Lane pantry), groups of football fans have been able to turn their care for the community into action. But as all organisers were fond of saying “we are just a sticking plaster”.
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The national campaign is an attempt to heal these wounds for good. On a clear day in late September 2023, we joined the March for Hunger that 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.
What this represents is a change in the way we see football fans and perhaps the way they see themselves. After all, football, like all social endeavours, is a malleable beast open to remaking and reimagining.
Though, at times, it has played host to a multitude of wrongs, right now – up and down the country and across the Irish Sea – football fans are deciding to remake themselves and their communities in the image of service and solidarity, regardless of club colours.
If you want to donate or find out more about your local FSF network, there is more information here.
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