- There has been a growing interest in food banks in Parliament and among the media, prompted in large part by evidence of a rapid growth in the numbers of people turning to food banks to feed themselves and their families.
- The coordinating body of the UK’s largest network of food banks is The Trussell Trust. In an April 2013 press release, the Trust reported a 170 per cent increase in the numbers of people using their food banks between 2011-12 and 2012-13, a rise from 128,697 to 346,992.
- Over 350,000 people received emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks between April and September 2013, triple the number helped in the same period in 2012 and more than in the entire financial year 2012-13.
- The causes of the rise in the use of food banks are controversial and somewhat unclear. However, the Trussell Trust estimated that around half the referrals to its food banks in 2012-13 were due to benefits issues: 30 per cent were as a result of benefit delays, around 15 per cent due to benefit changes, and around 4 per cent followed refusal of a Social Fund Crisis Loan.
- This briefing summarises what is known so far about food banks. It will be of interest to members and officers in all councils who work with local residents and communities, to officers in upper tier councils directly involved with the local welfare schemes and to partners in the third sector, particularly those concerned about food security, poverty, and welfare reform.
Briefing in Full
Food banks provide food aid to people who could otherwise not afford to feed themselves and their families. They operate to a variety of models and may be run by charities, community groups and churches as well as private individuals.
The coordinating body of the UK’s largest network of food banks is The Trussell Trust. The Trust opened its first food bank in Salisbury in 2000 and now operates as a social franchise, partnering with churches to provide food bank services to local communities. There are, however a number of food banks only operating locally.
Most of the food which the Trussell Trust distributes is donated by individuals, largely through collections at schools, churches and supermarkets. Volunteers help operations by sorting, packing and distributing food in parcels intended to last the recipient and their family for a minimum of three days. Some food banks have delivery services for those unable to get to a distribution point. Although the main provision is food, some offer other grocery items and other services like financial advice.
On 18 December 2018, the House of Commons debated the increasing use of food banks (see here for the Hansard record). Raised as an Opposition Day Debate, it also followed a petition calling for a debate organised by the Daly Mirror. It was also the latest in a recent spate of Parliamentary debates and questions on food poverty.
Parliament’s interest in food banks parallels growing media interest, in turn prompted by evidence of a rapid recent growth in the numbers of people turning to food banks to feed themselves and their families (see below).
The causes of the rise in the use of food banks are controversial and somewhat unclear. The Government does not publish official statistics on food bank use, nor on the reasons why people turn to them. The most reliable figures on use and reason for use are published by the Trussel Trust. Reasons put forward by the Trust and others include a growth in ‘emergencies’ created by benefits delays, the general squeeze on household incomes (for people both in work and out of work), changes to benefits eligibility and reductions in overall benefits entitlements, and the growing use of benefits sanctions. It has also been noted that real food prices have increased steadily over the past five years, with the smooth upward movement punctuated by several large spikes.
The lack of information has prompted several agencies, including the Trussel Trust to call for a Government inquiry into the use of food banks. Defra has commissioned research to review evidence on the landscape of food provision and access which was due to be published in summer 2013, but it has yet to appear.
It should be noted that there are other charities which do not operate food banks but provide food to hostels, day centres, breakfast clubs, or community cafés. The charity FareShare uses food that would otherwise be wasted at the manufacturing end of the chain and gives it away to the homeless and the poor. Fareshare donors include Sainsbury’s and Nestlé. FoodCycle helps local communities to set up groups of volunteers to collect surplus produce locally and prepare meals in unused kitchen spaces which are then served those in need in communities. A2011 report by Kellogs found that the number of breakfast clubs had increased to over 20,000, though also that several thousand had or were at risk of closure due to lack of funds
Further, it should be borne in mind that there are some long-established government forms of assistance with food – free school meals being the obvious example. Those with children aged under 4 years on benefits qualifying for free school meals can also receive vouchers for infant milk and fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables. The Deputy Prime Minister has announced free school meals for all infant school children in reception, year 1 and year 2 from September 2014. The Government will also extend free meals to disadvantaged students in further education and sixth form.
Finally, it is worth noting that food banks are neither new nor unique to the UK. Origins are traced to the USA with the earliest interventions dating back to the late 1960s (see the website Feeding America for American food banks and also for a variety of related services). There are reports of increasing food bank use from France, Belgium,Canada, (PDF document) Germany, and Ireland. In the December 2013 Debate, some statistics were quoted to show how food banks use had risen elsewhere, although it is not clear where the figures were sourced or whether they are directly comparable with statistics on British food bank use.
