The number of emergency food distributed by food banks in the UK has increased rapidly over the past few years, but does this indicate a rise in food poverty and food insecurity* in the UK? If so, are food banks really the best way to tackle the problem? How are they helping the food poverty/insecurity situation in the UK and how might they be hindering it? This blog will discuss these questions in more detail.
Overview of the problem
The number of emergency food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust- the largest network of food banks-was 1,109,309 for the period 2015-16. The number has increased significantly every year and the current value is eighteen times more than the number of emergency food parcels distributed in 2010-11.
The number of food banks operating in local authorities had also increased significantly from 29 in 2009-10 to 251 in 2013-14 . The number of Trusell Trust food banks alone has increased from 50 in 2009/10 to 420 in 2013/14. In addition to Trussell Trust food banks, there are estimated to be just as many independent food banks in the country. However, there is a lack of consistently measured data on the amount of food distributed by these independent food banks. Therefore, the total extent of food bank use in the UK cannot be known . There is also a lack of extensive data indicating the extent of repeated food bank use and whether the banks are being accessed a short-term food assistance solution, as they are set out to be, or whether there is an increasing long-term reliance on them. The Trussell Trust has stated that the number of people requiring more than four food parcels per year has increased to 10% in 2014
Why the rise in Food Bank use?
One argument states that the rise of food parcel demand and distribution may be attributed, to a certain extent, by the expansion of food banks across the country. Therefore, this is supported by evidence displaying that that more people are using food banks in areas which have more food banks present than in areas with long operating food banks . However, an inquiry into hunger in the UK found that many individual food banks had witnessed a rise in the number of emergency food parcels they distributed based on a year-to year values.
The UK government’s reduction of the welfare state and thus benefits provided to its citizens, initiated in 2010, has been attributed as a major contributor to the rise in food banks in the country. Loopstra et al, 2015  found evidence that food banks are more likely to open in regions (local authorities) where there are a greater rate of welfare cuts and high unemployment. The data displayed that for every 1% cut in government welfare spending, the was a 1.6-fold chance increase in a food bank opening within two years in that area . The regions of the UK with greater rates of welfare sanctions (where benefit income of an individual is cut for a length of time for failing to meet a particular condition) are the areas where there are greater rates of demand for emergency food. For every 1% increase in the rate of benefit sanctions, there was a 0.09%-point increase in the number of food parcels distributed . (Data was from Trussell Trust food bank network specifically).
Additional underlying causes leading to increased food bank use include the greater rate of food, fuel, and housing costs in relation to the rate of earnings from 2003-2013.This has affected low income households the most as the real value of both national minimum wage and working-age social security benefits have decreased from 2003-2013.
The causes outlined are supported by data from by the Trussell Trust, which found that the top three causes for food bank referrals in 2015-16 were due to benefit delays (27.95%), low income (23.31%) and benefit changes (13.50%).
Appropriateness of emergency food parcels for tackling food poverty
The Trussell Trust emergency food packages consist of non-perishable food for minimum 3 days. The package consists of a variety of food required for a balanced diet, therefore tackling the ‘access to healthy, nutritious food’ aspect of food poverty and security. However, many people on low incomes suffering food poverty also suffer fuel poverty. Therefore, evidence from food banks suggests that certain items in food parcels, such as tinned meat and vegetables that need to be heated before consumption, were not appropriate for food bank users who could not afford electricity and gas. This links to the lack of choice people face when using food banks (Trussell Trust network specifically), as they are unable to choose what food they need or prefer, unlike attending a supermarket or other food outlet, and ultimately have to take what they are given. Therefore, food banks do not address the ‘access to preferred food’ aspect of food poverty.
Although food banks exist to tackle short-term food poverty, their increasing use indicates an emerging long-term food poverty issue in the UK. Although food banks tackle the ‘obtainment of healthy, nutritious food’ aspect of food poverty, the ‘food preference’ aspect is not met due to a lack of choice of appropriate or preferred food items.
*Food poverty is the obtainment of healthy, nutritious food and/ or access to preferred food, whereas food security is when all people, everywhere have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutrition food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and health life. Food poverty is more specific to the situation in the UK as it is linked to a lack of economic access to food, rather than physical availability of food.
 Loopstra, R., Reeves, A., Taylor-Robinson, D., Barr, B., McKee, M. and Stuckler, D. (2015). Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK. BMJ, 350(apr08 9), pp.h1775-h1775.