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‘In the Sixth-Richest Country in the World, How Can You Build a Welfare State on Food Banks?’ The Stats that Reveal Just how Widespread Food Poverty Is In the UK

Combined Trussell Trust and Independent Food Aid Network data lays bare the breadth of food banks in the UK – themselves symptoms of a far deeper food poverty crisis

Mother with her son at a food bank at a community centre in England. Photo: horst friedrichs / Alamy
A mother with her son at a food bank at a community centre in the UK. Photo: Horst Friedrichs / Alamy

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There is a minimum of 3,000 food banks operating across Britain and Northern Ireland, a patchwork comprising tens of thousands of volunteers and millions of users – and it only represents a fraction of the food insecurity it seeks to ease.

The Trussell Trust’s end of year statistics, combined with the latest data from the Independent Food Aid Network, go some way to show the scale of food bank usage. Between them, the two networks account for a large part of the food bank landscape, though by no means all of it.

The decentralised, often volunteer-led, nature of food banks, soup kitchens, and other food aid supports means that demonstrating the extent of dependence is near impossible, but the collated data available still paints a damning picture of our welfare state.

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There are more Trussell Trust and IFAN food banks in the UK than hospitals, 1,200, and Jobcentre Plus locations, 630, combined.

The Trussell Trust alone distributed 3.1 million food parcels between April 2023 and March 2024 – a 94% increase during the past five years.

Demand has increased from 1,354,682 food parcels between 2017-2018 to 2,578,010 in 2020-2021, and 2,997,589 in 2022-2023.

It should be noted that IFAN represents hundreds of independent food banks but there are hundreds more which operate alone or within local networks. Some of IFAN’s members are social supermarkets, food pantries, or community kitchens.

The situation is not sustainable at all and has been proving itself to be unsustainable for a good couple of years now

IFAN director Sabine Goodwin

Sabine Goodwin, IFAN director, told Byline Times that it is “so important for the incoming government to take on the enormity of the crisis”.

She said that the Trussell Trust and IFAN statistics, taken at face value, are likely to under-sell the true scale of the situation.

“It’s vital to get a bird’s eye view and see that food bank numbers represent a wider problem of food insecurity, because that’s what people are struggling with,” she said. “Trussell Trust food parcel data represents the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”

Although there are local authorities with particularly high rates, the breadth of demand is perhaps best captured by the fact that the highest 10 are spread across seven regions.

Given that most insecure people don’t use food banks – only 14% of very low food security households report using a food bank in the last 30 days – this vast system reflects just a fraction of the hardship it is trying to alleviate.

There are now 7.2 million people living in food insecure households. A record 2.1 million state school students are eligible for free school meals, while another 800,000 are living in poverty but don’t qualify.

Food inflation in Britain is at its highest level in 45 years, while the number of single-parent households in severe food insecurity has doubled since the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of the support provided by Trussell Trust food banks in the previous year was for families with children.

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Tens of thousands of volunteers continue to make this work possible, with the Trussell Trust alone recording 36,000 in its latest annual report. However, the strains of the work have led to increasing reports of exhaustion and flagging mental health.

“Volunteer burnout has become more and more prevalent,” Goodwin told Byline Times. “The relentlessness of trying to support people who are more often than not facing extreme hardship, that takes its own toll.”

Groups such as the Trussell Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have responded with calls for an Essentials Guarantee, a legal minimum on Universal Credit that covers essential living costs. The Scottish Government last year published its own nine action ‘cash-first’ plan for eradicating the need for food banks.

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Helen Barnard, director of policy at the Trussell Trust, said: “The next government needs to prioritise urgently reforming the social security system so it provides better protection from having to go without the essentials. We need to be working towards an Essentials Guarantee in Universal Credit to ensure that it at least covers the costs of essentials and provides people with the dignity of being able to purchase their own food.”

Councillors across several boroughs – including Hackney, Brent, and Lewisham – have declared their support for a Right to Food since former Liverpool West Derby Labour MP Ian Byrne launched a campaign in 2019 for it to be enshrined in UK law.

It’s been tsunami of misery after tsunami of misery to people who can least afford it

Ian Byrne, former Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby

“We’ve come to a tipping point on so many different issues – hunger, poverty, housing, all completely interlinked in the economic system we’ve been living under,” Byrne said. “Since 2019, we’ve had COVID, which obviously has been a game-changer for so many people struggling. We had to adapt ourselves to that. Then we have the cost of living crisis. It’s been tsunami of misery after tsunami of misery to people who can least afford it.”

Echoing Goodwin, two measures suggested by Byrne for immediate easing of the situation are universal free school meals and lifting the two-child benefits cap.

The End Child Poverty Coalition estimates that the latter initiative would cost £1.8 billion and lift 300,000 children out of poverty, while alleviating the depth of poverty for 800,000 more.

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“Obviously you’ve got the far-right in the wings who also sense this hopelessness, an air of desolation,” Byrne told Byline Times. “It’s imperative that, if we do get a Labour government, initiatives are taken to tackle this issue. Hunger is a political choice. Poverty is a political choice. We’ve got to look at the whole economic system and how it works for ordinary people. Because, at the moment, it just does not.”

“In the sixth-richest country in the world, how can you build a welfare state on volunteers?”



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