The Government are not considering the provision of funding to support food banks. Local authorities can fund food banks if they consider that this would benefit their local community. The Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, is reported to have suggested that local authorities consider working with food banks as part of their local welfare assistance schemes.
Rising food bank use
Although by no means new, food banks have only become prevalent in the UK in the last decade. In the December 2013 Parliamentary Debate, it was suggested that in the early 2000s they were concerned with emergency relief for asylum seekers.
In partnership with churches, The Trussell Trust operated over 345 food banks in the UK in April 2013. By October 2013, the number of food banks in the Trust’s network had increased to 400. A report published in the Guardian in July 2012 estimated 60 independent food banks additional to the then 201 food banks run by the Trussell Trust.
In an April 2013 press release, The Trussell Trust reported a 170 per cent increase in the numbers of people using their food banks between 2011-12 and 2012-13, a rise from 128,697 to 346,992. The table below shows the numbers of people using the Trust’s food banks in each year from 2005.
However, over 350,000 people received emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks between April and September 2013, triple the number helped in the same period in 2012 and more than in the entire financial year 2012-13. Of those helped in six months from April to September 2013, 120,000 (35 per cent) were children.
A May 2013 report from Church Poverty in Action and Oxfam, Walking the Breadline: The scandal of food poverty in 21st century Britain, estimates that the total number of people currently reliant on food aid could be over 500,000 when also accounting for the work of non-Trussell Trust affiliated organisations.
Referrals to Food Banks
In the case of the Trussell Trust and some other providers, all recipients must be referred and may only receive up to three consecutive referral vouchers in a six-month period. There are some 18,500 different organisations across the country holding vouchers for Trussell Trust food banks. Partner agencies and professionals include social workers, doctors, health visitors, and care or welfare professionals, the Citizens Advice Bureau and Jobcentre Plus who can all issue vouchers to people in need. The Trust’s model of determining eligibility to food aid through referral by third parties is contrary to the argument put forward by Lord Freud that the growing use of food banks is the consequence of supply (for a free good) creating its own demand (see here for an exact record of what Lord Freud actually said).
The role of Jobcentre Plus in referring people to food banks has been the subject of additional controversy. Jobcentre Plus has been signposting people to food banks nationally since September 2011. Circumstances where a Jobcentre might make a referral to a food bank could include:
- Where a Crisis Loan or Short Term Benefit Advance had been refused
- Where a change in circumstances had affected a person’s entitlement to benefit, or reduced the amount they receive.
- Where payment of benefit had been delayed (because a claim was still being assessed, or DWP was awaiting information to enable a decision on a claim).
The original version of the Jobcentre Plus referral form allowed for the reasons why the referral had been made. However, according to a Guardian report on 6 September the DWP has removed the boxes on the previous form which had enabled JobCentre Plus to indicate why they referred the person (benefit delay, benefit change, or a refusal of a crisis loan).
Reasons for increased usage
Again, we are largely reliant on the Trussell Trust for data on the reasons why people turn to food banks. The table below, taken from the April 2013 press release, shows referrals by main type of crisis over the period 2012-13.
|Refused crisis loan||4|
|Child holiday meals||1|
In both political debate and the small amount of systematic research that exists, several ‘drivers’ have been offered for of the increasing usage of food banks. These are dealt with below.
World food prices have been subject to several spikes in the last five years and have shown a general upwards trend. In the UK, food prices rose by 11 in real terms between 2007 and 2013 taking the cost of food relative to other goods back to the late 1990s.
The spikes in world food prices are attributed to a range of causes including drought, rising demand from countries such as India and China, increased oil prices, currency fluctuations, export restrictions, poor wheat harvests in 2006-07 and the growth of biofuels.
Unemployment, employment, and incomes
The (ILO) unemployment rate fell to 7.5 per cent by the third quarter of 2013, but it is still considerably higher than the 5.3 per cent recorded for the same quarter in 2007. The claimant count stands at just over 1.2 million, up by 437,000 since November 2007, but long-term claimant unemployment (more than one year) has more than doubled, from 123,000 in November 2007 to 381,000 in November 2013. Although the numbers in employment has risen, the employment rate remains below its pre-recessionary peak and much of the rise in employment is linked to an increase in population. The numbers currently in part-time jobs because they cannot find a full-time job, at 1.5 million, is currently the highest since records began in 1992. There has, in effect, been a dilution in employment.
