Part 1 of this blog series gave an overview of the increase in food bank use over the past decade, as well highlighting some of the underlying causes of this increase. The aspects of food poverty that can and can’t be addressed by food banks were also covered. In this blog, the less obvious, deeper-rooted issues associated with food banks will be discussed. This includes the ethical concerns associated with requiring referrals to access emergency food and the role food banks play in allowing governments to relinquish their responsibilities to tackling food poverty.


Ethical issues associated with referrals as an entry point to food bank use

When it comes to accessing food banks, it is the responsibility of care professionals such as doctors, social workers and school staff to identify individuals or households in need of emergency food.They then issue users with a voucher that is exchanged for an emergency food parcel at a local food bank. Alternatively, an individual can approach a voucher-holding care professional and ask to use a food bank [1]. However, as ‘food banks referrals are not always easy to obtain and provision is patchy’, the number of distributed parcels are not a perfect measure of need [1].

The main issue with this system of referrals is that access to a food bank is ultimately dependent on the bias of the professional ‘gatekeeper’, who ultimately decides whether the person is deemed in need of a food parcel or not. This will be based on the professional’s own personal criteria of ‘need’ and subject to personal bias and therefore the obtainment of a food parcel is not a systematic, unbiased process, as it should be. Therefore, the argument here is that as a food bank is a charity with the main aim of ending food poverty, food assistance should be provided to anyone who feels that they themselves need it. In contrast to the UK, Canada and Germany require no formal referrals to use food banks and are used as long term facilities for those in need. However, the counter argument here is that food banks rely on donated, and thus limited food and may only be able to provide a certain number of emergency food parcels and so need to be selective.


Image 1: Food bank voucher- obtained during the referral process


Food banks as a way for the state to transfer its responsibility of tackling food poverty

A major question that must be asked is whether the increase in food banks allows the government to relinquish its responsibility for tackling national food poverty onto civil society in terms of charities?

Although food banks in the UK emerged as a short-term solution to tackle short-term hunger, the use is significantly increasing year-on-year, indicating that food poverty is much more of a long-term problem in the UK. Because of this trend, the government has a responsibility to tackle the underlying causes of increasing food bank use and thus food poverty in the nation. This is particularly important as a significant proportion of the underlying causes of increased food bank use are attributed to welfare changes implemented by the UK government (the evidence for which is discussed in part 1 of this blog series).

Comparisons can therefore be drawn between the current situation of the UK and that of Canada, where the rise in food bank use was also attributed to social security reforms such as reduced unemployment benefits and introduction of stringent eligibility criteria [2]. In Canada, due to the links formed between food banks, national food companies and governments, food banks became institutionalised and could effectively act as a substitute to make up for the significantly reduced, inadequate social welfare system [2]. Therefore, the government could avoid its responsibility in ensuring the ‘right to food’ for its citizens and essentially shift this responsibility onto the food bank system [2]. However, the major difference between the Canadian food bank system and that of the UK is that the Canadian system is mean to be a long-terms solution to those suffering food poverty/insecurity. In contrast, the UK system is meant to be a short-term solution which should only have to be used in a crisis, as a last resort. Whether this is realistically the case or not in the UK is not clear (in terms of whether there is an increasing long-term reliance on food banks by repeated use). This would require standardised, extensive data on household food insecurity in relation to food bank use in the UK [1]. In principal, due to the short-term nature of the food poverty alleviation strategy of food banks, they should not become institutionalised in the UK as they are in Canada and thus not become a substitution for an effective welfare system.


Although the notion of referrals for food bank use by care professions may be practical, there is a danger that many people in need of emergency food assistance may not receive it as they are not deemed ‘in need’ by professionals or feel uncomfortable in asking for vouchers. Ultimately, food banks in the UK exist to tackle short-term food poverty and, unlike in Canada, are not intended to be a long-term solution. Therefore, it is currently sufficient that food banks only tackle the symptoms of food poverty/insecurity rather than confront the underlying causes. In contrast, much evidence points towards the underlying causes of food poverty being due, in part, to welfare reforms implemented by the UK government. Therefore, it is important that the political factors such as changes to the welfare system which contribute to food poverty are confronted by the government rather than shifting the responsibility onto food assistance charities such as food banks.



[1] 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.

[2] Riches, G. (2002). Food Banks and Food Security: Welfare Reform, Human Rights and Social Policy. Lessons from Canada?. Social Policy and Administration, 36(6), pp.648-663.