Food banks: why are more people using them?

In the UK, it's estimated that 13 million people live below the poverty line.

It may seem like a shocking figure, but with the tough economic climate we've seen in recent years, increasing numbers of people across the country are facing financial hardship.

With the ongoing effects of the recession and the Government's austerity measures, there are all kinds of things putting pressure on people's finances. Rising food & fuel costs, wage freezes, widespread unemployment, benefit cuts and energy bill increases: all these things are making it increasingly difficult for many families just to put food on the table.

And the figures speak for themselves. In 2011-12, foodbanks fed 128,687 people nationwide, according to the Trussell Trust - double the number in the previous year. Already, more than 250 foodbanks have been set up by the Trust, with hopes that in the future, every town will have one.

The charity works with communities and churches across the country to open food banks. But how exactly do they work - and how are they helping to stop struggling families from going hungry?

Foodboxes

As a charity, the Trussell Trust relies on donations from members of the public to run its foodbank network.

Local schools, churches, businesses and individuals donate non-perishable, in-date items of food - such as rice, tinned meat & fish, UHT milk and snacks & biscuits - to their nearest foodbank. The charity also organises Harvest Appeals to encourage donations.

To avoid food being wasted, the Trussell Trust puts a 'shopping list' of food items they're most in need of. Many local supermarkets also display the lists, giving shoppers the chance to donate items they can spare from their shopping trolley.

Volunteers then sort out the food and pack it into foodboxes.

Each foodbox contains a minimum of three days' worth of nutritionally balanced food. A foodbox typically looks like this:

  • • Milk (UHT or powdered)
  • • Cereals
  • • Tinned soup
  • • Fruit juice (long life)
  • • Baked beans
  • • Rice / sponge pudding (tinned)
  • • Tomatoes (tinned)
  • • Pasta / Rice
  • • Pasta sauces
  • • Tinned vegetables
  • • Tinned meat / fish
  • • Tea bags
  • • Sugar
  • • Biscuits or snacks
  • Who can use foodbanks?

    Food banks aren't open to everyone. They're only designed to be used by people who are most in need of a food parcel.

    Professionals such as doctors, social/care workers, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and the police help to identify people who are in need of food parcels and give them a voucher that can be redeemed for a food parcel at their nearest foodbank.

    Volunteers at foodbanks are also on hand to talk to visitors about their financial issues and direct them to the help they need to deal with their underlying problems.

    Some foodbanks even run a delivery service for rural communities, so people who cannot afford to get to a foodbank in the nearest town or city can still get an emergency foodbox.

    How many people are using foodbanks - and where do they live?

    Figures released by the Trussell Trust show that, between April and September 2012, one child in 120 in the South West of England was fed by foodbanks, while in Wales, this figure stood at one in 130.

    The 'young adults' age group (aged between 16 and 24) accounted for 13.3% of all people referred to foodbanks in this period, while pensioners made up less than 1% of people receiving foodboxes.

    The South West has the most foodbanks (34). 20,988 people in this area used foodbanks between April and September this year, which means almost 620 people per food bank. According to Aviva's Family Finances Report (August 2012) , 52% of families living in this part of England also have credit card debt - significantly higher than the number in Scotland (36%) and Wales (38%), which shows some of the financial pressure a lot of households could be under in this part of the UK.

    Interestingly, the East Midlands, which Aviva tells us has the lowest average household debt in the UK (£4,166), also has the second-lowest total number of people using food banks (2,254).

    Northern Ireland has the fewest people using foodbanks (541) - but also the fewest foodbanks (just 2).

    A spokesperson for Gregory Pennington commented: "Figures show that increasing numbers of people are turning to foodbanks to ensure they can put food on the table.

    "At a time when many people across the UK are having a tough time financially - with rising debts, benefit cuts and wage freezes - more and more people are relying on food parcels to stop their plates going empty.

    "The underlying reasons behind someone's financial problems can be hard to tackle - and can vary widely from case to case - but there are ways a household could reduce its monthly costs to free up some much-needed cash, whether that mean finding a lower-cost utility package or talking to their lenders about making smaller monthly payments towards their debts.

    "Talking to a debt adviser can be a good place to start: they can go over a borrower's situation with them, help them explore their options - and make sure they understand the consequences that might be involved."

    Daniel Culpan

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