This blog is written by Andrew Forsey, National Director of Feeding Britain
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published new survey data which enable us to identify trends in the use of food banks, against a backdrop of rising food insecurity, across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The data were gathered in Spring 2022, shortly before rapid increases in the costs of food and energy disproportionately affected poorer households.
The percentage of adults with full food security dropped from 72% in Spring 2021, to 70% in Autumn 2021, and then again to 67% in Spring 2022. This latest drop, between Autumn 2021 and Spring 2022, equates to approximately 1.5 million adults.
Moreover, between Spring 2021 and Spring 2022, the prevalence of low or very low food security increased by five percentage points, from 15% of survey respondents to 20%. Yet there was a simultaneous reduction in the proportion of people reporting that they or someone else in their household had used a food bank in the previous 12 months, from 4% to 3%. Among those who had used a food bank, a higher proportion did so only once (34% in 2022, as against 30% in 2021) and a lower proportion did so on more than one occasion but less often than every month (40% in 2022, as against 46% in 2021), or every month or more often (5% in 2022, as against 10% in 2021).
If people had become more likely to struggle to afford food, but less likely to use food banks, what other support were they accessing throughout that period?
Among those with school-aged children, the proportion of respondents reporting that their children were in receipt of free school meals increased significantly, from 16% to 24%. Separately from the FSA survey, data from the NHS show that the number of people in receipt of Healthy Start paper vouchers or cards increased by 50,911 (from 341,783 to 392,694) between August 2021 and March 2022. The increased usage of taxpayer funded nutritional safety nets, at least in respect of children and infants, appears to have been meeting some of the additional need for support among families with children.
This period also saw the continued growth in the number of food banks incorporating additional support to maximise people’s incomes and resolve outstanding financial problems. Under our ‘Pathways From Poverty’ programme, Feeding Britain has been working with food banks to co-locate specialist advice workers alongside emergency food provision, so as to resolve more quickly those issues around debt, benefits, housing, and so on, which have necessitated a household’s first visit to the food bank. There are early reports indicating that this approach can, by contributing to a ‘Cash First’ strategy, reduce the longer-term need for food banks.
Furthermore, during this period there was a major expansion of alternative forms of community food provision – namely, affordable food clubs like pantries, co-operatives, and social supermarkets – which aim to improve households’ access to affordable food, thereby preventing at least some of the need for food banks in the first place and reducing the number of repeat visits.
Feeding Britain was supporting a network of 150 affordable food clubs in Spring 2022, as against 62 in Spring 2021, with growing numbers of people paying approximately £5 per week to access fresh, chilled, frozen, long life, and household goods worth £10-£15, thereby stretching their budgets further without having to seek emergency help from food banks. While some early reports suggest that the growth in the coverage and take-up of this provision may have eased at least some of the burden on food banks, the national survey data have yet fully to measure the use or impact of such services.
Finally, this period included several developments in government policy which may potentially have affected the use of food banks. In England, for example, there was a nationwide rollout of the Holiday Activities and Food programme to support children during school holidays – further underpinning the taxpayer funded nutritional safety net – alongside the introduction of the Household Support Fund administered by local authorities. Moreover, for half this period, the vital £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit payments remained in place (before its withdrawal in Autumn 2021) and the rate of deductions from those payments came down substantially.
What lessons, if any, can be drawn from this period? Above all else, with the right combination of policies and community provision, the Prime Minister’s stated wish to reduce and then eliminate food bank usage is realisable. That said, much additional work is required to identify which elements of policy and provision are particularly effective in driving that reduction, and which additional elements are required if we are successfully to mount an assault upon the broader injustice of food insecurity.
Looking ahead, it is worth emphasising the significance of the events which followed this period and their impact on the scale of the challenge our country now faces in seeking to achieve those twin objectives, of eliminating food bank usage and reducing food insecurity. Indeed, the data for Spring 2022 to Spring 2023 will be influenced by sky-high inflation (with grocery price inflation hitting 17%, for example) and social security payments which failed to match that inflation.
But it will be important to remember, once those data are published, that the ever-increasing usage of food banks is not inevitable. It can and must be countered.