A document outlining the Labour party’s five “national missions”, reportedly the party’s election “campaigning bible”, claims there are “2.98 million people now using food banks, up from 60,000 in 2010”.
The same figures also appeared in Facebook and Instagram posts from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) a few weeks ago, and have been shared by others on social media too.
However they appear to actually refer to the number of food parcels handed out by the Trussell Trust—the largest food bank network in the UK—in 2022/23 and 2010/11, not the number of individual people using food banks. That means they could double-count people who use a food bank more than once, and also fail to count people who use food banks which aren’t run by the Trussell Trust.
The Labour party hasn’t responded to our questions about the figures, but a TUC spokesperson thanked Full Fact for highlighting the distinction and said: “We will make sure to use the correct description in our future work.”
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Where do the figures come from?
According to the Trussell Trust, 2,986,203 emergency food parcels were distributed by food banks in its network in the 2022/23 financial year.
Older documents published by the Trussell Trust did state that around 61,468 “people” used food banks in 2010/11. However the Trussell Trust has confirmed to Full Fact that this figure actually refers to the number of emergency food parcels distributed by food banks in its network in 2010/11, not the number of individual users.
It says of its figures: “Our statistics are a measure of volume rather than unique users. The data is collected using an online system into which food banks enter data from each food bank voucher, and the number of emergency food supplies is recorded.
“For example, if a family of three were referred to a food bank twice in one year, this would count as six supplies on the system because it would reflect six instances of a supply going to someone in the household. However, if a family of three were only referred to a food bank once, this would count as three supplies.”
The Trussell Trust did not give us any figures for the number of individual people using food banks now or over the past 14 years. But it did tell us that in the first half of the 2010s, rapid growth in the size of its network “had a role in driving significant changes to the number of emergency food parcels distributed”, with the opening of new food banks generally responding to unmet needs in the local area.
Because of this, it says caution should be used when comparing data from the late 2000s and early 2010s with more recent data.
How many people use food banks?
We’ve not been able to find a reliable estimate for the number of people using food banks currently.
We do have data from the government, which recently published figures on food bank use for the first time. These showed that in the 2021/22 financial year “3% of all individuals in the UK population” lived in a household where a food bank has been used—equivalent to approximately two million people.
Equivalent data for 2022/23—the year to which the latest figures published by the Trussell Trust relate—has not yet been released.
Food bank use has however clearly increased substantially in recent years, with 760,000 people accessing Trussell Trust food banks for the first time in 2022/23, and with the network recording a rise in the number of food parcels it gave out from 2,183,625 in 2021/22 to 2,986,203 in 2022/23.
What about other food banks?
The Trussell Trust also notes that its figures “cannot be used to fully explain the scale of food bank use across the UK, because our figures relate to food banks in our network and not to the hundreds of independent food aid providers and community groups also providing emergency food”.
According to the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), there are at least 1,172 independent food banks operating in the UK—almost as many as in the Trussell Trust network (which has more than 1,300)—and food banks surveyed by IFAN also report an increase in demand. So while the figures used by Labour and the TUC may double-count people using a food bank multiple times, they also fail to count people given parcels by more than a thousand other food banks which aren’t run by the Trussell Trust.
Political parties should ensure they back up their claims with evidence and if claims are based on figures, be transparent about sources and calculations. Caveats and context should always be included when claims are made, and oversights rectified when they occur.
Image courtesy of Aaron Doucett