Credit: Volunteers Collecting Food Donations in Warehouse courtesy of Shutterstock.
The mass expansion of food banks across the United Kingdom is associated with cuts in spending on local services, welfare benefits and higher unemployment rates, a study has found.
The findings by researchers from Oxford University, Liverpool University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The researchers linked data covering 375 local authorities of official government data on welfare changes, sanction rates, and economic changes to food bank statistics from the Trussell Trust, the only source of routinely collected surveillance for the past decade. They found that food banks were more likely to open in local authorities with higher unemployment rates - and that greater welfare cuts increased the likelihood of a food bank opening.
Professor David Stuckler of Oxford University's Department of Sociology, senior author of the paper, said: 'We found clear evidence that areas of the UK facing greater unemployment, sanctions and budget cuts have significantly greater rates of people seeking emergency food aid. This pattern is consistent even after adjusting for the possibility that some areas have greater capacity to give support than others.'
Starting in 2009, the UK witnessed a rapid spread of food banks. The number of local authorities with food banks operated by the Trussell Trust, a non-governmental organisation that coordinates food banks across the UK, jumped from 29 in 2009-10 to 251 in 2013-14. What is causing the rise is a topic of ongoing debate: some commentators argue that people are taking advantage of food made freely available, while UK food charities claim that they provide emergency food aid in response to economic hardship and food insecurity.
In the first part of their study, the researchers investigated where food banks were opening in such greater numbers than previously. For the first time they were able to link information on the Trussell Trust's food bank operations to budgetary and socioeconomic data from 375 UK local authorities from 2006-07 to 2013-14. They adjusted for the proportion of people identifying as Christian, as Trussell Trust food banks are only initiated by Christian churches (though the service is open to anyone who is referred).
The researchers found that food banks were more likely to open in local authorities after they had experienced higher unemployment rates and greater welfare cuts in years prior. They estimate that, in a local authority facing budget cuts in the two years prior, there was about 1 in 8 (14.5%) chance of a food bank opening but where there had been spending cuts of 3%, that chance increased to more than 1 in 2 (52%).
Next the researchers studied why some food banks were giving out more parcels of emergency food aid, focusing on those regions where food banks already operated. The researchers tested the claim by some politicians that there were more demands for emergency food aid simply because there were more food banks, rather than a true increase in need for food. They did find that food parcel distribution is higher in areas with greater densities of food banks but, crucially, that supply of food banks was not driving their use. Instead, after adjusting for the capacity of these areas to provide free food, the authors found an independent link between sanctions or austerity and the number of emergency food assistance seekers.
Each 1% cut in spending on central welfare benefits was linked to a 0.16 percentage point rise in food parcel distribution, and each 1% rise in the percentage of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants sanctioned was linked to a 0.09 percentage point rise in food parcel distribution. In deprived areas of England, such as Derby, where sanction rates rose to 13% of benefit claimants in 2013, this equates to a substantial rise in food parcel distribution, to an additional one parcel for every 100 persons living in the area.
Dr Rachel Loopstra of Oxford University's Sociology department, the paper's lead author, said: 'These data reveal a picture of the UK where religious charities are trying to plug the gaps left from cuts in government support. Yet evidence from North America shows that charities, despite their best efforts, cannot address a systemic problem of insecure access to food.'
The researchers note that their data are likely to understate the full burden of food insecurity. The UK does not currently have a national surveillance system for food insecurity, and the paper calls for further research into other factors that may influence appeals for emergency food aid.