Using the sharing economy to boost food banks

food-banksThe sharing economy has had almost as big an impact on perceptions of successful business models as it has on particular industries themselves.  It has opened eyes to the possibilities that exist when marketplaces are opened up to allow participants to interact directly with one another.

Could the same happen with things like food banks?  That was the question posed by a recent Australian study that set out to test whether the sharing economy model could help overcome some of the challenges inherent in the sector.

Sharing economy and food banks

The researchers spent several months at a number of food banks in and around Brisbane.  They say that many of the users of the facilities very much appreciated the service being offered, but felt stigmatized by having to go there.

“There was a tendency in some participants not to interact with others and leave the centre as soon as they collected their food because of the shame of being there,” the authors say.

“But we also found that clients who did have interactions with one another appreciated the social value of visiting the centre and gained useful knowledge and tips. For example, Communify Qld volunteers frequently spoke about and advertised different offers for things like free educational classes or reduced housing.

“Using a peer-to-peer sharing infrastructure, clients can also directly connect and agree to reciprocal exchanges that benefit them both. For example a client who’s a single mum may offer a lift to the centre to an older lady without a car in return for the older lady looking after her daughter while she goes to work.”

Building communities

The authors suggest that a solution to this problem can be in the community spirit engendered in sharing economy platforms.

They tested out their theory by creating their own platform, called ShareThat, which is a community based site for sharing goods, services and deals, all without any money changing hands.

They’re hoping to extend this with the creation of a ‘do and tell’ section.  This will allow users to form an online version of the reciprocity ring whereby users share things they need help with, and the community chip in with support.

“A recent Foodbank Hunger Report found there was an 8 per cent increase in the number of people seeking food assistance in 2014. The clients we spoke to were diverse in terms of age, gender and ethnicity and their reasons for seeking support from Communify,” the team say.

“Services like food relief centres are very valuable and people need to be encouraged to use them, and feel comfortable about using them, when needed.

“Our research indicates that having a socially inclusive sharing community for people, like ShareThat and Do and Tell, will enable empowerment and alleviate stigma.”

It seems food bank usage is only going to rise, so any attempts to de-stigmatize doing so can only be a good thing.  It will be interesting to see if this approach can be adopted more widely.

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