Foodbanks in 2017: Change is Possible

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Read the new report Emergency Use Only II 

Three years ago, CPAG and the Trussell Trust were among the organisations who published Emergency Use Only, one of the first pieces of research to shed light on the drivers of the enormous increases in food bank use that we have seen this decade. We found that the immediate trigger for food bank use was all-too-often caused by the benefit system – through delays, errors, and sanctions – that prompted an acute income crisis, leaving households with little or no income. Turning to a food bank was often an action of last resort, once people’s other avenues of support had been exhausted.

Unfortunately, even though the report highlighted a number of relatively simple, practical steps that could be taken by Government to improve the situation, these problems mostly remain. As we approach Christmas, and with further roll-out of universal credit – with its in-built delay of over a month at the start of a claim – on the horizon, it is a sad reality that we can expect thousands of people up and down the country to be forced to rely on the kindness of strangers simply to eat. Our update to the original report, published today, is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be like this.

The good news stories presented in the report show just what can be achieved when food banks are able to connect people with advice which helps them access support they’re entitled to.  Kingston Foodbank, for example, has a constructive relationship with its local Jobcentre Plus, and is in ongoing conversations about why people are being referred and what support the jobcentre can provide. The food bank has also been involved in workshops with Jobcentre staff to look at case studies of situations people face when they come to the food bank, so the two can develop advice to prevent those reasons for food bank use.

There are also reminders that additional support at food banks cannot be taken for granted. The report highlights a striking scheme at Coventry Foodbank, when welfare advisors were able to sit in food bank sessions and link people up with appropriate welfare support. 79% of the people who received consequent assistance from the local Citizens Advice did not need to use a foodbank again, and the foodbank believed the success of the project was part of the reason for a significant drop in foodbank referrals.

Unfortunately, the funding for the project has since ended, and Coventry Foodbank is once again seeing rising numbers of referrals. Latest statistics show that, in this city, as across the UK, increasing numbers of people who would otherwise face hunger are being referred for emergency food. It is heart-breaking that people need the help of charities to feed themselves, but it is not inevitable. There are valuable lessons to be learnt from these examples of best practice: the income crises that drive people to food banks can be prevented. Change is possible.

Priorities for action:

The report identifies a number of urgent priorities for action. The government’s recent Improving lives strategy paper is a good step in the direction of addressing some of the issues raised in this report, but there is much more still to do if we are to end the food bank emergency in the UK today.

  1. Sustain and improve access to emergency support
  • Benefit advances: Include explicit mention of short-term benefit advances as part of the mandatory job centre scripts. Consider introducing automatic benefit advances if the benefit claim has not been settled after the target period. Permit welfare rights workers to submit short-term benefit advance claims on their clients’ behalf. Ensure that repayment plans are appropriate and affordable.
  • Local welfare assistance schemes and their devolved equivalents: (which succeeded the social fund and provide either emergency cash, for essentials like white goods, or often non-cash support). There is a need to guarantee the future of local welfare provision, while not undermining the benefits of localisation, through introducing a clearer framework for delivery, including guidelines and requirements, for monitoring and evaluation. It would be greatly beneficial if ring-fencing and reporting duties similar to those for discretionary housing payments were introduced for local welfare assistance schemes.


  1. Increased support for people with ill-health and disability
  • Employment and support allowance: Treat claimants awaiting a mandatory reconsideration (ie a DWP internal review of a benefit decision) in the same way as claimants appealing an employment and support allowance decision. Issue guidance to Jobcentres, advising them to scan and email medical certificates to the Department for Work and Pensions when a claimant’s existing certificate has expired or is about to expire. Mitigate the impact of missed appointments by avoiding the loss of all income, and allow those who have missed appointments to rearrange them and remain on employment and support allowance.
  • Mental health: increased support for providing high-quality mental health training for its Jobcentre Plus advisers, so that they are well placed to understand and support clients with mental health difficulties, as well as increased sensitivity in benefit policy to the additional needs of people with learning disabilities and/or mental health needs.


  1. Review sanctioning: We have particular concerns about the introduction of in-work conditionality under universal credit, especially for people who are transferring from ESA to UC. Sanctions should be used as a last resort, and, if imposed, claimants should be clearly notified, with clear reasons given. Claimants should have the opportunity to change their behaviour before financial sanctions are imposed: a genuine ‘yellow card’ system. Sanctions should not be of a fixed period, so that claimants have an opportunity to have their sanction lifted if it spurs them on to engage with employment support – the stated goal of the policy. If claimants do have a financial sanction, they should be automatically considered for a hardship payment at the same time, to reduce the need for sanctioned individuals and families having to rely on emergency food provision.


