UK food poverty has reached unprecedented levels and volunteers have played a role in filling the gap.  Stephanie Denning, a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol, is working to understand what drives volunteers.

Recent figures show that 1.2 million UK children receive free school meals which are means-tested, with a further 2 million children who are not eligible for free school meals but whose families are still experiencing poverty. With up to 3.2 million children facing the prospect of not having enough food to eat in school holidays, my research has highlighted the importance of volunteers in filling the ‘holiday hunger’ gap. The voluntary sector has become an increasingly important part of welfare provision in UK society, and so there’s never been a more crucial time to try and understand it.

For my research I joined forces with the charity MakeLunch to understand how Christian church groups are responding to the growing problem, and how best to ensure volunteers remain engaged. This research contributes to the understanding that faith groups and volunteers are playing a crucial role in responding to food poverty by running food banks and children’s holiday groups, through to collecting evidence and campaigning for change.

Studies have found that children who did not eat enough food, or who did not eat sufficiently nutritionally balanced food, during the school summer holidays have poorer educational attainment when they return to school than their peers who had enough to eat. It is therefore vital that we respond to holiday hunger.

MakeLunch is a network of churches and community groups running Lunch Kitchens to fill the holiday hunger gap by providing the equivalent of a free school meal in the school holidays.  It has cooked and served over 65,000 meals in more than 100 locations across England, Scotland and Wales since it was established in July 2011.  I conducted the research over a three-year period, analysing the experiences of the people who volunteered with a MakeLunch project they established.

What motivated people to volunteer at the Lunch Kitchen?

People’s motivations to volunteer ranged from biblical teaching on responding to hunger, through to anger at political reform and wanting to do something active and meaningful in response.  These motivations were important, but there was also a hope it would be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

As more and more groups depend upon volunteers to provide services for society we need greater understanding of how volunteering functions; it is not just the traditional client or recipient that can benefit. To continue giving their time, the volunteer must also feel the benefit too.

So what next?

The research makes four key recommendations for the voluntary sector:

  1. If voluntary work is to be sustainable, then voluntary groups need to give as much attention to volunteers as to those a project is serving.
  2. Understanding volunteers’ motivations, expectations and volunteering experiences will help voluntary groups to develop positive relationships with volunteers and gain their longer term support.
  3. It is vital that volunteers feel appreciated and valued, otherwise it is likely that they will stop volunteering or seek a different opportunity.
  4. Maintaining a personal relationship with volunteers is as important as volunteer recruitment.

Finally, at MakeLunch, the effects of this research have already been felt:

“At MakeLunch we’re committed to equipping and mobilising churches to serve families in their own communities. We’re dependent on volunteers to meet this need and Stephanie’s research has been invaluable both as we’ve developed this centrally but also in training our team leaders at our national conference.”
Rachel Warwick, Director of MakeLunch