Opinion: Foodbanks: Are there more hungry people than a decade ago?

There are far more foodbanks, and foodbank users, than a decade ago. Many people have assumed that if more people are using foodbanks it must mean there are more hungry people in need – more having to choose between heating and eating – than there were.

But is that true? Does the evidence support it?

If a charity opened new refuges for abused women, we wouldn’t automatically take it as proof that domestic violence was shooting up. Similarly we can’t take the increase in foodbanks in itself as evidence of increased need.

There are three possibilities:

  • more people are in need than before
  • the increase in foodbanks is meeting pre-existing need – people who would have gone hungry before are now able to get food
  • people who could get by without a foodbank are now using one, because it’s there.

How much of the increase in foodbank usage can be explained by each of these options? The short answer is that no-one knows. The Trussell Trust would like the Government to conduct the research needed to find out.

The Trussell Trust began in 2004 and has set itself ambitious targets to expand the number of foodbanks across the UK.  In 2008 they launched their “Hidden Hunger” campaign, with 50 foodbanks being opened by 2010.  The Trust is currently ahead of their target to open 450 foodbanks by 2015.

You can’t simply turn up and be given food at a Trussell Trust foodbank. You must be referred by an agency – for example a GP, social worker or Citizens Advice Bureau. Job Centre Plus can now refer people to a foodbank (in 2008 the previous government banned this – the decision was reversed by the incoming government in 2010). Help is short-term. A foodbank gives you enough to get over a few days, deliberately avoiding creating permanent dependence.

As the Trust point out, the use of foodbanks is outpacing their number. In 2012-13 the number of foodbanks increased by 76% but the number of people using them increased by 170% and is still growing fast. When people are asked for the reasons they are using a foodbank, by far the most common since last April is benefit delays, with 34% citing the time gap between applying and receiving money. 19% cite benefit changes, with 18% saying low income.

Is the increase solely because more people in need are presenting to their GP, social worker or Job Centre Plus? Or is it that as the number of foodbanks, awareness of them and understanding of their operation grows among the different agencies, people who were not previously being referred are now given vouchers? We just don’t know.

From the limited evidence we have, it’s likely that the growth can be partly explained by a genuine increase in need, which may be in no small part down to delays in the benefits system.  The growing number of foodbanks, meeting those targets set in the 2008 Hidden Hunger project, must surely account for a good deal of the growth too – many people who were previously going hungry now have a local foodbank.

Because foodbank users must be referred by professionals, it seems unlikely that people who don’t need help are using the service in large numbers, though without further analysis it’s difficult to say for sure.

The Trussell Trust’s call for Government-funded research into the reasons more people are using foodbanks is sensible and they have a lot of data which, if properly analysed, would feed into that study.  But in their keenness to make their case, the Trust’s public pronouncements have sometimes gone some way beyond what they themselves admit can be currently supported by the evidence.  That’s won them fans among those keen to bash the Coalition, but it’s also set them against the Government in a way that may not be in the interests of the Trust or those they seek to help.

That’s my analysis of the information the Trussell Trust have given me, but take a look at their press release from July and their briefing for MPs yourself and make your own mind up.

* Iain Roberts is the former leader of Stockport Liberal Democrats and Lib Dem Campaign Manager in Greater Manchester Mayoral election and for Cheadle constituency in the General Election

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25 Comments

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jan '14 - 10:42am

    A lot of what you post is commonsense stuff, Iain; however you still fall into an unduly dichotomous position with this phrase: ‘many people who were previously going hungry now have a local foodbank’.

    Maybe previously those people in short-term food poverty were not exactly ‘going hungry’ but being picked up by other, more discreet, agencies or sources of support? ie the churches etc who are now often partnering with Trussell Trust were distributing food or cash in more informal ways, or social work or NHS staff were dipping into petty cash (usage of which is now more often clamped down on in local government) to buy emergency food which they would not direct someone to a foodbank for – having worked in hospital discharge-type situations, it’s amazing how people in crisis who need clothes or basic food to leave hospital safely can be found it at a pinch by kindly staff, but I bet it rarely appears itemised on anyone’s budget.

    You are right that the Trussell Trust rhetoric and, more crucially, how it is reported, implies either that a) they are occupying a vacuum caused or b) the sudden rise in food banks is a response to an acute change in need directly and solely caused by government policy and that these cannot both be entirely true.

