Antidote to the pandemic crisis: food banks

Shapna Begum (right) waits for rice to be weighed at her local food bank. “We used to take loans from our neighbors. They teased us about our poverty. But thanks to the food bank, we do not have to take loans anymore.” Photo: Oxfam/Saikat Mojumder

In hunger-stricken Bangladesh, women created a safety net—one handful of rice at a time.

Create something out of almost nothing. That was what the alchemists of Borangile set out to do in 2018.

Borangile is located on a char, or river island, in Bangladesh, where climate change has devastated the lives of farmers. Plagued by ill-timed floods and powerful cyclones, and fed up with unmet promises of government aid, a group of women here hatched a plan: set aside a handful of rice from every meal and save it for a rainy day. In a month, each woman could only collect a kilogram—about two pounds. But ten women could collect twenty pounds, and forty could collect eighty. As the months went by, math would be on their side, and soon they would have enough to keep hunger at bay through any emergency.

So, from a little rice and a lot of solidarity, the women built a food bank.

Physically, it consists of a shed, a storage bin, a ledger book, and a set of scales. The women deposit rice when they’re flush, and when they must, they take it out again. Borrowing food or money in desperate times is nothing new to these families; what’s new is that now they pay no interest on the loans. This bank is for no one’s benefit but their own.

We know the people

Oxfam and our partners have lent a hand, and helped spread the word to other communities. In the nearby district of Gaibandha, for example, the SKS Foundation has helped launch 12 food banks. "We helped the women buy equipment and open a bank account,” says coordinator Baharam Khan, “and we trained them how to keep accurate records." SKS is a development organization based in northern Bangladesh, with a focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Oxfam has helped the group develop its skills and leadership as a humanitarian responder, so that communities struggling with an emergency like the pandemic can benefit from a local response.

Most of the SKS staff live near the char settlements, says Khan. When it comes to commitment, relationships, trust, and local knowledge, that can make a difference. As he puts it, “We know the people and people also know SKS.” SKS and 12 other organizations—all part of a climate-adaptation initiative known as REECALL—have helped communities develop 275 banks in the areas where Oxfam works, with 30,000 people benefiting from the projects. The money we’ve laid out for storage bins, scales, sheds, and basic furniture doesn’t amount to much—20,000 Bangladesh taka (less than 250 USD) for each community—but the return on that investment has been incalculable.

Tahamina Begum with the kilogram of rice she will submit to her community food bank in Katlamari. “During the pandemic, these families are depending on the food banks for their survival," says SKS coordinator Baharam Khan. Photo: Oxfam/Saikat Mojumder

The greatest initiative

“Each and every family in this village is poor,” says Mosammat Rabeya Begum, president of the food bank in the Gaibandha village of Katlamari. “Each year we work for six months, and the rest of the year we cannot get any work due to floods and other disasters. In those times, we face acute food and nutritional crises.” But now, she says, “With rice saved up, we don’t need to ask for help from other people.”

“The food bank has helped us a lot,” says Layli Begum, who lives in the same village. “It’s better to borrow from the food bank than to borrow from other people, because the food bank does not ask for interest.”

And, say the women, having their own source of food takes the sting out of poverty in other ways. “We used to take loans from our neighbors,” says Shapna Begum, who also lives in Gaibandha. “They teased us about our poverty. But thanks to the food bank, we do not have to take loans anymore.” (Begum is an honorific, not a last name, so does not indicate these women are related.)

By early 2020, the food banks were up and running, and not a moment too soon: when the coronavirus pandemic struck, with Cyclone Amphan hard on its heels, day laborers lost their jobs due to lockdowns, and flooding destroyed the crops people depended on to survive.

“All of us are dependent on farming, but this untimely rain is destroying our crops,” says food bank member Mosammat Rupali Begum. “Our men work outside the village and earn money, but due to the pandemic, they cannot go out now. That’s why we can’t have proper meals on a daily basis.” But, she says, “Whenever we run out of rice in the house, we borrow from the food bank.”

Sri Moti Kajoli Rani is the mother of four children and also a food bank member in her village. “When the floods come, life is difficult. There is no money, and no place to sleep or cook. Now we have a new danger: corona. I am worried about how we will manage in this difficult time. But in the back of my mind I think, ‘I have some savings in the food bank.’ If I can’t do anything else, at least I can get help from the food bank. We will never close the food bank.”

“The food bank is the greatest initiative ever in this area,” says Rabeya. “I’m am looking forward to seeing it grow. Even when we are no longer alive, I hope that our children will get help from the food bank.” She adds, “We have dreams.”

Throughout Bangladesh, Oxfam has helped strengthen local partner organizations to help build a sustainable, locally led system of humanitarian response attuned to community needs and aspirations. SKS Foundation was one of 56 Bangladeshi organizations that participated in a three-year program known as ELNHA ( Empowering Local & National Humanitarian Project) that focused on building skills and leadership. Now, many of the participating organizations are able to raise funds and design and launch effective responses to emergencies. The coronavirus pandemic, which poses obstacles to international aid delivery, has helped focus attention on the importance of local humanitarian leadership.

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