Garry Lemon, The Trussell Trust

Alison Garnham, Child Poverty Action Group 

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We welcomed changes in the Budget but now is not a time for celebration

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“I lost my job in October and have been relying on money from friends and family to survive, but that is no longer possible.  I haven’t eaten for five days and will not get Universal Credit for six weeks, so went to the council in desperation – they gave me a foodbank voucher.  Thank you to the foodbank.”

This is just one of the many stories gathered by Trussell Trust foodbank volunteers and staff that we passed on to the Work & Pensions Select Committee inquiry into Universal Credit, publicised through press and social media, and I’ve had the opportunity to share directly with people at all levels of DWP ahead of the 2017 Budget.

It’s a credit to the people that run foodbanks in our network that alongside distributing a record 584,000 food parcels in the six months since April this year, they have also been able to gather and share such powerful evidence. Their careful counting and filing of foodbank referral vouchers also revealed how much more quickly foodbank demand is rising in areas where Universal Credit has seen full roll-out.

We were just one organisation amongst many calling for urgent reform and investment into Universal Credit, the most radical change to our welfare system for at least a generation. But I’m convinced that the evidence from foodbanks, including those not in The Trussell Trust network, was important in helping to secure £1.5bn to ‘ease the roll-out’ of Universal Credit in the Budget. Indeed, in the first of a recent series of Commons debates on Universal Credit, foodbanks were mentioned by dozens of MPs.

For a long time, many foodbanks have been doing a lot more than just the crucial work of distributing emergency food to people in crisis. Wednesday’s concessions by the Chancellor are, at least in small part, testament to that desire to campaign against the structural issues that drive people into poverty, hunger and through the doors of their local foodbank.

We of course welcomed the reforms to Universal Credit announced in the Budget. Shortening the six-week wait, allowing Housing Benefit to run on and easing repayment of benefit advances make the system better and, when implemented, will likely save thousands of people from misery and destitution as they transition onto the new benefit. Slowing its roll-out will also help.

But this is not a time for celebration.

Despite this investment, Universal Credit is not fixed. Five weeks is better than six, but that’s still going to be too long for many people without savings or other support to endure before they receive the money to which they are entitled. Benefit advances are still loans that must be repaid. Amongst a host of other recommended reforms the Resolution Foundation call for a more generous work allowance, and the JRF point out that the ongoing four-year benefit freeze will leave vulnerable groups, including single parents with children, worse off than before.

And though £1.5bn is an enormous sum, it is dwarfed by the scale of cuts to the welfare safety net in recent years. Alongside the benefit freeze mentioned above, tens of billions of pounds have been taken out of the welfare safety net in recent years. Little wonder, then, that Trussell Trust foodbanks are seeing increasing demand. In recent years issues with benefits have always been the main reason referrers send people to foodbanks.

And recent independent research by the University of Oxford into households referred to foodbanks (with data taken before Universal Credit had rolled out very far) painted a picture of a population already struggling financially to get by, vulnerable to the slightest income shock or unexpected expense. It found the majority of people coming to foodbanks were at the time supported by working-age benefits, and that groups that have been hardest hit by cuts were overrepresented in our foodbanks – including disabled people, single parents, single people and families with more than two children.

And worse, inflation – particularly food price inflation – is beginning to rise. How are families and individuals going to cope if we know so many are already vulnerable to unexpected expenses? Employment rates are currently at a record high – what would happen if an economic shock put that welcome trend into reverse? And looming over everything, what effect will Brexit have on the UK’s economy?

We at The Trussell Trust, people in the wider foodbank movement, and those who we proudly stand beside in the End Hunger UK campaign group, other organisations in the charity sector and beyond will keep on campaigning to tackle the issues that lead to poverty and hunger. But I fear that this winter will be a very difficult one for thousands of people across the UK. I have no doubt that come April next year The Trussell Trust will yet again announce record numbers have been referred to us for emergency food in 2017-18.

But to not end on too gloomy a note, this Budget and its significant concessions on welfare are something new. Government has listened to the many voices calling for a reverse to cuts and it has put its money where its mouth is. After many years and subsequent administrations have weakened the safety net that is meant to protect us from destitution and hunger, this is a substantial step in the right direction.

So let’s keep gathering evidence. Let’s keep sharing it with Government. Let’s keep campaigning. This Budget is proof that it can and does work.

