Food bank use is soaring: why do people use food banks?

Food bank report

Record numbers of people have turned to food banks recently. Figures from the Trussell Trust found that more than 900,000 people used them in the last financial year - three times more than had relied on them a year earlier. The number of food banks themselves has soared - so that there are now 1,080 of them in the UK - and it is estimated that this year they will be used by more than a million people

So why is this?%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%

Theories

Different groups have argued different reasons for this. The Trust itself said at the end of last year that much of the increased need was due to welfare reforms - which meant some people received less money as a result of cuts, sanctions or changes.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has denied this, and in response accused the Trust of scaremongering, and publicity-seeking. One Conservative spokesperson said: "The Trussell Trust itself says it is opening three new food banks every week, so it's not surprising more people are using them. They also agree that awareness has helped to explain their recent growth."

Lord Freud, agreed last summer that the surge in food bank use was due to there being more food banks. He said: "If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there's almost infinite demand."

There is also the much-discussed 'cost of living crisis'. Since the onset of the recession, when you take inflation into account, wages have fallen more than 7%. Meanwhile, food prices have risen 10% in real terms. Food is clearly less affordable for the majority of people - so more are struggling to feed their families.

Ask the people

The Citizens Advice Bureau is one of the three biggest organisations that refers people to food banks - along with job centres and council departments. It issued 100,000 food bank vouchers last year. It says it wanted to know why more people were using the banks, so it asked them.

By far the most common reason - accounting for more than a third of people who were referred to food banks - was a delay in receiving benefits. This was up from 30% six months earlier. This can be the result of moving between benefits - so for example those who were on ESA and after being assessed as fit for work were waiting to receive JSA.

The second most common reason was benefit sanctions - which accounted for around a fifth of people. Benefits can be stopped for more than four weeks if a claimant fails to attend an appointment or apply for enough jobs in a given period - and the CAB found that those with minor learning difficulties or mental health problems were more likely to receive sanctions.

The number of people turning to food banks because of sanctions has fallen slightly in six months - presumably as people understood what they had to do in order to prove they were looking for work and learned the hoops they needed to jump through in order to receive benefits.

Next on the list was benefit refusal - where the government decided they were not entitled to benefits - this hit 16% of people. It was followed by benefit loss at just over 5% - where the bedroom tax or a deduction for the benefit cap hit a family and they were unable to cut their costs sufficiently to cope.

In total, therefore, the organisation found that more than two thirds of the people who needed to use food banks were driven there because of an issue related to the benefits system.

There were other reasons why people were suffering so much financial hardship that they needed help. Debts were a major issue - with debt recovery, bailiffs and payday loans all featuring. Homelessness and family breakdown were also reasons given for needing Citizens Advice's help in finding food.

Now we know why more people are turning to food banks, we need the government to turn to the next question: what are they going to do about it?

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