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Over 40% of the UK's food banks are run independently of The Trussell Trust but what else do we know?

By Dr Rachel Loopstra and Sabine Goodwin

Ever since Sabine Goodwin and the Independent Food Aid Network revealed the number and location of non-Trussell Trust, independent food banks operating across the UK, we’ve stood corrected about the scale of food parcel provisioning in the UK: it is much larger than we thought. As recently highlighted, there are now more food banks offering free parcels of food than McDonald franchises in our country.

However, although we now know that over 40% of food banks are operated independently of The Trussell Trust, there are many unanswered questions about the role they play in the food aid landscape. When did independent food banks start operating? Do they require people to have referrals from third-party agencies? Are they affiliated with the Christian faith, as Trussell Trust food banks are, run by other faith groups, or are they secular organisations? And who do they serve?

Today we’ve released first findings from a representative survey of independent food banks operating across England that provides answers. Our report fills a long-standing gap in knowledge gap about the full-scale of food bank provisioning in England.

Our telephone survey took place between September 2018 and May 2019 and involved telephone interviews with 114 independent food bank representatives, from a sample frame of 558 independent food banks in England. Our response rate of 71% from an eligible randomly selected sample of 159 venues reflected the keenness that participants felt to contribute their knowledge to our research. But what did their answers reveal?

Firstly, food banks are certainly a post-2010 phenomenon. There were very few independent food banks operating before 2004 and, like Trussell Trust food banks, most were set up after 2010. In fact, 75% of independent food banks started operating in the last 9 years. We found that just over half of independent food banks were run by a Christian group while 43% were operated by secular groups. Additionally, one food bank was run by a Muslim faith group, and one food bank was run by multiple faith groups.

Almost all food banks indicated they provide signposting to further advice and support, but 60% offered direct support services as well. Nearly 75% of independent food banks relied on 5 or more volunteers each week. Although 80% of independent food banks gave out parcels at premises, nearly half of them also delivered food parcels to clients’ homes.

40% of all independent food banks did not require referrals from third-party agencies in order for people to receive a food parcel. 44% of independent food banks imposed no restriction on how often people receive food parcels, and an additional 17.5% allowed access to food parcels 18 or more times in a 12-month period. In contrast, almost a third restricted access to food parcels to 6 or fewer times in a 12-month period.

When a referral was involved, over 75% of independent food banks received referrals from local authorities and almost 70% from Jobcentre Plus offices. Local authority social services also provided financial funding for over a third of independent food banks. Both findings indicate the scale at which food banks are increasingly being embedded as a response to UK food insecurity.

A typical Trussell Trust food parcel is intended to last each person 3 days. We found that independent food banks tended to provide more food in their food parcels - 55% of independent food banks supplied more than 4 days’ worth of food per person with over a fifth of food banks providing a week’s worth of food.

Significantly, despite their operational differences, people tended to use independent food banks for the same reason as Trussell Trust food banks. Most food banks indicated that many of their clients were unemployed, experiencing benefit problems, were single parents, or were unable to work due to disability. These findings reinforce the urgent need for policy interventions to address the financial vulnerability leading to food insecurity for these groups.

Challenges independent food banks face included the inability to provide fresh fruit or vegetables in their food parcels or meet other dietary targets, having too little or inappropriate space for their food bank, or having too few volunteers or uncertain funding. These underscore the limitations of charitable food aid provision and raise questions about the morality of its normalisation as a response to people having too little money for food. Whilst our study highlights the immense effort independent food banks make in attempt to meet the needs of people living with food insecurity in their communities, they also highlight the need for public policy interventions to address the poverty that underpins hunger across the UK.

A survey of food banks operating independently of The Trussell Trust food bank network is available here Report Authors: Dr Rachel Loopstra, Sabine Goodwin, Barbara Goldberg, Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford, Professor Jon May and Dr Andrew Williams

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