How Premier League fans put rivalries aside to tackle food poverty

Football

Dave Kelly is an Everton supporter, but whenever Liverpool play at home, he spends hours at Flagpole Corner, just outside The Kop at Anfield, collecting donations of food from fans on the way to the game.

Kelly’s van is adorned by images of a handshake — red shaking blue — and the slogan #HungerDoesntWearClubColours. Whenever Liverpool or Everton play — morning or night, rain or shine — Kelly and his fellow volunteers are there, as they have been for the past four years.

“I’m probably the only Evertonian who likes to hear ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ just before Liverpool play at Anfield,” Kelly told ESPN. “It means I can start to pack up the van, get everything dropped off at the food bank and then go home!”

The Premier League is the richest and highest-profile league in world football, and the rivalry of its clubs — and their supporters — is a key element of its global popularity. When Liverpool play Everton, Manchester United face Manchester City, or Chelsea clash with Tottenham, the intensity of the rivalry can sometimes spill over into unpleasantness and vitriol. But in Liverpool, Manchester and London, and every other city with a Premier League team, those rivalries are being putting aside as fans come together in the battle against food poverty in the United Kingdom.

Research by the food charity Sustain has found that over 5 million people in the UK (population: 65 million) struggle to get enough to eat. Another charity, the Trussell Trust, has recorded an increase of 123% in the use of food banks over the past five years. These rising numbers are bringing football fans together to help those in need, regardless of affiliations and rivalries.

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“It’s not just Liverpool and Everton supporters,” said Kelly, the chair of Fans Supporting Foodbanks. “We have worked alongside Manchester City fans, United fans. When City played at Newcastle recently, their fans donated to the local food bank and provided volunteers for the collection stalls.

“Earlier this season, Procter & Gamble donated four crates of disposable nappies to our charity in Liverpool, but we shared them with City and United supporters. We have worked together with United fans on Sir Matt Busby Way outside Old Trafford, which might have led to some second glances by some, but it’s about coming together. Hunger doesn’t discriminate, and there are no allegiances when people are in need.

“I actually think that the way football fans have come together on this makes it a thing of beauty amid a real crisis.”

Across the UK, the disparity in wealth and opportunity between the north and south has led to a government policy of so-called “levelling up,” whereby greater investment is directed away from London to northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. But fans also are collecting for food banks in the more affluent south, with the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust (CST) starting their campaign three years ago.

“There is a misconception about the wealth of London,” Cliff Auger, who runs the CST food donation programme, told ESPN. “Just outside Stamford Bridge, you have £10 million mansions on one side of the street, but there is [government] social housing on the other, and the Hammersmith & Fulham food bank, which we contribute to, is one of the biggest in the city. Unfortunately, it has never been so busy.

“We have our collection site whenever Chelsea play a weekend game and, from eight collections so far this season, we’ve filled approximately 30 crates of food. We’ve also raised around £400 in bucket collections. In recent weeks, with the buildup to Christmas, fans have also donated presents for kids, such as chocolates and selection boxes.

“It’s strange, really. You feel a sense of pride that football fans are helping in a small way, but the UK is the sixth-richest country in the world, so we really shouldn’t have to be doing this.”

Dan Silver, also from the CST, added that the personal impact of the food collections is huge.

“People are so grateful for a few tins of beans,” he said. “It’s the smallest things, but they make such a difference to people who need them.”

In Manchester, a partnership between the groups that run the United and City food banks has raised £53,000 in online donations since being set up in March 2020, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their work together prompted the two clubs to donate a combined £100,000 toward the food banks.

“The rivalry between the clubs is still there,” said Duncan Drasdo of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust. “But some things are much bigger than football, and we have not had a single issue or problem when we have worked together with fans of other clubs on this.”

Following the recent postponement of their game against Brighton at Old Trafford, United donated 4,000 items of food to local food banks. Tottenham made a similar gesture after their game at Brighton was postponed, with the club donating all food ordered for their prematch stay at a local hotel to a food bank.

Sources have told ESPN that Everton have made several food donations during the past 18 months and that high-profile figures at Liverpool also have contributed to fundraising efforts by local supporters. Man United striker Marcus Rashford’s work with FareShare has also helped distribute food to those in need. But it is the fans who are driving the initiative of attempting to ease the burden on families, at Christmas time and throughout the year.

With the threat of more stringent measures ahead to combat a rise in COVID-19 cases, however, there is a possibility that Premier League games will once again be played behind closed doors. If that happens, the opportunity to collect vital food donations will be lost.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about, really, if we go back to closed stadiums,” Kelly said. “For the first time since it opened, our local food bank was into its contingency stock recently because it was running out of food. I get people contacting me directly, and they are desperate for any help we can provide, so any shutdown of football will have a negative impact.

“There is always a big surge of generosity in the buildup to Christmas because people do want to help others less fortunate, but there’s also usually a drop in the new year because money is short and people are trying to pay for their pre-Christmas spending. Things don’t usually pick up again until Easter, and that’s a worry, because a lot of people are in great hardship right now.”

In Liverpool, London, Manchester and elsewhere, if there is a Premier League game on, there will be fans collecting for food banks. Any donation, large or small, will make a difference.

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