NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England — Bill Corcoran is in his usual spot, in the shadow of St. James’ Park, opposite Shearer’s bar, rattling his bucket, when a pack of a dozen Manchester United fans marches past.
They are wearing black jackets, hoods raised to stave off the cold. Just as they reach Corcoran, they launch into a deeply unflattering, mildly profane chant about the man after whom the bar is named: Alan Shearer, favorite son of both Newcastle the city and Newcastle the team. A few home fans jeer in response. The heckling just makes the interlopers sing louder.
Toward the tail of the group, one man spots Corcoran, and veers in his direction. He pulls his wallet from his pocket, and leafs through a fistful of green, orange and purple notes.
“Who are you collecting for, mate?” he asks. His accent is broad Mancunian. “Newcastle fans’ food bank,” Corcoran replies, his vowels unmistakably North Eastern.
The man pauses. He shuffles the bills, and chooses a purple £20. He slips it inside the bucket, and hurries after his group. He picks up the refrain effortlessly. He is back to taunting Shearer, and Newcastle, before Corcoran has even had a chance to thank him.
Over the next hour or so, dozens of fans stop at the same spot. Some donate money. Some come bearing bags of groceries, filled to the brim with canned fruit and breakfast cereals and dried pasta, to be dropped off at the makeshift booth behind Corcoran.
Today is not a special occasion: the same thing happens every time Newcastle plays at home. So acute is the hunger in Newcastle now, so intense is the demand, that Corcoran, and a handful of other volunteers, do this every two weeks.
Everything they raise — and they have raised a lot, somewhere in the region of £200,000 ($258,000), they believe — is sent to the West End Food Bank, in one of Newcastle’s most deprived areas. It is the largest institution of its kind in Britain. “We can’t have people in this city starving,” Corcoran said. “It is a badge of shame.”
That dire state of affairs is not, though, unique to Newcastle. The demand for food banks in Britain has soared in recent years: the Trussell Trust, which runs more than 400 such programs, said it distributed some 1.3 million food parcels from its centers in the fiscal year ending in March, an increase of 13 percent.
The spike, the charity’s chief executive, Emma Revie, said last year, can be attributed to the fact that too many people do not have “enough money coming in to cover the rising cost of absolute essentials like food and housing.”
Earlier this month, the government’s Environmental Audit Committee warned lawmakers that more than two million people in Britain could be considered “food insecure,” meaning they struggle to eat regularly and healthily. Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, described the problem as a “social calamity” on a fact-finding mission to Britain last year.
And so, across the country, the same thing has happened: soccer, and in particular its fans, has stepped into the breach. Newcastle’s is not the only food drive; Corcoran and his colleagues said they took their inspiration from a similar initiative that started in Liverpool in 2015. Celtic fans have been running one in Glasgow for years. In recent months, fans in Manchester, Sunderland and London — among others — have done the same.
In front of stadiums filled with multimillionaire superstars, fans have taken it upon themselves to help those who need it most.
“I like to feel I am doing my bit to give something back,” said Sandra Farn, as she dropped off a donation at the booth behind Corcoran. She and her son, Alex, drive the two hours from Nottingham for every Newcastle home match. They stop at a supermarket first, and load up. That, now, is part of the ritual of going to a game.
Jonathan Yaseen comes to Newcastle games with his 15-year-old son, Zain, but also, usually, only after stopping at a local store for rice, cookies and canned fish. “He has asked me before why we are having to do this,” Yaseen said. “It is hard to explain.”
John McCorry, the chief executive of the West End food bank, believes there has been a surge in demand for his organization’s services in the years since Britain’s Conservative government introduced a trial version of its Universal Credit welfare system in Newcastle in 2015.
The program rolls a number of social security payments into one benefit, but claimants face a five-week wait to receive their money while their application is assessed. Others in need, McCorry said, have been cut out by technology: Universal Credit must be applied for online, and not all of those who seek it have internet access. “These policies have been designed by people who have no experience of the realities of life for those who are affected by them,” he said.
The new system was designed to replace its “complex, outdated and wildly expensive” predecessor, as Iain Duncan Smith, a Conservative lawmaker, said when it was launched. His colleague Esther McVey has said it helps move more people into employment, and remain in work longer, than the previous approach. In his report, however, Alston, the U.N. rapporteur, described some of the government’s social security policies as “punitive, meanspirited and often callous.”
If Universal Credit helped provide the impetus that sparked Corcoran and others into action, Liverpool offered the blueprint for how to help. Fans Supporting Foodbanks had been created in 2015 by fans of Liverpool and Everton, troubled by the sight of long lines for a local food bank and reports that it was struggling to cope with the demand, according to Dave Kelly, one of the founders.
Kelly — an Everton fan — and Ian Byrne, a Liverpool supporter, had been part of a campaign to persuade the Premier League to cap prices on away tickets, and its success had convinced them that fans possessed an untapped power if they acted in unison. “It’s really important to take that tribal element out of it,” Kelly said.
They promote their work under the slogan “Hunger Doesn’t Wear Club Colors;” their volunteers collect food before every home game in the city, whether at Anfield, the home of Liverpool, or Everton’s Goodison Park.
“The first game we collected food, we were standing outside the Winslow Pub opposite Goodison, and donations were going into a wheelie bin,” Kelly said. “Now, we have the logistics in place to transport food and store it at warehouses. Everything we do is audited. The amount it has grown is incredible.”
The program’s reach has extended, too. Samuel Spong, a fan of the southeast London club Charlton Athletic who had read about the work Fans Supporting Foodbanks were doing, wondered if it could be replicated in his city. Encouraged by Kelly, he ran a food drive before a game last year. “The food bank was overwhelmed by how much we raised,” Spong said.
All of those running the food drives are quick to praise their clubs for their support. Corcoran and the others have been granted, effectively, a permanent permit to fund-raise outside Newcastle’s stadium on match days. Players have volunteered at the food bank, too. There have been publicity drives and, perhaps more powerful still, private donations. Rafael Benítez, the club’s manager, has been a vocal backer of the work the food banks do, even visiting the volunteers immediately before games.
On Merseyside, Peter Moore — Liverpool’s chief executive — paid for the van that Fans Supporting Foodbanks uses to transport its donations. At Christmas, Liverpool’s captain, Jordan Henderson, invited volunteers to Anfield for a meal to say thank you for their efforts. Charlton Athletic sent players to assist at the Greenwich Food Bank to publicize Spong’s initiative.
The bulk of the work, though, is done by the fans.
To Spong, fans have long possessed a natural political activism. “We have seen at Charlton that people will protest a bad owner relentlessly,” he said. “Or come together when ticket prices are too high.” That activism can be harnessed, he said, “if you take the issue of the indecency of the existence of food banks to a space where people do not normally think about it.”
Mostly, though, it is something much more obvious. The Premier League — all soccer, in fact — may now be a global enterprise, but the teams that comprise it remain, at heart, not just representative of but rooted in the local.
“Football teams are about a place,” Corcoran said, as fans buzzed past him on their way into St. James’ Park. “Increasingly, they’re the only thing cities like this have. Newcastle used to have the shipyards, the mining. They have even taken Newcastle Brown Ale away. They don’t brew it here any more. Now it is just the team. Teams symbolize cities in a way that nothing else does.”