The Trussell Trust  reported a 13% rise in instances of people receiving food parcels fin 2018… but how much bigger is the problem of household food insecurity in the UK?

Today, The Trussell Trust released their annual count of the number of times that people received food parcels distributed by their network of food banks in the past year. It is a substantial rise from last year’s figures, up by about 13% from 2016-17. In response, The Trussell Trust has raised concerns about the ongoing benefit freeze and the impact of transitions to full-service Universal Credit on food bank use.

The challenge with these data is that food insecurity encompasses more than just food bank usage. This was one of the key themes emerging from last week’s Multi-disciplinary Research Conference on Food and Poverty in the UK: the need to move research on food and poverty outside the food bank. These statistics raise – but do not answer – a critical question about whether and how food insecurity is changing in the population. Many argue that the numbers of people using Trussell Trust food banks are only the tip of the iceberg. The number of non-Trussell Trust food banks and other types of food programmes operating suggest that many more people could be receiving food assistance from other sources. But, again, food insecurity does not entail food bank usage. There are many food insecure people who never receive food assistance.

Beyond knowing the size of the problem, we also need to consider what rising food bank use tells us about the experience of food insecurity for low-income households. Our survey of households using food banks in The Trussell Trust Network highlighted how most respondents had experienced severe food insecurity in the past 12 months. Research in Canada has shown severe food insecurity is one of the strongest predictors for food bank use among low-income families and that food banks are a source of help that people seek as a last resort.  Similarly, in our survey of food bank users, we found that many respondents were using a food bank for the first time at the time of our survey, despite experiencing food insecurity for many months before. Thus, rising use of food banks may, in particular, reflect worsening circumstances and desperation among households struggling to meet their food needs in the wider population.

The rise in food bank usage may be attributable to the Benefit Freeze and roll-out of Universal Credit (UC), as suggested by The Trussell Trust, but, again, this will only underestimate the true impact of these policies on food insecurity more broadly. Food bank data only capture people who show up in food banks. They miss the many households who use other strategies to cope with a difficult transition to UC or being unable to afford food on current benefit levels before seeking help from a charity. Interviews with people experiencing food insecurity but who do not use food banks highlight a number of other ways households try to cope with their lack of money for food. These might include borrowing money from friends or family or payday loan companies, using credit cards to pay for food, delaying bill payments, and relying on cheap and monotonous food sources or going without food. This was another key theme from the research presented at the conference last week. 

Another explanation for the rising number of parcels distributed is that more people are going to food banks more often. At last week’s conference, Beth Garratt presented her analysis of West Cheshire food bank statistics, showing that over time, the proportion of households receiving help from the food bank four or more times increased from 38% in 2013 to 47% in 2015. As The Trussell Trust raises in their press release today, and also observed in our survey of households using their food banks, many households are chronically unable to afford basic essentials, which may mean that households are having to turn to food banks more often. Thus, it is important to highlight how increasing usage among Trussell Trust food banks may in part reflect people receiving help more frequently and not only more people using food banks.

The simple fact is we need regular annual monitoring of household food insecurity in a national survey in the UK. Otherwise, we will never know the true scale of food insecurity in the UK or how this problem is changing over time. It is only with regular monitoring that we can begin to explore the impact of policies on households’ experiences of being able to afford sufficient amounts and types of food. Data from Canada suggest only about 1 in 5 households experiencing food insecurity use food banks. Similarly, data from the Food and You survey suggest 21% of adults in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland experience food insecurity. Estimates of the proportion of people using food banks are in the range of 1-3%.

Thus, the new release of The Trussell Trust data reinforces the need for the UK Government to add a robust measure of household food insecurity to a recurring national household survey, as is done in the USA and Canada. As evidenced by Professor Valerie Tarasuk at our conference last week, food insecurity is a critical dimension of poverty that is incredibly sensitive to household financial resources. Professor Donald Hirsch, in his analysis of household expenditure data, highlighted the same thing – the biggest difference between households in the lowest income decline and households in the second lowest decile is their spending on food.

Professor Tarasuk also stressed how consistent the evidence is that food insecurity is harmful to health, with strong associations across a number of health outcomes and also government expenditure on healthcare. Thus, a measure of household food insecurity should be placed on the Family Resources Survey so that it can become a part of monitoring Households Below Average Income and on national health surveys (as has been done in Scotland), so that impacts on health can be quantified in the UK population.

We are delighted that measurement of household food insecurity is a key ask in the End Hunger UK campaign and that The Trussell Trust supports the call for this. While many focus efforts on frontline interventions to provide food to people, household food insecurity monitoring reveals how few people experiencing food insecurity use or are reached by these initiatives. To truly address this problem at the population level, population-level monitoring is needed, and, as highlighted in my recent review of interventions to address household food insecurity in high-income countries, so are policy-level interventions.