While soup kitchens have long been present in the UK, the rapid spread of food banks is a recent phenomenon. Harsh austerity measures including slashed welfare payments and dwindling public services have caused the rapid spread of food banks across Britain, new academic research suggests.
The research,“Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK,” was published on Wednesday in the British Medical Journal. It was conducted by a team of academics from Oxford University. The government has long refused to admit to a link between its austerity policies and a dramatic explosion in food banks across the state. However, the Oxford University report shows otherwise.
The study highlighted a concrete link between demand for food parcels and the government’s austerity measures. It found demand for emergency food aid is highest in areas where poverty occurs in tandem with reductions in social welfare payments. It also revealed that emergency food assistance is particularly common in regions where high levels of unemployment exist. The report found high rates of food parcel use were particularly evident where benefits sanctions had been enforced on jobless claimants who had their payments terminated for at least a month as a result of not meeting local job center regulations. The Oxford University research uncovered stark fluctuations between different regions. While less than 0.1 percent of people based in Lichfield, Staffordshire, required emergency food parcels, this figure soared to 8 percent in Newcastle upon Tyne. Some of these variations stemmed from the length of time a particular food bank had been established, the research found. Nevertheless, the report said higher levels of emergency food distribution were “significantly associated” with austerity policies and welfare cuts.
When the coalition government came to power in 2010, the Trussell Trust food banks were active in 29 local council areas throughout Britain. By 2013/14, however, this number had risen to 251. Over the same period, the Trussell Trust’s rate of emergency food aid distribution had tripled, the Oxford University study said.
The UK’s Faculty of Public Health, which warned Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014 that Britain’s welfare system was “increasingly failing to provide a robust last line of defense against hunger.” In late 2014, a joint report by the Trussell Trust, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group revealed that those who use food banks are more likely to be single adults or single parents, live in rented accommodation, suffer unemployment and have borne the brunt of some sort of benefits sanction. An official report by Britain’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs also expressed concerns about the rise of food insecurity. A cross-party parliamentary probe into hunger and food poverty conducted in 2014 found that financial hardship, austerity and government-driven sanctions may explain the rising use of food banks. The study also found a greater degree of clarity is required on how food insecurity is defined in Britain, and a system that monitors such trends is paramount.
James Meadway, a senior economist at UK think tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF), said the Oxford University study's implications are clear. "The research, peer reviewed and published in one of the world's leading medical journals, should finally kill off the ridiculous claim that more people are using food banks because they want to, rather than because they have to," he told RT. "The last official figures available, up to 2013, show the poorest 10% having a decline in their income of 15%, after inflation, in a single year. This has been driven overwhelmingly by benefits cuts. It's obvious that if the poorest people are squeezed like this, they'll be forced into relying on charity," he added.