Beyond beans: food banks in the UK

Food banks are a divisive issue. For some, they offer a pragmatic response to local crisis situations. To others, they only exacerbate underlying problems. NPC’s briefing offers a neutral and informative overview of the food bank landscape, outlining the debate and providing options for people who are interested in supporting them.

Food banks centre on the donation of food by individuals (and community groups such as schools and churches), which is stored and distributed directly to people in need. They are intended as an emergency service, provided to those in need to tide them over in times of crisis—signposting users to other specialist bodies, particularly if the problems persist in the longer term.

The number of food banks in the UK has risen dramatically in recent years. The Trussell Trust saw a 170% rise in food bank users between 2011/12 and 2012/13—an increase of 218,295 people. These figures highlight the extent of food poverty in the UK, which hits the poorest households hardest. Whilst the richest 10% of households spent 8% of their income on food in 2011, the proportion of income spent by the poorest 10% was twice as large, at 16%. As well as the great human cost, the impact this will have on healthcare poses a wider economic cost to society.

The root causes of food poverty are complex, and one common criticism of food banks is that they address the symptom, rather than the underlying problems. Some fear that food banks may become an entrenched mechanism to deal with society’s most vulnerable, rather than short-term providers for those in crisis. However, whilst it is important to think about tackling the underlying drivers of growing food poverty in the UK, there is still a crucial place in the system for frontline providers such as food banks.

Currently, central government does not take an active role in supporting the work of food banks. With the abolition of parts of the Social Fund in April 2013, it falls to local authorities to make this decision—though no ring-fenced funding is provided. Some have noted the change in food bank clientele from traditional groups such as the homeless (now standing at only 4.2%) to problems relating to welfare.

Food banks increasingly aim to expand their scope beyond the provision of food—through necessity, and a desire to help individuals get back on their feet. As well as discussing the debate surrounding the model, we look at specific examples that show how food banks could be uniquely placed to assess and address, at least in the first instance, some of the underlying problems that bring people through their doors.