Food Poverty & Food Banks in the UK

When we talk of hunger and malnourishment, we often think of developing countries. We don’t immediately consider our own neighbourhoods, towns or cities in what is the sixth wealthiest nation on earth. The latest figures for 2019 show one in five adults living with some degree of food insecurity and nearly one in five children under the age of 15, living in a home where parents cannot regularly afford to put food on the table (UNICEF). According to the World Bank, nearly 2 million people in the UK are undernourished and the situation is worsening significantly year on year.

There are now around 2000 food banks across the UK with the Trussell Trust managing about 1200 of them. Between 1st April 2018 & 31st March 2019, the Trussell Trust saw a 19% increase in its demand for emergency food parcels with one third of these parcels going to children. This increase reflected demand rather than capacity as the trust opened only an additional 3 food banks during this period. It’s difficult to find exact figures for how many adults actually use food banks as people may visit several times, but estimates are now in the millions rather than thousands.

Foodbanks exist to provide emergency food to people in crisis and rely entirely on donations. They receive no state funding and operate as charities, largely run by volunteers. Care professionals such as health visitors, GP’s, as well as schools and social workers can all make referrals to food banks. Upon referral, people are then issued with a food bank voucher, which gives them three days’ worth of food.

The Trussell Trust has been critical of the governments move to the Universal Credit system and cites the five week wait for payments as a key factor in the sharp rise of people needing to use food banks. As benefit payments are moved across to the new system, people are having to wait five weeks or more for their first payment. Although it is now possible to request an emergency advance payment, this has to be re-paid and food bank providers are still campaigning for a change to what they see as a flawed system.

Despite the governments claim in 2010 that Universal Credit would “substantially reduce poverty”, the opposite has happened. In 2018, research showed a 52% increase in food bank use in areas that had had Universal Credit for at least twelve months, compared to 13% in areas that had not. Another issue is the amount of the payments themselves.  Most working-age benefits have not increased since 2015/16 whilst inflation on goods & services has averaged 3.5% a year.

So who uses food banks? Research from the University of Oxford & Kings College London, found that most people were of working age and living in rented accommodation. Almost 9 out of 10 were born in the UK. Their situation was described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”, missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. About 5 out of 6 were unemployed and those in employment were usually in insecure, low-paying work.

Hand in hand with the increase in food banks, has been the sharp rise (over 100%) in the number of holiday clubs set up to feed children during the school holidays. Indeed many foodbanks now also run holiday clubs to support parents who find their income won’t stretch to meet the extra pressure of missing free school meals. Last year saw a 20% increase in the number of children needing emergency food during the school holidays. Although the government provided funding to feed 50,000 children, over 3 million children faced food insecurity last summer.

Whilst food banks and holiday clubs provide a lifeline, charities are clear we must not build up a reliance on these resources but rather address the root causes of the problem and ensure our benefits system does what it was set up to do.

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