Food bank usage has continued to rise for another year, according to figures from the country’s biggest provider, as new data revealed that hunger is most common in areas with high levels of disability and long-term illness.
Overall 1,109,309 emergency food packages were distributed by the Trussell Trust in 2015-16 – up slightly from last year. The charity, Britain’s leading food bank provider, said the figure was “one million too many” and urged the Government and the public not to accept the levels of food poverty in the UK as “the new normal”.
The latest figures from the Trussell Trust show a 19% year-on-year increase in food bank use, demonstrating that hunger and poverty continue to affect large numbers of people, including rising numbers of low-paid workers.
The average number of visits per food bank user in the past year was two, meaning that the number of people who had to rely on the charity is likely to be around 554,000.
Most food bank users reported that they were unable to afford to buy sufficient food, as well as finding it difficult to pay the rent, heat their home or buy clothes and toiletries. This should be regarded as a “serious health concern”, the report says.
“These findings serve to reinforce what we already know: poverty and hunger are real in the UK today,” said David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust food bank network, which commissioned the research.
A separate report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger, published today, estimates that more than half of the emergency food aid supplied in the UK comes from independent food banks and other organisations not covered by the Trussell Trust’s figures – indicating that the true scale of hunger in the UK could be far greater.
The charity, which manages 424 food banks in the UK, gathers data from its outlets, which are manned by volunteers. Its audit shows that changes to and delays in accessing state benefit payments remain the most common reasons people turn to food banks.
New research carried out for the charity by the University of Hull has also mapped food bank demand, finding that areas with more people unable to work due to long-term sickness or disability have the highest usage.
Food banks also reported that insecure work arrangements and high living costs were key drivers of food poverty. The APPG on Hunger report found that, according to the latest figures, the poorest households require 41 per cent of their income to cover the costs of food, fuel and housing; an increase of ten percentage points since 2003, but a slight fall of one percentage point on 2013.
The group, led by Labour MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, also found worrying levels of hunger being reported at schools. A survey circulated to 19 schools in Birkenhead and 13 in South Shields uncovered two institutions where staff reported one in five children were arriving at school hungry.
Kerry McCarthy, Labour’s Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson, said that the of food banks was “a national scandal”.
“Food banks have become a truly shameful symbol of a Tory Government that is failing to stand up for ordinary people. While those at the top are given tax breaks others are struggling to get by,” she said.
A spokesman for the Conservative party said: “Increased use of food banks is partially because the last Labour government didn’t let jobcentres direct people to them when they were in need of food. But of course we acknowledge there is still more to do – one family failing to make ends meet each month is a family too many.”
The Trussell Trust figures show the biggest proportion, 44%, of food bank referrals last year – marginally lower than the previous year – were triggered by people pitched into crisis because their benefit payments had been delayed, or stopped altogether as a result of the strict jobcentre sanctions regime.
More than a fifth, 22%, of food bank users were referred because of low income – meaning they were unable to afford food due to a relatively small financial crisis such as a boiler breaking down or having to buy a school uniform.
This group includes people in low-paid, zero-hours or part-time work who were forced to turn to food banks.
Susan, a qualified teacher and mother of two, said: “I work part time as a teacher and my husband has an insecure agency contract. There are times when he doesn’t get enough hours of work, and we really struggle to afford food and pay the bills. The food bank meant we could put food on the table.”
Nearly 80% of food bank users suffered from severe and chronic food insecurity, with potentially serious consequences for their health and wellbeing, the report says. They were likely to be vulnerable to malnutrition and nutritional deficiency, and might struggle to manage conditions such as diabetes.
But a spokesperson for the Government said reasons for food bank use were “complex” and claimed it would be “misleading to link them to any one thing”.
“This Government is determined to move to a higher wage society, introducing the new National Living Wage that will benefit over 1 million workers directly this year, and we’re also spending £80bn on working age benefits to ensure a strong safety net for those who need it most. The vast majority of benefits are processed on time and the number of [benefit] sanctions have actually gone down.”
The Government intends to cut a further £3bn from the welfare bill by 2020.
David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust said: “Today’s figures on national food bank use prove that the numbers of people hitting a crisis where they cannot afford to buy food are still far too high. One million three day food supplies given out by our food banks every year is one million too many.
This must not become the new normal. Reducing UK hunger will require a collective effort from the voluntary sector, Government, DWP, businesses and the public, and the Trussell Trust is keen to work with all these groups to find solutions that stop so many people needing food banks in future.”
Labour MP for Birkenhead Frank Field said the rise in levels of hunger in the UK was “very troubling”.
“There are at least two forces operating,” he said. “One is the breakdown in parenting, and the second is an increase in the numbers on a low income. It’s a tragedy if one of these strikes a child, but it’s an unbounded horror if a child is hit by both. How can the world’s fifth richest nation not know the extent of physical damage caused to its own children by a lack of food?”