Volunteers sort through donations of food at the headquarters of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Organisation in Salisbury. Photograph: Getty Images.
People, it turns out, are going to food banks because they’re hungry and in need. This finding, which chimes with the experiences of those of us with on-the-ground experience (including prominent members of the Catholic Church), emerges from a long-delayed report commissioned by ministers at Defra, and quietly slipped out today. It contradicts welfare reform minister Lord Freud’s assertion that food bank usage is driven by supply (if you build food banks, people will come for the free food).
In fact, as well as finding "no systematic evidence on the impact of increased supply" and that "hypotheses of its potential effects are not based on robust evidence", the report found that food bank use is "a strategy of last resort". People are proud, the evidence shows, and will tend to use them only once they’ve cut back on everything they can, and exhausted all other possible avenues of support. Indeed, food bank use is probably the tip of the iceberg: the report finds that, internationally, only one in five of those who are food insecure will tend to use emergency food support. Unfortunately, we don’t measure food insecurity in this country, but with food banks springing up across the country, from those linked to big national networks to small independent operations, perhaps we should.
The research looked at various sources as to why people are seeking food aid. In order of ranking, they found that reasons included: "loss of, reductions in or problems associated with, social security payments; low income; indebtedness; homelessness". A study the report cites from Citizens Advice found that the two main reasons for referrals for a food parcel were benefit delays and benefit sanctions. With sanctions at an all-time high, and the government proposing to make people wait for seven days to claim JSA after losing their jobs, these issues are only going to get worse.
The Defra pocket book (2012) highlights the compounded effects of falling income and rising food prices over recent years, which had "produced a double effect of reducing food affordability by over 20 per cent for households in the lowest income decile". Overall, the report makes clear that people go to food banks for both reasons of short-term crisis – job loss or problems with the social security system – and of long-term poverty – low income or indebtedness.
The report also bemoans the lack of systematic UK evidence of why people go to food banks. We, like many others, are seeing the urgency of the issue daily in our work, and policy makers need to gain far greater understanding of the growing food poverty crisis. The explosion in food bank use is a national emergency, and it is imperative that we understand its causes so that we can eliminate hunger from British children’s lives.
In the meantime, there is a lot that can be done to tackle the issues we already know about. Jobcentre Plus advisers need to start making much better use of short-term benefit advances. To tackle the longer-term causes of food poverty, we need more action on the inadequacy of incomes, on supporting people into work that pays enough to live on, backed up by high-quality, affordable childcare, and on the structural problems in the social security system that are edging many towards destitution.
Ultimately, food banks are a symptom of deeper problems. No child should be going hungry, and no child should be living in poverty. As part of its legal obligation to end child poverty by 2020, the government must publish its new Child Poverty Strategy by early April, and will be consulting on it shortly. It is a great opportunity for them to set out their roadmap to giving every child the nourishment they need, and the start in life they deserve.
Moussa Haddad is senior policy officer at the Child Poverty Action Group