    However (and pausing to note that there are more inforrmal and non-Trussell Trust food-bank and not-quite-food-bank-but-operating-in-that-broad-area organisations than the Trussell Trust tends to report), they are doing a very good job in drawinng people’s attention to a pre-existing problem that is being exacerbated by government policy. We do not know how much the free school meals policy will change things, but it won’t address the totality of the problem.

    In addition, Food poverty and poor nutrition in our society is a bigger issue than food banks; Trusell Trust-type banks (to me anyway) seem to be better at addressing family and young persons’ food poverty. There is a creeping problem of ongoing poor nutrition in isolated older adults which is not entirley being address by the health and social care problems and which food-bank operations are not best placed to resolve, due to the requirement that people travel to them, and the necessarily short-term crisis-based model they work to.

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jan '14 - 10:44am

    Opps; Last sentence should read ‘health and social care systems’; call Doctor Freud!

  • “There are three possibilities:
    – more people are in need than before
    – the increase in foodbanks is meeting pre-existing need – people who would have gone hungry before are now able to get food
    – people who could get by without a foodbank are now using one, because it’s there.”

    I would suggest that while one and two are possibilities, three is not, as you explain yourself in the article, Iain. Unfortunately a lot of people will not get so far into the article, having had the red mist descend on seeing that red flag hoisted. It’s possibly this sort of statement that leads to people people getting cross with you.

  • Iain Roberts 8th Jan '14 - 12:01pm

    Hi Jenni – quite difficult to construct an article in such a way that people who can’t be bothered to read it properly don’t get angry by reading just one bit!

  • Considering the amount of vilification towards those on welfare from sections of the media and this coalition government I would be astounded if anyone was using food banks for any other reason than sheer “need” & “desperation”

    I know what it is like to feel as though I am being constantly denigrated, to feel ashamed for the circumstances I am in and as if I am burden to society. I have little self-worth and no self-esteem.
    I would have to be literally starving before I would have the courage to turn to turn to a food bank for help.

    Unless you have been in this situation you will never have a clue what it feels like to be me or any other vulnerable person who is reliant on welfare/support.
    You will never truly understand what it is to feel “hopeless” & a “failure”
    Intellectually you know the meaning of the word, but emotionally you have no idea.

    When is society going to start standing up for the poor and the vulnerable again?
    When are our politicians going to start behaving responsibly again and tackling the kind of language and attitudes that are being used to cause hatred and vilification towards the most vulnerable people in society?

  • It should be a matter of shame to “any” government that food banks are on the rise.

    It matters not which political party in Government, the number of food banks rose under. The “Shame” is on our country and on our society as a whole for allowing successive governments to get away with these failures which makes many hundreds of thousands of people reliant on food-banks/charities.

    We have “save the children” advertising and raising funds for hungry children in the UK, A charity that was once associated with famine in Africa.
    This is a stain and a shame on Great Britain as a whole, How can we have any credibility on a world stage when it comes to talking about world poverty/hunger.
    When is society going to tell our government enough is enough.

  • Also: spelling people’s name wrong tends to annoy them… O:-)

  • We live in times of food abundance. It’s truly appalling that people need to resort to foodbanks to feed themselves, and a shocking failure of our political economy.

    But foodbank use is not a measure poverty. The job of a charity is to raise as much in donations as it can and then use those donations to maximum effect for its cause. Unprecedented levels of food are being donated to foodbanks – an incredible 4.5 million meals were donated by generous Tesco customers in just one weekend last month. It’s a foodbank’s job to ensure that all this food gets to the people who are most in need of it, just as their donors would expect. So more donations will consequently mean more use. It would be wrong if it were any other way.

  • David Simpson 9th Jan '14 - 4:34pm

    Getting the facts is, of course, important to any debate. However if more people are being treated for malnutrition, as they are, then this tends to indicate more going hungry.
    I hesitate to say “prove” as anyone with elderly relatives probably knows how difficult it can be to get some to eat. So whilst they may be treated for malnutrition it is not because of a lack of food. These people, my mother is one, will distort the figures as the population gets older.
    Yes the indications, apocryphal, are that a small number of people abuse the system, locally every member of a family went in for the food. But even if that is so the numbers are not large and would be statistically irrelevant.
    It is criminal that in a world producing more food than ever before, per head of population, that anyone in the world goes hungry. That people give so generously to foodbanks in our country is a source of pride for us all. That they need to is a source of shame.

