So, what is it like to navigate this system when it isn’t equipped to provide the necessary help? Recent research can help us to understand the scale of the challenges many families are still facing.
Hundreds of thousands of UK households now use food banks. Comprehensive figures for all services are not available, but judging by data from organisations working with food redistribution charity FareShare, the full number of families turning to charity food aid may exceed a million. This would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
However, such services are still only used by a minority of low-income families. Difficulties accessing the services are one reason for this. Trussell Trust food banks, for example, are typically only open for short periods of time during weekday working hours. But many people facing hardship also avoid using these services because of stigma related to seeking this kind of support, as well as issues with fulfilling people’s desired food needs.
A review of the evidence on food banks and other community food programmes in high-income countries found that the services’ ability to meet the needs of people experiencing food insecurity was limited. There was little evidence of these services effectively reducing food insecurity. Cash transfers and food subsidies were far more effective.
My PhD research (not yet published elsewhere) backs this up. I conducted in-depth interviews with 47 people who visited food banks or community meals in the London Borough of Southwark. My findings suggested that as useful as these and other food services were in terms of short-term help, almost everyone still needed more substantial support.
Although essential costs (especially housing) and the proportion of people unable to afford them are higher in London than the rest of the UK, most interviewees had relatively low housing costs – very few could afford to rent in the private sector. But their incomes were still insufficient to meet their bills and food needs. Nationwide, food bank clients’ average incomes are far below the official poverty threshold.
While many of my interviewees described great relief from using food aid services, even after factoring in the food they received, almost all of the families’ total incomes fell short of a minimum socially-acceptable standard of living. This is based on minimum income standard budgets and some actual costs, a method used to work out the incomes different households need in order to live at a decent basic level.
Food provision doesn’t fix all
Food alone cannot fill deficits of the observed magnitude. It is just one of people’s many needs. Food bank parcels have also been shown to contain far cheaper (and by implication lower-quality) food than the minimum income standard food baskets and average household food spending.