What really lies behind the rise of food banks?

Why record numbers of people are turning to charity for their daily meal

food bank
Emergency food banks are stretched as more and more people struggle to pay their bills.
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Staff)

Britain's food banks say they are being used by record numbers, with more than half a million people relying on them at some point in the past year.

The government rejects suggestions that changes to the welfare system are largely to blame for rising food poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but charities say otherwise.

How many people use food banks?

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The Trussell Trust, which runs the largest network of food banks in the UK, says it provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency parcels to people in crisis in 2016-17, up 6.4 per cent on the previous year's total of 1,109,000.

This marks the ninth successive year that demand has risen, says The Guardian.

"This is a measure of volume rather than unique users and on average, people needed two food-bank referrals," says the charity, which means nearly 600,000 people used its services during the last year.

UK Map - regional breakdown 201-2015

Graphic courtesy Trussell Trust

However, the real figure is thought to be much higher, as the trust is believed to account for just half of the nation's food banks.

Churches, mosques and smaller charities also provide help to many more people each year. Research by the Independent Food Aid Network year suggests the level of food-bank use "is far greater than headline figures indicate," the Guardian says.

"[There] are at least 651 grassroots food banks operating independently of the Trussell network, ranging from tiny voluntary groups that give out a few food parcels each week, to larger charity operations that hand out thousands of parcels to hundreds of clients each year."

There are no official government figures on food-bank usage. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says it "does not monitor the use of food banks and has no plans to do".

Who uses food banks?

The largest study on food-bank use to date, conducted by Oxford University and King's College London and commissioned by the Trussell Trust, provides a detailed portrait of the people who require emergency food assistance.

"The most typical users are single men, single women and lone mothers with children - between them accounting for about two-thirds of all food bank users," the BBC reports.

Roughly five out of six are unemployed and depend on benefits to survive.

"Particularly concerning are the very high numbers of disabled people or people with mental health problems needing food banks," said David McAuley, chief executive of tThe Trussell Trust.

More than half of households requiring food aid included a disabled person, with mental health conditions affecting people in a third of all households.

Why do people use food banks?

"Most people are only a paycheque away from a crisis," Daphine Aikens, founder of the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, told the New Statesman. Debt, job loss, illness, insecure work and low wages all contribute to rising food poverty and insecurity.

However, according to data from the Trussell Trust, the largest drivers are delays and changes to welfare benefits, including sanctions that can see payments deferred for several weeks.

Graphic courtesy Trussell Trust

Food-bank referral rates were more than double the national average in areas already using universal credit, the Guardian says.

"Food banks are responding to a need that has always existed but welfare reform has exacerbated that," the charity's Ewan Gurr told the BBC a few years ago.

This was supported more recently by the Oxford study, which concluded that "there is concern, and increasingly, evidence, that these [two factors] are linked."

However, the DWP strongly denies links between government policies and increased food-bank usage.

Echoing comments made by Theresa May, a spokesperson said: "The reasons for food bank use are complex, so it's misleading to link them to any one issue."

They offered no further explanation of what those "complex" reasons might be.

Who is right?

Clearly there are many different causes of food insecurity in the UK. However, the evidence analysed in the Oxford study supports the claim that welfare reform – and specifically sanctions and delays in payments – is one of the main reasons people are turning to food banks to help feed their families.

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