“It’s not about football and it’s not really about food,” says Alex Timperley. That may sound odd coming from the founder of a foodbank run by football supporters, but it hints at the vision of a thriving, fan-led community network that he and his fellow Manchester City-supporting friends hope to achieve.
The MCFC Fans Foodbank Support group is only a few months old, having made its first collection from a gazebo near the Etihad on New Year’s Day. At the time, City were the only top-flight club in the northwest not to have a fans’ group taking foodbank donations in their name before home games.
Timperley and the other volunteers – who cannot collect on weekdays because of work commitments – could hardly have picked a more unfortunate time to start up. City’s men’s team have played just one weekend home game since 26 January thanks to the oddities of English football’s fixture scheduling, Storm Ciara and now the coronavirus.
Despite the challenges, the MCFC Fans Foodbank Support has collected around 1,250kg of food – the equivalent of 3,500 meals – to quickly become one of the largest donors to the Trussell Trust’s central Manchester foodbank. And given the unprecedented challenges now faced by the community they serve, perhaps this was the best time to start up after all.
The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign has been supporting the work going on across the UK at foodbanks such as MCFC’s to ensure that everyone has enough to eat during the virus outbreak, backed by figures such as London mayor Sadiq Khan, Labour MP Jess Phillips and television cook Nigella Lawson.
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“We were successful beyond anything we could imagine,” says Timperley, reflecting on a challenging first few months. “People really embraced it and got on board. It’s always a worry that they just go to football and don’t care about anything else. There are a lot of people like that. That’s fine. There’s no one way to be a fan. But we’ve had a really good response.”
It was the result of last year’s general election that spurred the group into action. Food poverty is an “inherently political” issue, Timperley says. “It’s unambiguous. It is because of the Tory party. Foodbanks are not a natural phenomenon. There were a handful in 2010 but now the Trussell Trust operates more foodbank centres than there are branches of McDonald’s in the country.”
In the space of six months last year, 42,000 food parcels went to feed children in Greater Manchester alone. “[The answer to] the question of why is because of Conservative Party policy,” he insists. “How people eat is political.” And so while providing food for Manchester’s most vulnerable is one of the group’s aims, making sure people have money in their pocket is another.
As not having enough to eat is linked to having an insecure or inadequate place to live, they have started working with Shelter and the Acorn renters’ union. Volunteers have helped organisations such as Feed Manchester who work with the city’s homeless population, which has reached shameful levels over the past five years. They are also working with another foodbank, Emmeline’s Pantry, which was set up specifically to support vulnerable women.
Their work really does have very little to do with football, but it would not have been possible without the game, and they still need it to build a bigger movement. Timperley points out how “there’s nothing else in the country – or probably the world – which organises people as regularly. What else is there where you have 60,000 people in east Manchester in the same place together every week? There’s nothing. From that perspective, it was an easy choice for us logistically. You don’t have to start spreading the word about a random stall in Piccadilly Gardens.”
Engaging supporters in this way is a lot easier if you ignore club colours. Inspired by the work of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, a joint initiative involving Liverpool and Everton supporters, the City fans’ group joined up with their Manchester United counterparts before last month’s derby at Old Trafford. “Getting the City banner out on Sir Matt Busby Way got some weird looks,” Timperley admits, “but it’s important to be visible.”
That was City’s last game, and the group’s last collection before the pandemic took hold. Now, maintaining the foodbank’s momentum of the past few months is difficult but essential. The link with the United fans’ group remains, with a joint online fund set up for donations. In a show of solidarity from the other side of the East Lancs Road, the Liverpool and Everton fans’ groups have contributed £3,000. Timperley describes that gesture as ”a summation of what the whole project is about”.
It should be said that the MCFC Fans Foodbank Support is not affiliated with City themselves, nor does it particularly want to be. The volunteers have a dialogue and a healthy relationship with those at the club but consider their independence important. Otherwise, they would be unable to hold them to account and make sure they are working in the interests of the community.
Recently, in conjunction with their United counterparts, Timperley’s group helped ensure both clubs would continue to pay casual matchday staff despite the postponement of games due to the pandemic. A combined £100,000 donation from United and City to the Trussell Trust was also extremely welcome but they still believe more can be done. “From our perspective we’ll be pushing them,” he promises.
And ultimately, their aim is to show that much of the tribalism and pettiness that defines a lot of modern football fandom can be exchanged for compassion and cooperation, to the benefit of fellow City supporters attending matches but also vulnerable people in the wider community. “It’s saying to people on Twitter there’s a different way to be a football fan,” Timperley adds. “I don’t think football fans really understand the power that they have.”
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