In response to a tweet from the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron about volunteering at a local “food project”, the Labour MP Zarah Sultana said: “Foodbank use went up 2,612% while David Cameron was Prime Minister. Apologise for that before you start posing for photos, @David_Cameron.”
Ms Sultana’s tweet was very widely shared, and her comments were reported in several outlets, including the Metro, the Huffington Post and The Guardian.
It is true that food bank use from one large provider went up by about this much during Mr Cameron’s time as prime minister. However, it is important to understand that the level of food bank use is not a reliable measure of the overall level of poverty or food insecurity. And this particular figure only reflects food bank use within the Trussell Trust network, which does not cover all the food banks in the UK.
Mr Cameron himself has used Trussell Trust figures to make a similar claim about food bank use under Labour in the past.
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Where did Ms Sultana’s figures come from?
Ms Sultana’s office told Full Fact that the figure she used was based on data from the Trussell Trust, showing an increase from 40,898 food parcels provided in the financial year 2009/10 to 1,112,395 in 2015/16.
These figures are correct and show a rise of 2,620%—although the charity has also used a slightly different figure for 2015/16, which would show a rise of 2,612%, as Ms Sultana said. The Trussell Trust told us that this discrepancy reflects a minor update in its data. However, it is important to understand what these numbers mean, and what they don’t.
The Trussell Trust is the largest of many different food bank operators in the UK, so its data does not necessarily reflect the national picture.
We have not been able to find reliable data showing what share of the UK’s food banks were part of the Trussell Trust between 2010 and 2016, but in its latest figures, the Trust says it currently has “more than 1,300 food bank centres” compared with “at least 1,124 independent food banks” identified by the Independent Food Aid Network. In addition to these, the Trussell Trust says: “There are also Salvation Army food banks as well as food banks run from schools and hospitals. There are also thousands of other food aid providers including soup kitchens and social supermarkets."
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of Trussell Trust food banks grew substantially. Its network contained 30 food banks in 2009. At the end of 2012, the charity said: “100 new foodbanks have launched in the last year alone, taking the total to 201 nationwide.” By August 2016, the total had grown to 420.
In short, speaking very roughly, the number of food banks providing parcels within the Trussell Trust grew about tenfold during Mr Cameron’s time as Prime Minister, and the number of food parcels they provided increased by about 27 times.
However, these figures only cover the Trussell Trust network, so they don’t tell us how the overall level of food parcel provision changed during this time.
Why were there more food banks?
As we said in our previous fact check on the subject, there is evidence that the public demand for food banks grew in the early 2010s.
This might have reflected an increase in food insecurity. There is some evidence that government austerity or changes in the benefits system during the period were associated with increased use of food banks. A House of Commons research briefing in 2014 also said that “high global food prices have made food proportionately less affordable for low-income households in the UK”.
However, it is also possible that a large need already existed before 2010, which new food banks (or those which newly joined the Trussell network) began to meet.
In other words, a significant part of the rise in food bank use might be explained by more parcels becoming available for people who needed them, rather than a rise in underlying need.
Increased public awareness of food banks may also have raised demand for them—for instance after job centres began suggesting them to people in need in September 2011. In contrast, some research also suggests that there may be other reasons why even people in need do not always use food banks that are available to them.
The House of Commons briefing from 2014 also notes: “It is also probable that as the profile of the food bank has increased, alongside improved support through social franchise systems such as that employed by The Trussell Trust, the process of setting up a food bank has become more available, easier and more attractive. This in itself could lead to increased numbers and potentially usage as a latent need is filled.”
Overall, this makes the data we have on food banks an unreliable guide to real levels of food insecurity in the UK, and how they’ve changed over time.
What do we know about food insecurity?
There’s limited evidence on how food insecurity has changed over time. One study, published in the Journal of Public Health last year, warned: “In the UK, there is a lack of frequent, regular and methodologically consistent measurement of food insecurity. Therefore, not enough is known about the prevalence of food insecurity and how it may be changing over time.”
It has also been defined in different ways. The Food Standards Agency defines it as “having access at all times to enough food that is both sufficiently varied and culturally appropriate to sustain an active and healthy life.”
Past surveys have shown that around 5% of adults were unable to afford “meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day” in Britain in 2012, compared with 2% in 1999, 3% in 1990 and 8% in 1983.
A more recent survey using the UN’s definition of food insecurity, showed that the number of moderately or severely food insecure people in the UK was 6.3% in 2014-16.
Taking all this evidence together, it is difficult to say how food insecurity changed while Mr Cameron was Prime Minister.
Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash