The Rise of Food Banks: Symptom of Recession or underlying social problem?

The recent House of Commons debate on Food Banks became a political slanging match as both parties blamed each other, Labour highlighting the rise in use since 2010 and Conservatives pointing out Food Banks have existed for a decade.

Clearly the recent rise in their use has been due to the recession but are there further reasons or an underlying social problem that could explain their growth over the past decade both before the recession began and continued growth during the economic recovery.

Financial pressures are the reason people go to Food Banks, the recession and welfare reform will have had an impact on the demand over recent years but was demand growing in any event?

The Trussell Trust’s own figures show the growth in the number of people they help as follows:
2005/06 2006/7 2007/08 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13
2,814 9,174 13,489 25,899 40,898 61,468 128,697 346,992

The Trussell Trust itself has grown from 1 Food bank in Salisbury in 2000, to 80 in January 2011, 300 in January 2013 and now 350 operating and another 40 planned, December 2013.

Clearly this demonstrates there is demand for services from Food Banks but is this partly due to an underlying social issue which means Food Banks, so long a feature in other countries will become permanent features in the UK?

The pre recession figures must demonstrate a non-Recession based need and as the numbers of Food banks has increased this has increased both the awareness of them and the opportunity to access them. In simple terms, if your town doesn’t have a food bank or you’re not aware of it, you can’t use it.

The issues of awareness and access may partly explain why the steady increase as the recession took hold from 2008 has accelerated from 2011.

1 item of contention in the debate was the decision of the then Labour Government in December 2008 to stop Job Centres from referring people to Food Banks, understandably the Trussell Trust was very upset about this. The ban was lifted by Iain Duncan Smith in December 2010 accross a few pilot areas with the whole country being expanded across Britain in April 2011. In December 2010, the Trussell Trust estimated that 35-40% of the people they helped had issues with benefits.

The ability for all Job Centres to refer people to Food Banks from April 2011 must be a factor in the rise in numbers of people accessing Food Banks as is clearly seen in the Trussell Trust’s own figures. Did the 2008 decision effectively hold back a surge in numbers which only subsequently appeared following the reversal in 2011.

The Founder of the Trussell Trust, Mr Mould said of the 2008 decision:
“The DWP said that as there wasn’t a foodbank everywhere they wouldn’t refer anyone to a foodbank as we didn’t have one in every town. On the same basis they stopped giving details of Salvation Army hostels.
We had a campaign against the ban. It was very, very helpful to us that Iain Duncan Smith lifted the ban even though it was against the wishes of officials in the DWP.
However efficient the DWP might say they are it is giving out benefits remember they have 22 million people. Just a fraction of one per cent not getting paid means thousands of people who need to be fed.”

The issue of increasing awareness was picked up in a 2011 research project into Food Banks by Coventry University:
‘…you see the need has always been there, this is about volume and it’s about awareness. It’s primarily about awareness and I would say the one thing that the recession and economic downturn has done for Foodbank is to enable journalists to have a reason to pay attention to what we’re doing.’

But what of the people who accessed the Food Banks before the start of the recession in 2008? Why did they need help and will this reason continue exist regardless of the state of the economy?

The Trussell Trust originated from a project to help homeless families in Bulgaria but when in 1999 the founder was contacted by a local mother in Salisbury unable to feed her children, he realised the issue of “hidden hunger” also affected the UK.

The experience of the Trussell Trust shows that regardless of the state of the economy there is clearly a need for their services, people in crisis needing help, so what can be done to reduce numbers relying on Food Banks.

The simplest way is for the economy to improve and for employment to increase but that in itself still masks the underlying issue, the issue of people’s ability to financially plan and budget for themselves.

I believe this skill has been lost in recent years as the culture of “scrimp and save” has been replaced with a more diverse consumer society. This change has brought many benefits, economically as a whole the country is better off but it is clear that for some people it has been difficult to adjust. I believe this is also a significant part of the reason for the growth of pay day loan companies.

I feel it is therefore important to encourage education of financial planning and budgeting in school, this is somewhat covered by the National Curriculum under PSHE – personal, social, health and economic education but clearly more work needs to be done. The teaching of Home Economics and domestic budgets are things that need to be encouraged.

The Trussell Trust itself is starting to recognise this by piloting “Eat Well, Spend Less” and is currently looking for funding to roll out, ‘Eat Well, Spend Less’ courses that teach people how to cook when on a low budget. The course includes basic cookery lessons as well as providing advice on food budgeting, hygiene and nutrition. They are very keen to hear from people able to sponsor them.

I think such an initiative could be very sensible indeed, the old “give a man a fish and he will go hungry again, teach a man to fish and he will never go hungry” principle.

This principle needs to be extended, as the Coventry research project highlighted:
‘If you come with your fourth voucher we want to know why the key worker is not having an effect on your situation so we’ll phone them up and say ‘what is going on? What’s your plan? What’s the management plan?’’

There is a danger those referring people to Food Banks will sometimes do so because ‘it’s easier to give a voucher away rather than manage the person’.

Sadly we also have to consider the issue of misuse of Food Banks, however minimal it may be as the refusal to acknowledge it, undermines them:
‘But I think we would sit here and say actually there is, there are some people who are playing it because it’s there to be had. And for the best controls in the world you’re always going to have that.’

I suspect that Food Banks will now be a permanent feature in the UK, as they are in many other countries such as the USA, Canada, France and Germany but if we wish to find a solution to help reduce the demand for them we need to ensure 3 things:

Wider help for those who access Food Banks, reduce delays for those properly entitled to access benefits and increased education of financial / budget planning*.

I would also recommend MPs might wish to use their connections to help the Trussell Trust expand their “Eat Well, Spend Well”.

The Trussell Trust:
Trussell Trust & Coventry University Paper:—Exploring-the-Growth-of-Foodbanks-Across-the-UK.pdf
BBC News:
Conservative Home:

*ADDITIONAL UPDATE: 7 January 2014

Another sign of this issue was given on 3 January 2014 in an episode of the ITV Martin Lewis Money Show, where an update was given on a family who Martin had first met in 2004 when their spending had got out of control.  He advised and tweeted a useful finanical budget:

On further investigation, I would also recomemnd further promotion of the services of the Money Advice Service “Ask MA”, which the current Government established in 2011, from the former Consumer Finance Education Body which was part of the Financial Services Authority:

Additional Update 25 February 2015:

All Party Parliamentary Food Inquiry from May 2014:

Foodbank use in UK compared to Germany: 

West Cheshire Foodbank in Ellesmere Port promoting “pop up Cooking” which “teaches anyone willing to learn how to make cheap nutritious meals.”

Additional Update 1 January 2018:

Trussell Trust has 420 food banks in UK, estimated to be half the total amount.

CNN article on Food Banks in Germany.  A central food bank system has 930 food banks registered: CNN German Food Banks

LSE 2016 article, food banks, asuterity and food insecurity: LSE Food insecurity in UK and Europe


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