A million food parcels given out yearly represents a shocking statistic but how many of us know that this figure doesn’t account for another third of Britain’s food banks - those that operate independently from the Trussell Trust? Over the last year I’ve identified over 700 independent food banks on behalf of the Independent Food Aid Network and the number keeps growing. Each and every one of these food banks gives out food parcels and many give out thousands each year.
What’s more, any food parcel figure doesn’t include meals given out by the vast array of community kitchens, social supermarkets, breakfast clubs, lunch clubs, pay-as-you-feel cafés and holiday meal programmes that have developed to fill an ever-widening gap in Britain. And how about the thousands going hungry without asking for help, or just relying on family or skipping meals to get by?
New figures released today by End Hunger UK show 16% of adults either skipping or seeing someone in their household skipping meals, 14% worrying about not having enough food to eat, and 8% going a whole day without eating because of lack of money in the last 12 months. Parents of children aged 18 and under are particularly food insecure, with 23% either skipping or seeing someone in their household skipping a meal due to a lack of money and 13% going without eating for a whole day in the last 12 months.
John Hay of The Orchard Food Bank in Liverpool told me he regularly sees clients who are skipping meals so that children can eat meals: “The situation is getting worse and more and more we are seeing parents who are in work and needing to use food banks. “
What we know of independent food parcel distribution is anecdotal and doesn’t allow for robust comparison – the size of parcels and the way they’re handed out differs. Reading’s Readifood delivered more than 7,000 food parcels in 2017 while the 2 Hope+ food banks in Liverpool gave out at least 12,800 but these statistics aren’t collated nationally and effectively remain unrecognised. Billy McGranaghan runs Dad’s House in Chelsea, London and out food parcels, fuel vouchers and much more to over 40 households each week. He told me “The public is missing a real understanding of how bad food poverty has become. Independents are doing an enormous amount of work around the country to a fill a need that can’t be addressed without real measurement.”
The Trussell Trust has long argued that food bank use is most definitely the tip of the food insecurity iceberg. We know that people in need seek out a food bank only as a last resort and that three million people in the UK were counted as severely food insecure by the UN between 2014-16. That puts the UK second only to Albania in Europe. Recent Unicef figures demonstrate that almost a fifth of children in the UK live in moderate to severely food insecure households.
And as the country’s welfare safety net changes, it will be even more imperative to have a robust measure of hunger. Universal Credit has greatly increased food bank use - the Trussell Trust has seen a 30% rise in their food banks in areas with full roll-out while the independents report similar concerns. John Mulhern of Instant Neighbour in Aberdeen told me: “We’ve seen our food parcel distribution figures rise from 5,216 in 2016 to 6,905 in 2017. The 6-8 week waiting time imposed with Universal Credit live service was a big contributing factor to this increase.”
With food bank use spiralling and emergency food aid proliferating, the Food Insecurity Bill will mandate regular and accurate measurement of food insecurity across the UK, and allow policy-makers and charities to properly understand the full extent of the food poverty that is devastating so many households. A simple survey, carried out every year so we can see changes in the patterns of hunger in the UK, will mean that we can know for certain that “one million parcels” is simply a fraction of the disaster unfolding.
Sabine Goodwin has worked with the Independent Food Aid Network as a volunteer since February 2017. IFAN works alongside the Trussell Trust, Oxfam and the Food Foundation among others within the End Hunger Coalition to campaign for household food insecurity measurement