More than 1 million people used food banks last year: that's not what the evidence shows
Claims about food banks are not new. But since they were brought up by Jeremy Paxman in the 'Battle for Number 10' interviews, we've seen a range of claims about food banks and the rising numbers of people using emergency food provision. Most depend on figures from the Trussell Trust, the only nationwide food bank network in the UK.
How many people use food banks?
"The latest figures published by the Trussell Trust show that over 1,000,000 people have received at least three days' emergency food from the charity's foodbanks in the last twelve months" — Trussell Trust, 22nd April 2015
The claim that over a million people are using Trussell Trust food banks is inaccurate. It comes from confusing the number of different people using Trussell Trust food banks in a year with the number of times they use the food banks.
The Trussell Trust collect their data from the vouchers used by people referred to their food banks. If one voucher feeds a family of four people, that's four instances. If the same family visit again next week, that's another four instances. The Trussell Trust say that on average people needed two food bank vouchers annually, so the number of people using food banks is likely to be around half of the 1.1 million figure.
The Trussell Trust describe their service as "emergency food and support", not sustained food provision. About half of their users only needed one food bank voucher in a year, though a significant minority, about 15%, used the service more than three times.
After being contacted by Full Fact, the Trussell Trust added a note explaining that "these are not all unique users" to their latest press release but this did not avoid widespread confusion. For example:
The Guardian: "Nearly 1.1 million people received at least three days of emergency food from the trust's 445 food banks in 2014-15". This article has been updated and now reads: "The trust's 445 food banks distributed enough emergency food to feed almost 1.1 million people for three days in 2014-15".
The Daily Mail: "The country's biggest food bank organisation yesterday claimed the number of people claiming free meal packages from its branches passed a million last year".
Supply is not the same as demand
The rise in uses of Trussell Trust food banks came with a rise in the number of food banks themselves: from 56 food banks in 2009 to 445 food banks in 2014. This represents a major expansion of the Trust into new areas. The Trust served 29 UK local authorities (£) in 2009 but that number increased to 251 by 2013.
The increase in supply doesn't necessarily reflect an increased demand for emergency food. There may have been people in need of emergency food in the past who wouldn't have shown up in the Trust's figures because there was no Trussell Trust food bank nearby.
People are also more likely to be aware that food banks exist. Everyone using Trussell Trust food banks is referred there by organisations such as Citizens Advice. In September 2011 Jobcentres started signposting people to food banks.
The Trussell Trust say that people referred to food banks by Jobcentres are only a small percentage of total referrals. If more organisations are referring people—and become more willing to refer people—then the number of uses can increase when the number of people who need help doesn't change.
As academics from Manchester University have said, while a social stigma remains in using food banks, there is an increasing 'normalisation' in their use due to the growth in the number of food banks and food donation points in supermarkets. If more people are aware of food banks, it's likely that more people will ask for a referral.
Trussell Trust food banks only part of the picture
The figures quoted here only cover the 445 food banks in the UK run by the Trussell Trust. But it's not the only organisation running food banks in the UK: there are many independent local initiatives doing similar work. All told, there may be around 800 food banks across the UK. And there are other providers of emergency food assistance too, for example soup kitchens or 'Meals on Wheels'. In total, there are estimated to be about 1,500 emergency food assistance providers in Britain. The 450 Trussell Trust food banks, with their 1.1 million uses, account for almost a third of that provision.
It's not possible to extrapolate from the Trussell Trust's figures to the number of people using all food banks in the UK. There's no information on whether other food banks have similar patterns of use, similar referral systems, or operate on a similar scale to the Trussell Trust.
There isn't data available to say how many people might be getting help from both a Trussell Trust food bank and another food bank in the same year.
A report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) found that:
"It is impossible at present to give an accurate estimate of the numbers of people fed by food aid providers in the UK, in total or on a regular basis (monthly or annually)."
Why are there more food banks?
Examples of food bank users abound; the main reported causes of food bank use are 'crises' in a range of areas, coupled with low household income and rising costs. Labour says that this increase is due to government welfare policy, a report from the Scottish Parliament said benefit sanctions were a cause, and other critics of the policy blame the spare room subsidy (also known as the 'bedroom tax').
The government has previously rejected the link between benefit reforms and food bank use.
But the increase in use and number of food banks is associated with spending cuts, benefit sanctions and unemployment, based on recent analysis in the British Medical Journal, which accounts for changes in the number of food bank numbers and for how long each food bank has been open.
The report commissioned by DEFRA concluded that:
"Those looking to monitor and respond to household food insecurity in the UK… should focus on the root causes of this insecurity, rather than on numbers claiming food aid, which are unreliable indicators of problems."
Data from the Trussell Trust may be the best evidence we have, but reporting on the subject needs to be clearer about the limitations of the evidence to inform debate about such a serious issue.
Correction: 22 April 2015
Previously we said that the number of local authorities served by the Trussell Trust increased from 29 in 2009 to 445 in 2014/2015. This was an editing error. While 29 was the number of local authorities served in 2009, 445 was the number of food banks in 2014/15. The article has been amended with the correct figures for both food banks and local authorities.
Update: 23 April 2015
Following a conversation with Full Fact, the Guardian article has now been updated; we amended the article text to reflect this.