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Food bank use is on the rise, with austerity the clear culprit

Foodbank volunteers have their hands full with demand on the rise. Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Foodbank use in the UK has topped one million for the first time, according to new figures from the Trussell Trust. The charity that oversees more than 400 food banks across the country has recorded a 19% rise in the number of food parcels being given out to families in need.

Contrary to what some members of the outgoing coalition government would assert – including David Cameron recently – the growth in food banks is linked to austerity. Food banks have not, as Conservative peer David Freud has suggested, created their own demand. These were the findings of research we recently published in the British Medical Journal.

Looking into the issue of supply and demand for food banks in the UK, we found that austerity and the number of benefit claimants penalised by having their payments stopped in the UK (known as sanctions) were directly linked to food bank use. Benefit delays remain the major reason for referral to food banks in the past year. Thus, this increase in the use of food banks unsurprisingly coincides with another year of spending cuts, welfare reform and record rates of benefit claimants losing payments due to sanctioning.

The rise since the coalition came to power is clear. Trussell Trust

Clear patterns

The outright denial of the current government of the numerous research reports documenting the experiences of food bank providers and clients, motivated us to undertake a systematic examination of the rise of food banks across Britain. We charted the opening of new food banks since 2009 and measured whether they were being more heavily used in areas with greater levels of need.

Using data on food banks from the Trussell Trust, we linked it to local authority data on unemployment, spending cuts in local budgets and welfare benefits, the rate of sanctioning of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, economic activity (as measured by Gross Value Added), and the percentage of the population that is Christian, as Trussell Trust food banks are only initiated by Christian churches.

We found that Trussell Trust food banks were only operating in 7% of 375 local authorities in 2009. By 2013 – so, under the coalition government – 67% of local authorities had Trussell Trust food banks, leaving only 124 authorities without them.

When we looked at what factors predicted where food banks opened after 2009, there was a clear pattern. Food bank openings followed years of high unemployment and deeper cuts to local authority spending and welfare spending. In areas that didn’t experience spending cuts over two years, the probability a food bank opened in a local authority in a given year was only 14%. This figure increased to more than 50%, however, if an area experienced back-to-back spending cuts of 3% over two years.

Demand for food banks has been high. Trussell Trust

Supply or demand?

Next we explored the supply and demand debate of food parcel distribution. When a food bank opens in a community, it may be that people who were always struggling with food insecurity become newly “visible”, as their uptake of (and our data on) this type of assistance is only possible once the service becomes available. We controlled for this by examining the level of food parcel distribution over time, but only in areas where food banks were open.

Food parcel distribution per capita in areas with food banks was fairly constant until 2011, but after that it rose from 0.69 parcels per 100 people to more than 2.2 parcels per 100 people in 2013/14.

Next, we asked if these levels of food parcel distribution were linked to spending cuts, unemployment, and sanctioning and found this was the case. Each 1% cut in spending on central welfare benefits was linked to a 0.16 percentage point rise in food parcel distribution, and each 1% rise in Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants sanctioned was linked to a 0.09 percentage point rise in food parcel distribution.

These figures might sound small, but in deprived areas of England, such as Derby, where sanction rates rose to 13% of benefit claimants in 2013, this equates to a substantial rise in food parcel distribution – an additional one parcel for every 100 persons living in the area.

On the “supply” side, we observed that more food parcels were given out on a per capita basis in places where there were more food banks open, and where food banks had been operating for longer periods of time. This is intuitive, however, as it takes time for food banks to become known to people who are food insecure in communities – and the more accessible food banks are, the more able people in need are to use them. But given that people use food banks as a last resort, this does not suggest that supply is inducing demand.

More monitoring

As it currently stands, food bank data are the only current source of data on food insecurity in the UK. This is a problem, because people who don’t have enough food to eat are invisible in the absence of adequate monitoring systems as they may not have access to or be willing or able to receive food charity. This is why we call for regular monitoring of food insecurity in the UK, matching a recent recommendation from the Department of Food and Rural Affairs.

Unfortunately, the current government has given no indication that it wants to know more about the number of people using food banks or the problem of food insecurity.

Denial and outright hostility toward evidence on the rise of people using food banks suggest that the current government is not willing to take on the problem of hunger in the UK. We can only hope these findings won’t be dismissed again.

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