  • Donald Iain Wight 9th Jan '14 - 5:02pm

    I am the Project Manager for Rochdale Foodbank, one of Trussell Trusts 400, and which has been operating for 14 months. We exist because of the goodwill and generosity of the public of Rochdale. If they did not donate food to us, we could not exist. But they do. In their thousands, from churches, mosques, schools, businesses, Rotary Clubs, Round Table – indeed from all shades of political, social and economic areas of society. It is an amazing,unique phenomenon, which is hard to explain even in the midst of a foodbank operation. This nameless, faceless, generous public has given over 66 tonnes of food in that time, which we have used to give 3 days of nutritious food to over 7300 individuals. We have around 100 clients each week, and none can make more than 3 visits (with some exceptions).
    We are merely to be good stewards of this food, doing our best, by working with 80+ professional agencies in our borough, to ensure that the food goes to people who need it. The Trussell Trust model helps us do this, and we value their experience and support.
    But this is a foodbank for Rochdale – run by local volunteers (around 100 of them); food donated by local people; food given to local people. If you talk to the Social Workers and others ‘at the coal face’, they breathed a sigh of relief when we started, because they had been struggling to help with emergency food parcels over the years, out of their own pockets often, or petty cash systems etc, but it was beginning to be overwhelming.
    If any of you sat with us, talking to the clients day in and day out (and we’ve talked to over 3,600 of them), you would not have any doubt that this was a social and humanitarian issue – not a political one. However, the strong correlation of food needs to benefit delays suggests that part of the solution is political, if there was a will.
    My wish is that the Lib Dems make a strong challenge to the current Government attitude, (which is frankly appalling), and begins to make changes to the DWP systems that are creating some of the problems.
    Frankly, it is not the business of foodbanks to deal with the underlying causes – that’s why an enquiry would help – we are here to meet an immediate and often sad and desperate need.
    When the public stop giving food, and the Agencies stop referring clients, then we will happily close our doors.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Jan '14 - 7:16pm

    Food banks are an extremely good idea – they recycle excess food. The notion that evidence of recycling is evidence of shortage is obvious nonsense – we don’t assume that people recycling cardboard implies an urgent need to chop down more trees!

    The notion that benefits changes are somehow causing people to hungry is also obvious nonsense, since there haven’t been any changes to benefits for people who can’t afford food – the only changes have been to benefits for relatively wealthy people, and to the categories under which people make their claims. I would suggest that the evidence that 19% of people going to food banks think benefits changes have caused this is evidence that at least 19% of these people don’t understand the benefits system – which would be entirely unsurprising, most people on benefits don’t understand the system and JCP systematically lies to them about it. My immediate reaction to those people would be that they need to file an appeal about whatever they were told; the vast majority of appeals are upheld because JCP has screwed up.

    The one thing here which is obviously accurate is that JCP are terrible at giving people the benefits to which they are entitled in a timely fashion. This is not something that has changed, it’s always been like that. It’s a serious problem which does need addressing. It’s also not news, it’s something we’ve been complaining about for decades.

    I would suggest that rather than commission research into a vague question like “why are people using food banks?”, we start with the obvious problems that we know about, like “why is JCP so incredibly bad at giving people the money they’re entitled to get, and what can we do about it?”. And then start doing something about it.

  • @Andrew Suffield

    “The notion that benefits changes are somehow causing people to hungry is also obvious nonsense, since there haven’t been any changes to benefits for people who can’t afford food – the only changes have been to benefits for relatively wealthy people”

    You have evidence to back that up Andrew?

    I do not think you do because you are wrong on many fronts.
    Benefit changes that are affecting some
    (i) reduction in Housing Benefit for “bedroom tax”
    (ii) Reduction in council tax benefit
    (iii) Benefit increases limited to 1% increase (Below the rate of inflation)
    (iv) Benefit sanctions

    These are all changes to the benefits system that have taken place under “this government”

  • It is because it is government policy to starve people. That’s what cutting off someone’s benefits mean.

    If you don’t believe a government would do this, you need to read up on the second world war.

  • @ Dave Page

    Just wanted to say thank you as you could see where I was coming from and agree with to an extent.

    I am extremely uncomfortable that there seems to be a growing trend in some peoples perceptions, that the only reason why that the use of food banks is on the increase is because more have become available and more people have got to know about these charities.
    We are in a severe danger of naval gazing and ignoring the underlying issues by allowing this kind of flippancy to ignore the root causes and challenge our politicians to do something about it.

    I just really wanted to try and convey to people my feelings which I can only do though by recalling upon from my own life experiences & difficulties.

