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Food Banks and Food Poverty

Published Thursday, April 10, 2014

The number of food banks in the UK has increased substantially in recent years. This note explains how food banks work, examines their growth and discusses possible contributing factors and policy developments.

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Food banks (sometimes branded as “foodbanks”) provide food aid to people in acute need, often following referral by a health or social care professional, or other agency. In the UK, food banks are run by a range of volunteer-based organisations, redistributing food donated by consumers, retailers and the food industry. The largest network is co-ordinated by The Trussell Trust which has 400 food bank banks UK-wide. A Church Action on Poverty report (May 2013) estimated that over 500,000 people in the UK were reliant on food aid.

Food bank use has been increasing steadily since 2005. In the period April-September 2013 alone, over 350,000 people received food from Trussell Trust food banks – triple the number helped in the same period in 2012. This increase has led the Trussell Trust to call for an inquiry into the causes of food poverty and the surge in food bank usage. A range of experts have also warned in the British Medical Journal (December 2013) that UK food poverty “has all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventive action.” A new All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty (co-chaired by Rt.Hon.Frank Field MP and Laura Sandys MP) is now investigating “the root causes of hunger and food poverty” and the increase in British demand for food banks.

A variety of factors may have contributed to the growth in food bank usage. High global food prices have made food proportionately less affordable for low-income households in the UK whilst the recession saw unemployment increase significantly and earnings stagnate or decline. A number of significant changes to the benefits system have also been made including: the abolition of the Social Fund and the introduction of local welfare provision, the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants, measures to control Housing Benefit expenditure and the introduction of a new benefits “conditionality and sanctions” regime. Many speculate that such welfare reforms are having the biggest impact on the growth of food banks but the Government maintains that there is “no robust evidence” to link the two.

Since September 2011, Jobcentre Plus has “signposted” people to food banks, but the Government does not officially track food bank usage. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned research in March 2013 to review evidence on the UK’s food provision and access. The resultant report (February 2014) highlighted that there is limited information on UK food aid provision and the reasons for it.

Commons Briefing papers SN06657

Authors: Emma Downing; Steven Kennedy

Topics: Benefits administration, Benefits policy, Economic situation, Food, Incomes and poverty

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