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Britain’s Hidden Food Banks

Britain’s Hidden Food Banks

New figures reveal the true extent of the UK's food poverty crisis, writes Sabine Goodwin.

We have been able to keep track of a growing number of people going hungry in the UK because of the invaluable data collated by the Trussell Trust network of over 1,200 food banks. However, there are also many hundreds more emergency food aid providers supporting adults and children across the country.

Back in the Autumn of 2016, I volunteered with a London food bank that wasn’t affiliated with the Trussell Trust. Open every week, this independent organisation gave out emergency food parcels to people without the means to buy food for themselves or their families. I realised that the enormous contribution that this community-led project was making was going unnoticed. By then the UK-wide figure of over a million emergency food parcels given out annually by the Trussell Trust was well-known. But what about the support provided by independent food banks? It turned out no one even knew how many there were in the UK.

I set about identifying and mapping independent food parcel distributors working across the country on behalf of the Independent Food Aid Network in early 2017. The number of hidden food banks I discovered was shocking. In May 2017 we knew that 651 independent food banks were operating in the UK. By now, that figure has risen to at least 803. Combined with the Trussell Trust’s 1,200 plus food banks this means a total of over 2,000 food banks operating across the UK.

But what was the scale of independent emergency food parcel provision? We needed to know more and, thanks to A Menu for Change, I’ve been able to do just that, at least in Scotland.

From April 2017 to September 2018 the Trussell Trust gave out 258,606 emergency food parcels across Scotland, but what of the emergency support given out by 94 independent food banks? How many food packages had these organisations supplied under the radar?

We’ve been able to establish the number of food parcels that 84 independent food banks gave out during April 2017 to September 2018. These organisations distributed 221,977 emergency food parcels in 18 local authorities. Added to the Trussell Trust’s distribution of 258,606 parcels, that makes a total of nearly half a million, 480,583, and almost twice the number previously reported.

And this disaster on our doorstep is far greater than our figures can reveal. We know our statistics don’t include the emergency meals and other forms of food aid provided by countless independent organisations across Scotland, nor the people who don’t access food aid at all but would rather suffer in silence, or find other ways to cope than ask for food charity.

How is it that in the 5th richest economy in the world adults and children across the UK are living in households with no food in the cupboard? It doesn’t take much analysis to understand that with at least 709 more independent food banks operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the contribution of independent food banks represents a large missing piece of the UK charitable food aid picture.

A Menu for Change is working across Scotland to improve responses to food insecurity and reduce the need for food banks. The project is using these shocking new figures to urge the Scottish Government to bring in a promised income supplement for Scotland’s poorest families as soon as possible.

We hope that both the Scottish and UK Governments will take notice of this data and act urgently to address the root causes of the poverty that drive food insecurity. If we want to address this shocking rise in hunger, we need a welfare state that is fit for purpose and wages and job security to match the cost of living.

  • You can find further details of our research in Scotland here, and the original project to map independent food banks across the UK here.

Sabine Goodwin is the Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network and led the research in Scotland with A Menu for Change.

Work areas: Inequality. Tags: food banks.