The economic downturn has had a significant impact on those in work. As pointed out in the commentary on Autumn Statement 2013 (see related briefings), it has been indicated that gross median real weekly earnings will still be well below pre-recession levels in 2018, and no higher than they were in 2003. An analysis by the IFS published last June (see here) indicates that real median earnings fell by 4.6 per cent between 2008 and 2012, and in 2012 were actually 2.2 per cent lower than they were in 2003. The position of those in work will decline further as a result of changes to in-work benefits (see below).
As we have seen, the Trussell Trust estimated that around half the referrals to its food banks in 2012-13 were due to benefits issues: 30 per cent were as a result of benefit delays, around 15 per cent due to benefit changes and around 4 per cent following refusal of a Social Fund Crisis Loan.
Crisis Loans (CLs) were repayable awards from the DWP’s Social Fund available to people faced with an unforeseen emergency or disaster which left them without funds. In the five years to 2011, the number of CLs awarded almost tripled. No detailed analysis of the reasons for the increase in demand for CLs has been published, but the Government decided to change the rules for CLs by reducing rates and limiting repeat awards. As a result, gross expenditure on CLs fell from £228.3 million in 2010-11 to £133.3 million in 2011-12.
The discretionary Social Fund was abolished from April 2013, and funding made available to upper tier local authorities in England and to the devolved administrations to enable them to provide new local support (see related briefings). The links, if any, between this latest change and rising food bank usage not yet clear, although it is known that some councils will use the fund for food vouchers, and others are considering how they might link up with food banks in providing emergency assistance.
There is no doubt that many aspects of current working-age benefits reforms are squeezing the incomes of the very poor, even though the full impact has yet to be felt (see related briefings). Total savings in 2012-13 amounted to just under £10bn, but in 2013-14 this will increase to over £16bn and by 2014-15 to over £23bn. In terms of savings, the biggest part (over £9bn by 2014-15) is due to changes in benefit uprating, including both the switch to uprating benefits by reference to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and the 1 per cent uprating of working age benefits for three years announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement. The tax credit changes introduced are expected to yield savings of around £4.8 billion a year by 2014-15. Other impacts will ensue from changes to the Housing Benefit rules from April 2013 aimed at the under-occupation of social housing, local Council Tax Support schemes, which replaced Council Tax Benefit from April 2013, and the household benefit cap, which is being introduced in 2013-14
Benefit conditionality and sanctions
After a hiatus of several months, the DWP resumed publication of benefits sanctions – where benefits are withdrawn for various periods – in November 2013. An analysis submitted by David Webster (University of Glasgow) shortly after as evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee Jobcentre Plus inquiry indicates that sanctions are increasing in number and in the proportion of JSA claimants to which they apply. The analysis (available here) (PDF document) shows that the number of JSA sanctions in the year to 30 June 2013 was 860,000, the highest for any 12-month period since statistics in their present form began to be published in April 2000. As a percentage of JSA claimants, monthly referrals since October 2012 have repeatedly reached levels not seen since April 2000. Eight of the last 12 months have seen over 4.9 per cent of claimant unemployed receiving an adverse decision, a level only ever reached in five previous months, all of them under the current Government.
Supply responds to demand
It is probable that as the profile of food banks has increased, alongside improved support through franchise systems such as that employed by the Trussell Trust, the process of setting up a food bank has become easier, which in itself could lead to increased numbers and potential usage as a latent need is filled. A Similar point can be made of Jobcentre Plus referrals, as a further instance of the system responding to latent need – which is not the same as ‘supply’ creating ‘demand’.
Food banks and related issues will be prominent issues in the media for the foreseeable future, and will very likely be the object of some considerable political controversy as the numbers using them continue to rise. In the December Parliamentary debate, a number of references were made to the rise in use of food banks in other countries, deflecting attribution of causes away from current changes in the benefits system and the squeeze on wages, and drawing attention to global changes in food and other commodity prices. There is no doubt that these last have contributed to the increase in resort to emergency measures, but, as several Conservative members acknowledged, so have benefit changes and the increasing use of sanctions.
All Members, however, were careful to praise the work of food banks and the volunteers who support them, and there was an acknowledgement that, useful as they are, food banks should not become a permanent part of the welfare state. The debate was very well attended, testifying both to the political importance of the issue and the wide geographical coverage of food banks. Given this, it is regrettable that there is an insufficiency of information required to properly assess their impacts and causes, and much of the claims made about food banks in the debate appeared to be based on anecdote. For the time being, however, food banks will be an important part of local support structures and welfare arrangements, and councils will need and want to work in close partnership with them.
For more information about this, or any other LGiU member briefing, please contact Janet Sillett, Briefings Manager, on firstname.lastname@example.org