The biggest study yet undertaken into food bank use in the UK has been published, painting a bleak picture of modern life for those who need the service. The research, carried out at Oxford University, found many food bank users experiencing profound poverty and destitution, and struggling to buy food and pay bills.
The study warns that benefit freezes and the continued rollout of welfare changes such as universal credit and cuts to disability payments are likely to drive up food bank use in future years. It calls for a review of the current freeze, pointing out that as the cost of living rises, welfare payments are likely to provide inadequate protection from severe food insecurity and destitution for many households.
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.
It found that people with a disability or chronic illness who were in receipt of benefits were disproportionately likely to be referred to food banks, as were lone parents and poorer families with three or more children.
“These are the same groups that have been – and continue to be – hit hardest by welfare reform, such as loss of disability entitlements, increased conditionality and sanctions, the benefit cap, and reductions in tax credits. Our observation that these groups are disproportionately needing help from food banks is unlikely to be coincidence,” the report’s lead author, Rachel Loopstra, told the Guardian.
The Trussell Trust operates 1,390 food banks out of its 420 food bank centres across the UK. In 2016-17 it provided 1.2m food parcels to clients, 440,000 of which went to households with children. There are at least 1,000 more non-Trussell food banks operating in the UK.
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.
It says disabled and ill claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been found unfit to work but are expected to prepare for work in the future were over-represented in food banks compared with other benefit users. This is worrying, it notes, because new claimants of the benefit are subject to a £30-a-week cut in payments from April. “This may result in even more ESA claimants having to use food banks,” it says.
Two in five food bank users were waiting for benefit payments, with the biggest single proportion of these waiting for seven weeks or more. The study notes that the rollout of universal credit, under which all claimants must wait six weeks for a first payment, could exacerbate food bank referrals.
A government spokesperson said it was helping millions of households meet the everyday cost of living while also spending over £90bn a year on extra support for those who needed it. “Employment is the best route out of poverty, and with record numbers of people – including disabled people – now in work, we’ve made great progress,” they said.
The study found that one in six households using food banks had someone in work – although in almost all cases this was part-time or insecure employment that left them unable to plan for living expenses or cope with a financial shock such as an unexpected bill.
“The absence [from the data] of people in full-time work suggests that full-time employment is protective against the need to use food banks, while underemployment or insecure employment may put households at risk of needing to use food banks,” the study says.
Overall, household incomes were desperately low, with most reporting monthly incomes over the past month of between £100 and £500. About 16% of those surveyed reported no income at all in the month before coming to the food bank.
The persistent financial poverty experienced by most food bank users in the survey challenges the depiction of them in some quarters as victims of their own inability to manage money. During the general election, the Tory MP Dominic Raab notoriously described their predicament as “a cashflow problem”.
Two-thirds of those who used food banks were aged 24-39, with only a tiny proportion of users classified as pensioners, suggesting that pensioners – whose incomes have been protected in recent years – are at lower risk of food insecurity.
The research, which was commissioned by the Trussell Trust, conducted in-depth interviews with members of over 400 households referred to food banks. The charity gave out 1.2m emergency food parcels in 2016-17, up 6.4% year on year.
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