Published: 31 July, 2018
By: Robert Puddick MSc – Associate Registered Nutritionist from University of Westminster and Nutritionist in the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme in London.
Since the financial crisis struck in 2008, food banks have become an unfortunate necessity across the UK. The Trussell Trust provided over 1.3 million three-day emergency food parcels in the year up to March 2018, quite a stark increase from the 25,000 parcels provided between 2008-2009. The Trussell Trust is an independent charity that provides food parcels to people in crisis who have been referred by a social worker or healthcare professional.
Much of the conversation around food banks has been focused on the social aspects: why are people turning to them in such large numbers? What policy failures have led to the increase? Should the responsibility fall into the hands of a charity? These are all valid questions if the situation is to ever improve. Less focus however has been placed on the food bank user’s health and nutrition. Food insecurity and poverty are the primary drivers of food bank use and these factors can have a detrimental impact on an individuals health status. Essentially, the lower the income, the less expendable cash there is to spend on sufficient nutritious food, thus potentially leading to malnutrition and other health complications. Scientists from the University College London (UCL) conducted a nutritional analysis of the three-day emergency food parcels from five London food banks. The purpose of the study was to identify whether the parcels provided sufficient energy and nutrient requirements over the three days.
The full report can be found here:
So what did the report find?
Well, despite the fat, sugar and salt content being above recommendations, it effectively concluded that the food parcels actually exceeded nutrient requirements for calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. With the exception of vitamin D, and considering our primary source of vitamin D is sunlight, that is neither a surprise nor something of great concern.
Surprised? Well let’s break this down. The type of donations that the Trussel Trust relies upon to provide its service traditionally come in the form of processed, long-life, or what you might describe as ‘cupboard’ food. These foods are energy dense and are fortified with vitamins and minerals to make them more nutritionally sufficient. However, research has shown that a high intake of these ‘cupboard’ foods increases your risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes, as well as inducing weight gain. Why? The direct causation is not clear, but it is believed to be due to the pro-inflammatory effect of these foods as well as the high content of sugars, salt, refined carbohydrates and fat.
So is it good news or bad news?
The fact that food banks are required in the first place is always going to be bad news, but this is the reality we currently face, and if the Trussel Trust’s parcels are providing people in crisis with an opportunity to fill their stomach, support their family and pull them through difficult times, then it is good news.
So what can be done to improve the situation?
For the food parcels, the report provided practical and realistic solutions to reducing the amount of sugar, such as swapping fruit juices for low sugar options and not providing jams and conserves. It also encouraged further development of partnerships with local green grocers and community projects to increase the amount of fresh food in the parcels. How much more could the food banks be doing? There is a desire to provide forms of nutrition education, recipe booklets and cooking classes, but the Trussel Trust is already stretched as it is delivering the service in its current format. Can it, or should it really be expected to do more? There are innovative projects such as Bags of Taste and the Lambeth GP Food Co-op that could help fill the gap, increasing the coherence between existing community and charitable organisations has the potential to provide greater support to those in need. Something that Feeding Britain is working hard to achieve.
The Trussel Trust clearly provide an exemplary service by filling an urgent need and gap in the social safety net, so what is the real issue?
The real issue is that all of the work the Trussel Trust do is reactive—reactive to a system that relies on the innovation and goodwill of the public to support individuals who reach a state of crisis that should not exist in one of the richest and most advanced countries on the planet. The Trussel Trust, and other independent food aid projects across the UK, do what they can with the resources available to them and it is utterly commendable.
For all of their good work, it feels like we would be able to celebrate it more, but for the enduring feeling that they should not really exist at all.