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Guest blog: We should stop debating and start solving increasing foodbank use

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UCL has always led on issues of significance to the nutritional health of the nation. Dr Jack Drummond, the first Professor of Biochemistry at UCL and former Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, was the wartime Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Food, which introduced food-rationing on the basis of his “sound nutritional principles”. It was essential work because a 1936 survey had suggested that half of the British population could not afford an adequate diet. Food poverty is a major public health concern again. One of its most visible symptoms is the number of people attending Foodbanks to receive emergency food aid. The Trussell Trust has reported that in the first 6 months of this year, referrals were up by 13% to 587,000 people, including 209,000 children.

At UCL, we did not know if these numbers told the whole story or were merely the tip of an unpleasant iceberg. One telephone survey had already suggested that the latter was the case.

We therefore used an experimental design to answer the question by including a control group of people who were on low incomes but were not destitute. The comparison between foodbank users and this control group could then be linked to the findings of the large National Diet and Nutrition Surveys which have reported on the nutritional health of the general population and of those on low incomes. This hierarchical approach was designed to put the scale of food poverty into a national context. For example, problems arising from a poor diet during early childhood are legion and lifelong and should be a matter of national public health concern.

We recently released the findings of our study comparing the demographics and circumstances of 270 people seeking help from foodbanks, against 245 attending Advice Centres (AC) and Law Centres (LC) across three London boroughs (Islington, Wandsworth and Lambeth). The majority of foodbank, AC and LC clients report having low income and therefore often seek help from frontline crisis providers. ACs and LCs provide free advice and legal representation to their clients on a host of different issues including housing, immigration, money, and welfare support.

Our findings confirm a report released earlier this year from Kings College London and the University of Oxford, which found that foodbank users living in extreme poverty were vulnerable to income shocks, if there were unexpected events or expenses associated with them. We have also added ‘cold, hard facts’ to support the early report on “Emergency Use Only” which identified that ‘income crisis’ was the main driver of foodbank use. The authors identified the combination of ongoing financial strains and adverse life events as a cause of significant or total loss of income which led to destitution.

Today, we extend these ‘landmark’ studies and demonstrate that even those attending ACs and LCs are also at risk of being more food insecure if they are not receiving their benefits due to sanctions or delays, or have experienced serious life events in the past 6 mvonths.

What did we find?

We found that welfare-related issues were the most common reason to seek help from these front-line emergency services. This highlights that these charities have been a lifeline for those allowed to fall through the welfare ‘safety-net’, which is created as a last line of defence against destitution in the UK.

Our data showed that there was no such thing as a ‘typical foodbank user’ which distinguishes him or her them from the rest of the community, though a higher proportion of foodbank users taking part in this research were single adults, single parents or were homeless (including those living in temporary accommodation). One in three also had children living with them at home. Thus, it is likely that these children were not getting sufficient nutrients required for growth during crucial developmental stages.

We also found that living on a very low income, coupled with a sudden life event (e.g. relationship breakdown, illness, loss of benefits due to delays or sanctions) can throw someone into destitution. This also applies to those attending ACs and LCs when we pooled the analysis across the sample. Interestingly, food insecurity is common outside of the foodbank setting. We found that three out of four individuals attending ACs and LCs were food insecure, but less than 10% had been to a foodbank.

The three of us (myself and two MSc students who helped with data collection) met many participants who broke down in tears when completing our questionnaire. This required people to reflect on adverse events in their lives, on disrupted eating patterns and on their mental health. Some just could not believe that they now found themselves in a foodbank, as they had always worked hard for most of their lives. However, all of these cases just conveyed the sense of normality that nobody is immune to hard times, and anyone could find themselves in need of a foodbank.



One person we spoke to, James (not his real name), commented on how the questionnaire made him reflect on the difficult period endured before his referral to a foodbank. This included relationship breakdown, struggling with mental health issues and food insecurity. Nevertheless, like many of our participants, they hoped that through their participation they would be able to raise awareness of what they had faced before they were referred to the foodbank.

So, what can be done?

From our data, the cause of food insecurity, and thus foodbank use, is ‘complex’. However, it does not mean it is too complex to be fixed, but it does require less debate and more concrete action to solve. As we found out, time and time again, behind these numbers there are people going through extremely hard times and experiencing hunger on a daily basis here in the UK.

Our data suggests that in the immediate term, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should ‘pause and fix’ the problem with Universal Credit before it is rolled out. The specific problem is that there is a minimum waiting time of six weeks before the first monthly Universal Credit payment will be made. This waiting time is too long. Those coming to the foodbank have little to no financial resilience against the sudden loss of income caused by this waiting time.

