There are at least 2,000 food banks operating in the UK, giving out emergency food parcels on a weekly basis to people in hardship, according to research that shines fresh light on the rapid growth of charity food provision in austerity Britain.
The research complements established information on UK food bank use compiled by the Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, which collects extensive data from its members and recently reported that it gave out a record 1.2m food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17, the ninth successive year in which demand had risen.
Emerging results from the mapping project undertaken by the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), confirm that the Trussell figures represent only a partial picture of the scale of organised food bank provision, and suggest that the level of food bank use is far greater than headline figures indicate.
Ifan’s findings, seen by the Guardian, suggest that 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.
Prof Jon May, of Queen Mary University of London and chair of Ifan, said the figures emphasised the rapid rise in the number of food banks over the past five years, and the changing geography of poverty. “There are now food banks in almost every community, from the East End of London to the Cotswolds. The spread of food banks maps growing problems of poverty across the UK, but also the growing drive among many thousands of people across the country to try and do something about those problems”.
Frank Field, the Labour MP, a veteran poverty campaigner and chair of the Feeding Britain charity, welcomed the figures, and called on the next government to do more to understand the scale of hunger and food insecurity. “These figures show the tide of hunger sweeping the UK. It’s another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of destitution in this country.”
The study counts the 1,373 distribution centres that operate out of Trussell trust’s 419 food banks in its figures alongside the 651 “independents” to make a total of 2,024 food banks. It defines a food bank as an organisation that gives out food parcels on a weekly basis. It does not include informal food parcel distribution by social welfare charities, children’s centres, churches, housing associations, hospitals and other groups.
Although the project maps the extent of food bank provision, it does not collect data on the volume of food aid provided by independent food banks, as unlike Trussell trust members, many do not record how much food they give out.
However, some independent food banks contacted by the Guardian in areas where Trussell trust has no or little presence reported that they gave out substantial amounts of food aid. In Aberdeen, for example, two of the biggest food banks in the city, Community Food Initiatives North East and Instant Neighbour, gave out 15,000 food parcels between them in 2016-17.
Sabine Goodwin, Ifan’s researcher, who spoke to more than 50 food bank workers during the project, said most had reported rising demand for food aid. “Many feel they are firefighting, finding a way to deal with the logistics of feeding more and more people, with no time to advocate for changes that would eradicate the need for food banks in the first place.”
Rachel Loopstra, lecturer in nutrition at King’s College London and an expert in food insecurity, said: “Recent national survey data suggests that 8% of adults experienced not having enough money for food over 2016 – this figure is likely to be many times more than the number helped by food banks. We need ongoing national survey monitoring to understand the scale of food insecurity, who is at risk, and the implications for child and adult health and wellbeing.”
The Ifan survey reveals a wide variety of food-bank operating models: some faith-based, others non-religious; some with strict rules on the amount of food given to individual clients, others with open-ended commitments to families in need; some requiring clients to have a voucher validated by outside agencies, others operating a self-referral system.
Successive governments have played down the rise of food banks, rejecting growing evidence that financial pressures on families caused by welfare cuts, benefit delays and low income helped drive increased demand for emergency food. Recently, the prime minister, Theresa May, attempted to brush off claims that nurses had been forced to use food banks by saying there were “many complex reasons” why people use them.
Ifan said the next stage of its research would be to map other forms of charity food aid in the UK such as school holiday hunger projects, drop-in meal centres, social supermarkets, food clubs, and soup kitchens.
• If you represent an independent food bank or food bank-style project that has not been included in the Ifan survey, contact Sabine Goodwin at [email protected]