Food Politics: UK Foodbanks

UK Foodbanks

It’s General Election time, and as a departure from this blog’s usual themes, my new post today is about food poverty and UK foodbanks.

Jump to:

– Why are you writing about foodbanks?
– How do foodbanks work?
– How many people use foodbanks?
– Why do people use foodbanks?
– How do people access a foodbank?
– How much, and what sort of, food is given out?
– Can people abuse the system?
– What else do Trussell Trust do? : national research & advocacy
– How do I volunteer, or donate to a food bank? How else can I help?

Why are you writing about UK foodbanks?

Food is a highly political topic. Questions about: whether we have too little, or too much, depending on where we find ourselves in the world; the quality of the food that is available to all of us; GMO crops; the power of global corporations and the big food lobby – these are just some of the highly complex issues.

Although I have views about food politics, I am choosing mostly to keep them out of these pages. But with the UK General Election being held tomorrow, it seems timely to remember how many people live in food poverty, and to think about the rise in the role of foodbanks to help to combat hunger in the UK.

I started volunteering at my local foodbank a few months ago. Until I did so, I had no clear idea of how exactly a foodbank worked, or about the wider advocacy work that is done at the national level around food poverty. You will have seen that there’s been much negative media commentary in recent years – including negative allusions by members of this and the previous government and the Prime Minister –  about foodbanks and the people who use them.

Drawing on my volunteering experience, I feel personally that these stances are overwhelmingly misinformed –  whether that be neglectfully –  or wilfully, through prejudice and/or political motivation. So, here’s some information and opinion about foodbanks, and you can make up your own mind.

How have UK foodbanks evolved and how do they work?

The UK foodbank that I volunteer for, run by the Trussell Trust, opened in 2010, the same year that significant austerity measures were first being introduced in the UK. The Trust is an anti-poverty charity which opened its first foodbank in 2000. Since then it has partnered with communities and churches to open a network of 420 foodbanks to date, across all four countries in the UK.

Trussell Trust foodbanks are designed to provide short-term, emergency support to individuals and families during a crisis. They aim to relieve the immediate pressure of a crisis by providing three days’ emergency food.

Some of the Trust’s 40,000 volunteers work to sort publically-donated, non-perishable food, and check it is in-date, before packing it up ready to be given to people in need.

Other trained volunteers work to extend a warm reception to foodbank clients at distribution centres. They provide a listening ear over a hot drink, and signpost people to other charities and agencies which might be able to help resolve the underlying cause of their crisis, and break the cycle of poverty.

The Trust website also has links to search tools to help people ensure they are claiming all the benefits and grants to which they are entitled.

Many foodbanks offer free additional services, like money advice, Fuel Banks and budget healthy cooking courses, as part of the Trust’s More Than Food programme. This aims to build resilience and help prevent people needing to be referred to a foodbank again e.g. my local foodbank runs an Eat Well, Spend Less course, teaching people over a six-week period how to cook healthily on a budget.

Something as simple as a box of food at a time of crisis makes a big difference to the individual in need, and benefits society more widely by contributing to preventing crime, housing loss, family breakdown and mental health problems.

How many people use foodbanks?

In the UK, foodbank use is increasing. There must undoubtedly be some element of increased supply in the number of foodbanks opening – and increased awareness of their existence – that is stimulating increased demand. It may well have been the case that people, living with hidden hunger, previously kept it hidden – but now they are being noticed and counted, by virtue of their foodbank use.

In 2016/17, the Trussell Trust gave out 1,182,954 sets of three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. These figures do not signify numbers of people, however. The Trust’s current statistics indicate that, on average, individuals needed two foodbank referrals in one year before their crisis passed. In other words, the Trust say that the number of food parcels given out last year represents approaching 600,000 ‘unique individuals’ accessing their foodbanks.

