Destitution and foodbanks in the UK: new evidence sheds light on topical debates

Dr Filip Sosenko
Dr Filip Sosenko

When two years ago the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned a team of researchers from I-SPHERE to conduct the first-ever major study of destitution in the UK, it was obvious to us that investigating the use of foodbanks should be one of the key aspects of the research. We designed the study to answer highly political questions such as ‘is demand for food aid a genuine one, or are foodbank users ‘opportunistic’ in their behaviour to take advantage of free food?’, ‘how many people go without food but do not use a foodbank?’, ‘is the socio-demographic profile of clients of independent foodbanks the same or different to the profile of people using Trussell Trust foodbanks?’.   Our ‘census’ of users of emergency services and the qualitative interviews are both major sources of data on foodbank users in the UK, and we make use of these in a forthcoming journal article to advance those political questions. This blog is to give an overview of what’s to come.

Firstly though, a brief summary of what we have found. We found 668,000 households (containing 1.25m people, of whom 312,000 were children) to be destitute and in contact with voluntary sector services across the UK during 2015: that’s approximately one in forty households and one in fifty people, and  is likely to be an underestimate as we could not capture those who were destitute but did not contact voluntary services. Although a quarter of destitute people were non-UK born while a further third had ‘complex needs’, the largest group (43%) were UK-born and without complex needs. Apart from the sheer number of destitute people, this fact is the most gripping finding from the study.

While the study could not provide a definitive answer to the question of what causes destitution, it nevertheless found some likely ‘prime suspects’ which seemed to produce destitution particularly when they occurred at the same time. In the case of people who were UK-born and without complex needs, the ‘prime suspects’ were  problems with the social security system (delays, sanctions and errors), unsustainable debt, additional health-related expenses and high living costs. For UK-born with complex needs, while the just mentioned factors were also common, it was long-term health problems, traumatic experiences and the lack of social support that came to the fore as likely causal factors. Many migrants who were destitute faced additional barriers in the form of restricted benefit eligibility, lack of access to the labour market and lack of knowledge about the UK in general.

Foodbanks naturally came into the picture as part of our investigation of ‘coping strategies’ employed by destitute people. Our interviews with 39 destitute people who had used a foodbank produced novel evidence regarding the argument put by some that foodbank users are ‘opportunistic shoppers’, taking advantage of free food. Previous studies only partially contradicted this claim: they showed that people go to foodbanks as a ‘last resort’ and that they experience humiliation and therefore the ‘free food’ is not really ‘free’ as it carries high emotional costs. Until now however there has been no evidence of what happens on subsequent visits to a foodbank. It cannot be ruled out that after the first visit, the feeling of humiliation wanes and going to the foodbank becomes ‘normal’. Potentially, once the emotional cost diminishes or disappears, people are more likely to act in an opportunistic way. What we found however is that around two-thirds of respondents who have used foodbanks more than once said that the feeling of humiliation did not diminish for them. The remaining third of respondents said that the feeling diminished but did not disappear. Only one respondent said that the feeling of humiliation completely disappeared on his subsequent visits to the foodbank. While this evidence comes from a relatively small sample, it nevertheless constitutes the first emerging evidence that the ‘opportunistic shopper’ argument does not hold for long-term users as well as new ones. Nevertheless, some repeat users were behaving in a ‘strategic’ or ‘rational’ way in that they were using foodbanks to cross-subsidise other essential needs. For example, if they could not use the foodbank they would have to spend their income on food meaning that they could not afford clothing or heating.

Another novel finding related to the Trussell Trust’s rule regarding helping clients who are in chronic need. (The foodbank can normally be used maximum three times in six months – further support is at the manager’s discretion). This rule did not operate in the intended way: none of our respondents was made aware by those holding vouchers or by foodbank staff of the possibility that further support might be available. As a result, those who would have liked to use a foodbank more than three times in a six month period had not done so.

Another striking finding contradicts the assumption, frequently made by the media that people who are hungry can use foodbanks and so data around foodbank use provides an accurate picture of food poverty in the country. Yet in our study, a number of interviewees said they felt too humiliated to go to a foodbank and preferred to under-eat; while a number of rough sleepers simply stated that dry food from foodbanks is useless for them because they have no cooking facilities.

In the forthcoming article, we fill in a number of gaps in the evidence: we estimate the number of people who went hungry but did not use a foodbank or soup kitchen; we compare the socio-demographic profile of people using independent (non-Trussell Trust) foodbanks  and explore the profile of Trussell Trust clients in more detail; we attempt to estimate the number of people using independent foodbanks; and last but not least we provide an in-depth discussion of the role of Welfare Reform in fuelling demand for foodbank help.

You can access the full Destitution in the UK report here.