We support the recent call for a national survey of food insecurity to understand the true scale of the problem. It is clear that foodbank use is a poor proxy for food insecurity, because fewer than 10% who were food insecure in ACs and LCs had been to the foodbank. Unless we know the scale of the problem, we will not know how to fix it.

Lastly, we welcome the effort to strengthen the relationship between foodbanks and advice and law centres. It can be seen that welfare and food insecurity were common issues across both populations. These charities have been a lifeline for those falling through the welfare ‘safety-net’. Yet, an increasing demand for their services means they may not be able to catch everyone who falls through to get the advice and legal representation they need. One of the ways to foster such collaboration is to extend the funding given to enable this cross-service collaboration.

About the project

  • A copy of the paper is available upon request from the lead author: Edwina Prayogo
  • This research was a collaborative work between researchers at University College London (UCL) (Edwina, Prayogo, Dr George Grimble, Nurul Dina Rahmawati, and Thomas Waterfall), University of Southampton (Dr Mary Barker), University of Bath (Dr Sarah Chapman) and University of Bedfordshire (Dr Angel Chater). It was jointly funded by UCL Division of Medicine, Dr John Avanzini Ministries, and conceptualised through the initial grant from UCL Grand Challenges.
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If Universal Credit rollout continues like this, foodbanks won’t be able to catch everyone who falls

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Last year The Trussell Trust provided 1.2 million emergency three day emergency food supplies. We recently released the biggest study into foodbank use in Britain to date. We found that the majority of people referred to our foodbanks were at the time supported by working age benefits. Yet the average income for households was just £319 in the month before they were referred to us.

It’s no surprise that trying to live off so little for an entire month can lead to destitution and hunger. Most households had been unable to afford heating, toiletries or suitable shoes or clothes for the weather. 78% had skipped meals and gone without eating – sometimes for days at a time, often multiple times a year.

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My experience of a university placement at Bournemouth Foodbank

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Initially, I was apprehensive; this was the first time I could put into practice what I have been taught during the last 2 years at university. However, there was no need to be nervous as the food bank team at Bournemouth were incredibly welcoming and made me feel at home.

Bournemouth Foodbank and The Trussell Trust are carrying out fantastic work in providing nutrition to those in crisis. I have been amazed at how generous the public are in donating their time to volunteer at the foodbank, but also the volume of those donating food.

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Why is there a food collection outside parliament today?

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“If it wasn’t for the foodbank, I don’t know what I’d do. I had to choose between feeding my children and starving myself, or eating.”

That’s what one mum in Bradford said to a volunteer at one of the 420 foodbanks that make up The Trussell Trust’s network. Multiply that by many thousands and you have a picture of the incredibly difficult decisions families across the UK face as Christmas approaches. Last December we gave out 60,000 three-day emergency food parcels to children alone, and foodbanks are poised to help even more people this year.

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Neighbourhood Food Collection Christmas 2016

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Running a food bank has opened my eyes to why people are without food.

Our focus has been on providing three days emergency food for people in a crisis. After a couple of years, I thought I knew about every scenario. But I often talk to people who are in a situation we’ve never come across before.

Week in, week out there are different people in Watford who do not have enough money for food. Some are affected by illness, by job losses or by homelessness. Others by simply not having any money because an emergency has left them short.

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Giving thanks this Giving Tuesday

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We think you, our supporters are incredible! The compassion, kindness and generosity you show is truly humbling. Every day, there are more people like you joining the fight against UK hunger; an ever growing community working to transform lives all over the UK.

Every donation you give, no matter the size, is gratefully received. We know that you understand the pain of people whose cupboards are bare and have no means of buying more food. Your compassion is heart-warming and hugely appreciated.

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How the compassion of strangers shaped my life

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I know it’s hard to get through life with dignity, courage and strength when your basic needs aren’t met.

My support for The Trussell Trust comes from a place of compassion – I hate the thought of people struggling to meet their basic needs in a country like Britain. It also comes from a place of understanding, just a tiny bit, what people who turn to foodbanks might be going through.

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We’ve joined the End Hunger UK big conversation – will you?

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As we approach the cold winter months and Christmas, it is time more than ever to remember the people who are going hungry on our doorstep. Trussell Trust foodbanks gave out 1.1 million emergency food supplies last year, and each of those foodbank visits tells a story of a person or family in crisis.

This is why we’re joining forces with 12 of the UK’s leading charities working with people affected by hunger to launch the End Hunger UK campaign. It starts with a Big Conversation, going on across the UK until March 2017. Individuals, foodbanks, food projects, local food networks and others are all invited to join in the Conversation and ask the question: What does our government need to do to End Hunger in the UK?

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