Trussell Trust figures do not set out fully the scale of food poverty across the UK. There are also hundreds of other independent food aid projects, which the Trust suggest are likely to be giving out the same number again of food parcels. However, the Government rejected a select committee recommendation two years ago to collect official data on these.

The fact that the Trussell Trust is large and nationally-organised means it not only tends to speak up for the whole foodbank sector, but, I see from scanning the media, that that also means it is often the target of any criticism aimed at foodbanks in general.

Foodbank map 16-17Image courtesy of The Trussell Trust 2017

Why do people use foodbanks?

According to the Trussell Trust, fundamentally and overwhelmingly it is because, as you might expect, they don’t have enough money for food. This chart shows the reasons that the Trussell Trust cite for why people accessed their foodbanks in 2016/17:

Foodbank referrals 16-17

Image courtesy of The Trussell Trust 2017

The Prime Minister is right to say that the reasons people access foodbanks are complex; but completely wrong to leave that sentence hanging, allowing people to infer that it is perhaps in the majority of cases the individuals themselves, rather than the Government, who are largely to blame.

Every day people in the UK go hungry for a variety of reasons. In the Trust’s experience these range from redundancy; to receiving an unexpected bill (e.g. boiler breakdown) on a low-income; to benefit delays (people not receiving benefits, to which they are entitled, on time; problems with processing new claims, or any other time-lags in people receiving welfare payments); and benefit changes (e.g. people having their benefits stopped whilst they are reassessed).

The Trust’s data indicates that delays, or changes, to a person’s benefits – often, in their view, down to problems with the way the Department for Work and Pensions administers them – are two of the biggest causes of referral to their foodbanks, accounting for 43% of all referrals. If that is accurate, then it means the referrals are avoidable, and quite possibly exacerbated by public sector cuts.

The Trust’s Emergency Use Only report, produced in partnership with others, including Oxfam, includes several recommendations to Government to alleviate the situation. These include improving access to short-term benefit advances; reforming sanctions policy; ensuring claimants are not left without income whilst challenging Employment and Support Allowance decisions; improving access to emergency financial support through welfare assistance schemes; and ensuring Jobcentres provide an efficient and supportive service for all clients, including those with mental health problems.

Low-income has also risen as a referral cause from 23% to 26%. And the Trust reports  witnessing significant problems arising from the Government’s introduction of Universal Credit, which, they say, has put extra pressure on food donation stocks.

Universal Credit rollout has been piecemeal so far, but the Trust reports that their foodbanks in areas of full rollout have seen a 16.85% average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average of 6.64%. A 6+ week waiting period for a first payment can lead to foodbank referrals, debt, mental health issues, rent arrears and eviction.

These effects can last even after people receive their Universal Credit payments, as bills and debts have, by then, piled up. People in insecure or seasonal work are particularly affected, which the Trussell Trust suggests means that the work incentives in Universal Credit are not yet helping everyone. Navigating the online system can also be difficult for some people, and the system apparently sometimes registers people’s claims incorrectly and invalidates them.

How do people access a foodbank?

Foodbanks work with referral agencies to issue food vouchers to those in crisis in need of emergency food. People cannot access a foodbank directly without first having been assessed as genuinely in need, and then referred with a food voucher, by one of over 30,000 frontline professionals. These include social workers, GPs, health visitors, schools’ liaison officers –  or someone from a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, children’s centre, housing association, welfare agency or community mental health team.

Once referred, clients can bring the food voucher to their nearest foodbank, where it is exchanged for a food parcel. Volunteers use the voucher to check the number of adults and children for whom it is valid. Food is packed into foodbank-supplied supermarket carrier bags, to help maintain people’s dignity. Some foodbanks run a delivery service e.g. for clients living in rural areas who cannot afford to get to a foodbank.

How much, and what sort of, food is given out?