    I truly do not believe anyone would turn to food banks unless their was no other option open to them and they were desperate.
    It takes an enormous amount of courage to seek this kind of help/charity from an organisation, the emotional turmoil and sense of shame/failure/burden that you feel is immense . Even more so in these extremely tense times when lets face it, anyone reliant on welfare is being stigmatized, vilified and emotionally battered by members of this government and its friends in the right wing media and unfortunately so by large sections of the general public who has been sucked into this governments propaganda.
    So the thought some people have believing that people just rock on up to these food banks with the heads held high saying please sir may I have some more is extremely upsetting and worrying to me.

    Just please take a moment to think how it feels for a mother to go to a food bank and say please can you help, I don’t have enough money to feed my children this week or to wash their clothes. Just try and wonder how that mother must feel about her role as a parent in providing for her children/s and the fear she would feel about being judged.
    Or a sick/ disabled person who has had their sickness benefits removed by ATOS/DWP and is having to wait months and months for an appeal hearing, and whilst doing so then has to manage on a lower allowance whilst waiting for that appeal to be heard.

    I think more and more people are feeling as though they are being ripped from humanity. And so it takes a huge amount guts to seek help these days because of the hate filled propaganda being stirred up by the media and this government.
    I do not believe that more people are using food banks because more have become available and people have become aware of them. I think it is a case that people are being driven to it out of sheer desperation and having no other options open to them.
    The Salvation army have always been their and given out free food Stew-in-cans and basic food parcels, for people who have needed them, But they were never inundated with the kind of demands that we now have on food banks since the crash in 2007 and the cuts to welfare that have been implemented by this government since 2010..

    This really must not be ignored

    It is frightening when we hear the chancellor announcing a further £12 Billion of cuts from the welfare budget and has already decided that this will not come from anyone of pensionable age

    Liberal Democrats, Labour, Greens, Society as a whole should be standing together shoulder to shoulder and saying quite clearly now to the TORIES especially, No this is not going to happen, we will not allow this to happen. You can not get away with carrying on any longer with your ideological hate filled propaganda towards the young, unemployed, sick and disabled. You have fragmented British society enough already and we will not sit by idly and watch you drive fear into the hearts of millions of vulnerable people further and further every time you give an interview or make an announcement.

    I have never personally had to turn to a food bank, thankfully, but I have been in a position where my benefits were being messed up for over 6 months and I was not getting paid properly or on time and payments had to be chased. I was reliant on my elderly parents helping out by bringing me food parcels, helping me out with my bills and stuff. That tore me up inside having my parents do that for me, I felt like a complete failure and a waste of space, I felt very lonely and very ashamed of the position I was in but had no control over.

  • It is a sad reflection on our own party in government that food bank use has increased. The people who use them are in real need.

    We should carefully think about what has gone wrong with society, increasingly since 2010 when we joined the coalition. We cannot avoid our own culpability. What we need to do is to humbly apologise for our own actions and indeed inactions which have contributed to the declining standard of living of so many people in the UK, to the point that they go to food banks.

    We should not limit what we re-examine. For example there are claims that immigrants from Europe are undermining wage levels. We have to examine why that is. If we do not address the real concerns of the electorate, with honesty looking at the root causes, then we should not be surprised if the number of MPs of our party is halved at the next election.

    We have to have the willingness to be self-reflective, honest, and courageous. It does take courage to do this. Everything needs to be re-examined, starting with a fresh sheet of paper, we can have no sacred cows or stale assumptions. Are we as a party able to rise to this challenge or not? We might only get around 20 MPs at the next election if we are not.

    I am seriously worried about our party, more importantly I am worried about the state of the UK that has such increasing poverty which requires food banks to proliferate. We must not be in denial or we will solve nothing.

  • It’s plausible that increasing provision has made visible some previously unmet need. But is highly unlikely that this accounts for more than a small fraction of the colossal rises in food bank use we have seen over the last 3 years. It took 10 years for the figure to reach 40 thousand. In 2010/11 that rocketed to over a hundred thousand and is now well over half a million. Where once yearly increases were measured in the thousands now they are measured in the hundreds of thousands.

    It is just silly to suggest that for 10 years there were half a million people going hungry but that nobody noticed, and that it is mere coincidence that this need became visible at the same time as the Coalition pushed through wide-ranging changes to the benefit system. More than half of those surveyed by the Trussell Trust cited cited benefit issues as the reason they had been forced to rely on food banks.

