More people than ever before are turning to food banks because they cannot afford to eat. Food banks face a “pressure cooker” situation as they battle to cope with this demand in the cost of living crisis.
Over 760,000 people were forced to use Trussell Trust food banks for the first time between April 2022 and March 2023, according to the charity’s new figures. To put that into perspective, that is more than the population of Sheffield.
Helen Barnard, the director of policy at the Trussell Trust, said: “It makes me very sad. It also makes me angry that as a society we’re allowing more and more people to be put in a position where they’ve got no option but to turn to charities for the real basics of life.”
Almost three million emergency food parcels were given out between April 2022 and March 2023. That is more than food banks have ever distributed in a single year, and it is a 37 per cent increase on last year. More than one million of these parcels went to children.
Demand has more than doubled over the last five years. Between 2017 and 2018, the Trussell Trust gave out just over 1.3 million parcels in total.
Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, said: “The continued increase in parcel numbers over the last five years indicates that it is ongoing low levels of income and a social security system that isn’t fit for purpose that are forcing more people to need food banks, rather than just the recent cost of living crisis or the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The levels of need were particularly acute in winter, and December 2022 was the busiest month on record for the network, with a parcel being distributed by staff and volunteers across the country every eight seconds.
“It’s easy to think that we’ve had the pandemic and the cost of living crisis and this situation is created by those extraordinary events,” Barnard said. “But actually, we’ve had five years of steeply rising need and that is reflecting underlying weaknesses in our systems and, in particular, the inadequacy of the social security system.
“It can happen to any of us. Your partner gets sick, you have to stop working, or you lose your job, and that lifeline that you’re supposed to be able to turn to is just not sufficient to afford even the essentials, let alone some actual quality of life.”
The Trussell Trust has calculated that an individual needs £120 a week to afford the essentials, but universal credit claimants only get £85 per week at the standard rate. That means, every week, people face a shortfall of £35.
“People are left without any buffer,” Barnard added. “If the washing machine breaks down, or your child gets sick and you have to take them to medical appointments or anything like that, it just pulls you even further into this incredible level of hardship.”
This has a subsequent impact on people’s mental and physical health, putting further pressure on an NHS which is already at “breaking point”. The NHS Confederation warned last year that “there is a risk of devastating and long-lasting impacts on people’s health and wellbeing” as a result of the cost of living crisis.
Poverty is linked with malnutrition, obesity, eating disorders and depression. This in turn impacts the demand for NHS services to treat the acute and chronic conditions caused by hunger and unhealthy diets. NHS spending on obesity is expected to rise to £9.7 billion per year by 2050 and malnutrition is estimated to cost the NHS £19.6bn per year.
“With the labour market, we want more people to be willing to come back to work,” Barnard said. “But people are lying awake all night because they’re worried, or they can’t afford to get to medical appointments or run medical equipment. This is not a situation that nurtures good health, which then enables people to get back to work and sustain it.”
Food banks were set up to provide short-term support to people in an emergency, rather than a lasting solution to hunger and poverty. More than three quarters of the UK believe they should not need to exist, according to the Trussell Trust.
The Trussell Trust is calling for an ‘essentials guarantee’ to ensure people have the money they need to survive. This would make it law that the basic rate of benefits will always cover the real cost of essentials, at the very least.
Barnard explained that an independent body would be needed to regularly review how much a shopping basket of goods costs and how that compares to benefits payments. More than 90 charities have backed calls for an essentials guarantee, but the conversations with politicians are still in their early stages.
Barnard said: “We need politicians from across the political spectrum to commit to this in the long-term and make an investment in our social security system.”
Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network added: “This staggering data must propel our government to take immediate cash-first, income-focused actions with the long term in mind.
“Trussell Trust figures represent the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to wider food insecurity. The UK’s poverty crisis is having a devastating impact on people’s physical and mental health to the detriment of society as a whole. This is an avoidable public health disaster.”