A food parcel contains non-perishable tinned and dried foods which will, according to advisory nutritionists, provide adults and children with enough food for at least three days, or at least 10 healthy, balanced meals. They will take account of dietary requirements, but a typical food parcel includes:

  • Cereal
  • Long-life Milk
  • Soup
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Pasta sauce
  • Baked Beans
  • Tinned meat
  • Tinned fish
  • Tinned vegetables
  • Tea/coffee
  • Fruit juice
  • Tinned fruit
  • Biscuits
  • Chocolate

Many foodbanks also offer toiletries and non-food items like toothpaste and tampons, to further help people maintain their dignity.

Can people abuse the system?

Technically yes, of course people can always find ways to abuse any system. And of course, there will be some foodbank abusers, in the same way that there are benefit cheats. But the exception does not prove the rule.

Foodbank volunteers, and those who make the assessments of genuine need, report that, typically, foodbank clients are ashamed to be accessing them, and really do do that as a last resort when in temporary crisis. There are a number of real stories on the Trust’s website about people who have used their foodbanks which you can read for yourself.

The need for referral, the monitoring of vouchers, and the network within which the foodbanks operate, are all designed to guard against abuse, including people trying to access foodbanks in several different locations.

What else do Trussell Trust do? : research & advocacy at the national level

The Trussell Trust also carries out research and advocacy work, engaging the governments across the UK with evidenced-insights into the realities of poverty, gleaned through their experiences of the people they have helped through their foodbanks. They advocate particularly for helping to tackle poverty and hunger through improvements to benefits delivery; raising the minimum wage; and encouraging more firms to adopt the living wage. Fundamentally, the Trust argues for the UK having a robust welfare safety net, and work that pays enough to keep people out of poverty.

In partnership with academics, other charities, and policy experts, in the last three years the Trust has published a number of research reports. These include a report on some of the impacts of the transition to Universal Credit; a paper seeking to measure for the first time the extent of food poverty across the UK, and links to problems with the welfare safety net; and a report identifying a number of problems they see with the benefits system contributing to an increase in foodbank use. They have also made evidenced submissions to the Work & Pensions Select Committee Inquiries into sanctions and welfare delivery, and input into the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger’s Feeding Britain Inquiry.

How do I volunteer, or donate to a foodbank? How else can I help?

One way you might help is by factoring the UK food poverty situation into your decision about how to vote in the General Election on Thursday.

Other obvious ways are to donate food or to volunteer, whether with the Trussell Trust, or another emergency food assistance project.

Over 90% of food distributed by Trussell Trust foodbanks is publically-donated. Collection boxes are often in local supermarkets, and foodbanks will also take donations direct. It is best to check with your local foodbank to see what supplies they are currently short of e.g. my local foodbank is always short of fruit juice, but has far too many biscuits, which also tend to have a shorter shelf-life than other non-perishable food.

You can find out where to volunteer or donate food with the Trussell Trust in your local area via the map and other information on their website. There is also a link for one-off or regular monetary donations.


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5 thoughts on “Food Politics: UK Foodbanks

  1. Really well done to the volunteers who turn words into action 👏 And shame on any government responsible for food banks.

  2. Thanks for writing this piece Valerie, it is really interesting and informative.

      1. Hi Val, I read this last night. It’s a really insightful informative piece and I salute you for highlighting the stark harsh reality for so many. If you’re comfortably enough off to not have to worry about ends not meeting on a regular basis , you just won’t necessarily “see” or appreciate how this feels, looks like in reality, affects mental health, family dynamics, and all sorts. I did some advocacy work a while ago with MIND in Barnet, participating with a few other service resources within the local community looking at issues like immigration, benefits, debt, health, mental health, assisting with hate crime, housing, support with court attendance and a whole host of other issues. I really loved it. I am front line nhs staff and have not seen the food vouchers being offered. Anyway, sorry for all that, the main thing I wanted to say is well done for highlighting this issue. Great article. Look forward to following more to come! Xxx

      2. Thanks very much Karen, I’m really glad you liked it and very interested to hear about your own experiences too. Also that you’re not seeing the food vouchers being offered.

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