    Both you and Dave Page say that more research is needed. Well yes, we always need more research but that shouldn’t be an excuse to do nothing where there are obvious problems. You don’t mention that IDS has refused to meet with the Trust to discuss their findings or that the government has refused to provide statistics on the number of people referred to food banks by job centres. In fact so far the government has shown no appetite to understand the problem much less do anything about it.

  • Iain Roberts 10th Jan '14 - 3:29pm

    Caracatus – Jennie specifically raised the issue of someone who hadn’t read the whole article, which was what I addressed in my reply.

    I’ve no doubt that not everyone agrees with the article – it would probably be the first ever on LDV if everyone did! When looking at possible reasons for people to use foodbanks, it seemed sensible to me to look at the main reasons people have actually put forward, not pretend that no-one has ever suggested a reason and then be open to the charge that I’d not looked at the possibility.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Jan '14 - 9:58am

    You have evidence to back that up Andrew?

    Yes: legislation.gov.uk

    (i) reduction in Housing Benefit for “bedroom tax”

    Affects only people in oversized housing; does not reduce JSA or other subsistence level benefits. This cannot cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.

    (ii) Reduction in council tax benefit

    Again, does not reduce subsistence benefits. This cannot cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.

    (iii) Benefit increases limited to 1% increase (Below the rate of inflation)

    Food isn’t really inflating though – inflation is being driven by costs of fuel and consumer goods. This cannot cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.

    (iv) Benefit sanctions

    This is not in any way new, nor has it changed at all under this government.

    The existence of benefits changes is not sufficient to prove your claim. You must show that there are changes to benefits which can cause people to be unable to afford food. You have not done so.

  • @Andrew Suffield

    Your comment is illogical and displaying ignorance on so many levels it is frightening.

    “(i) reduction in Housing Benefit for “bedroom tax”
    Affects only people in oversized housing; does not reduce JSA or other subsistence level benefits. This cannot cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.”

    When somebody has been hit with a bedroom tax, they see a decrease in their benefit of on average £14 a week for 1 spare bedroom. They have to pay this money to their council or face getting into arrears with their rent and then facing eviction. So they have to chose between food/rent. Chose food and not pay the shortfall you could face homelessness.
    So clearly a reduction in Housing Benefit can cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.

    “(ii) Reduction in council tax benefit
    Again, does not reduce subsistence benefits. This cannot cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.”

    Being liable for council tax where once you where exempt means that a person has less money to live on. If you fail to pay your council tax bill you will more than likely end up in the courts where you will be fined and have money taken straight from your benefits in order to repay the debt. Meaning once again the person would be unable to afford sufficient food.

    “(iii) Benefit increases limited to 1% increase (Below the rate of inflation)
    Food isn’t really inflating though – inflation is being driven by costs of fuel and consumer goods. This cannot cause people to be unable to afford sufficient food.”
    The cost of living is rocketing, you may be in the fortunate position where you are not noticing these rises to your weekly income. People have to find the money from their benefits to pay for gas/electric in order to be able to cook their food, these costs are rocketing, Non food but essential goods cleaning products, toilet paper toothpaste etc etc, have you noticed how much it costs to wipe your backside these days? these all cost money, then there are the water/sewage charges on top of that. Or is it your opinion that people on benefits should not worry about these things, be dirty, don’t wash, drink rain water, use focus leaflets to wipe your backside. The below inflation rise in benefits is causing real hardship for people and for you to pretend otherwise quite simply is astounding and things I would like to say, but can not……

    “(iv) Benefit sanctions
    This is not in any way new, nor has it changed at all under this government.”

    I think you will find you are wrong again, the previous government did not have any of the kind of benefit sanctions that this government has introduced and has been implementing with a heavy stick.

    “The existence of benefits changes is not sufficient to prove your claim. You must show that there are changes to benefits which can cause people to be unable to afford food. You have not done so.”

    I think I have given ample reasons why and how these benefit changes are affecting some people and how the changes to benefits can make it unable to afford food and/or have to chose between food/utilities etc etc.
    But then I do not expect you to take the slightest notice because your supportive of this right wind ideology and policies that are hammering the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society

  • @Andrew Suffield
    The coalition introduced extensive changes to the benefit sanctions regime in 2012. Perhaps more importantly there has been a massive rise in sanctions driven by targets imposed by the DWP. Naturally imposing targets leads to the more vulnerable claimants (those that are ill or have learning difficulties or poor english etc) being targeted for trivial or non-existent infractions of the regime.

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