Dr Filip Sosenko from Heriot-Watt University explains how the team conducted the landmark report, State of Hunger 2019.
Commissioned by the Trussell Trust and building on the earlier work of Dr Rachel Loopstra and colleagues, the State of Hunger research project delivered its first annual report today. Methodologically the most wide-ranging and robust inquiry into drivers of hunger in the country so far, this 3-year study is being carried out by a team from Heriot-Watt University who specialise in researching severe poverty.
From the start, the study has been designed to be about hunger rather than only about food bank use. We know that there are individuals and families who go hungry but who do not use food banks. Findings from year 1 of the project measured the size of the gap: between food insecurity and food bank use. Around 8-10% of households in the UK are estimated to have been as moderately or severely food insecure in recent years, while 1-2% used a food bank in 2018/19.
The study found that people at risk of being food insecure – people who are on a low income, unemployed, living alone or as lone parents, renting, and in poor health – are also over-represented among food bank users. Importantly, while we found that being younger is a risk factor for food insecurity, young people are not over-represented among food bank users, suggesting that many young people do not access help from food banks even when they are short of food. As for households with children, around 11% of children under 16 live in food insecure households (that’s 1.4 million children) and around 36% of food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks go to children.
The study has found that people at food banks have extremely low incomes, with average equivalised household income of just £7 per day after paying rent, and nearly all being destitute on a nationally recognised definition. This evidence counters claims by some public figures that people at food banks can manage perfectly well financially and choose to use food banks in order to take advantage of freely available food.
Crucially, the study has found evidence that food bank use is driven by the interaction of three factors: the structure of the benefit system, challenging life experiences (such as eviction or divorce) and lack of informal support. While the contribution of the benefit system in driving food bank use has already received much coverage, the study also provides more detail on the other two factors.
A comprehensive survey of over 1,100 people referred to Trussell Trust food banks revealed however that the vast majority of them experienced a challenging life event in the year prior to the survey, and/or lived in households affected by ill health. Both the statistical analysis of the survey results and qualitative interviews further showed that adverse life events and ill health have a potential to compromise one’s ability to do paid work, to claim benefits, or to increase living costs. The survey also found that the vast majority of people referred to food banks have either exhausted help from family or friends, had a resource-poor social network or were socially isolated.
The State of Hunger team’s statistical modelling indicated that the increased supply of food banks only partly explains the dramatic rise in the number of food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust in the past eight years. Five benefit-related factors in particular have also been driving this demand: PIP assessments, ‘bedroom tax’, benefit sanctions, the roll-out of Universal Credit and the benefit freeze. In subsequent years of the study further insights on the specific factors driving demand may be gained as another year of data become available.
The study will continue to investigate the scale and nature of hunger in the UK for two more years, with the next major report scheduled for Autumn 2020.
You can read more about the findings at https://www.stateofhunger.org/
 I.e. they reported not being able to afford a balanced diet, skipping meals, under-eating or going hungry in the 12 months before being asked. See Chapter 2 of the report.