No 22: Making hunger a thing of the past: an urgent priority for contemporary social policy research

Children in the UK are more vulnerable to hunger than in other EU nations.
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by Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Rachel Loopstra

Beveridge identified ‘want’ as one of his five evils, yet 70 years of social policy later,  we are confronted once again with the existence of extreme levels of ‘want’ in our communities. One of the most visible signs of this has been the growing use of food banks across the country. While feeding programmes to alleviate hunger have a long history in Britain, the expansion of food banks embodies a notable shift away from a social safety net intended to ensure that not being able to work or earn sufficient amounts of money do not result in destitution.

The largest national network of food bank providers, The Trussell Trust, has grown from 132 food banks providing 61,468 parcels of food in 2010–2011 to 428 food banks providing almost 1.2 million parcels in 2016–2017. That’s a startling 19-fold increase in parcels delivered. These food banks now operate about 1,200 distribution centres. The recent establishment of the Independent Food Aid Network suggests that there is also a strong food bank movement outside of The Trussell Trust, with recent estimates of operations at around 700 independent sites.

This expansion of provision coincides with some of the biggest sets of reforms and changes to state provision that the British welfare state has ever seen. Already, clear links have been established between austerity, welfare reform and the rise of food banks. The profile of people using food banks reflects groups impacted by changes in entitlements and conditionality, as do the reasons why people are referred to food banks.

The problem of voluntary provision and inadequate reach

While some have celebrated the rise of food banks as a sign of the generosity of communities to support people in need, the substitution of food banks for an adequate social safety net is problematic for many reasons. For starters, the provision is voluntary. A growing amount of national and international research highlights that people have no rights to or within these systems. Provision can be precarious, nutritionally inadequate, and inaccessible. The help offered is inherently limited by the reliance on donated goods and volunteers’ time. As such, even if intended to be a second net in cases where people fall through the social security net, there is little evidence that food banks can do this reliably or effectively.

Furthermore, food banks do not reach most of those who are food insecure. The Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Food and You survey recently found that eight percent, or about four million, adults in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland were experiencing food insecurity, which means they experienced food running out and going without food because of a lack of money. An additional 13 percent were only marginally food secure. Data published in 2017 from Unicef found that 10.4 percent of children in the UK — the highest proportion anywhere in Western Europe — live with someone who is severely food insecure. Based on the number of individuals estimated to be using Trussell Trust food banks and the number estimated to be living in food insecure households, it is estimated that 17 times more people are food insecure than are captured in food bank figures.

How social policy can guide the way forward

Given that voluntary emergency food provision cannot address the scale or root causes of hunger, it is important that social policy research plays a prominent role in the emerging evidence base documenting experiences of hunger and responses to it. As seen with the rapid expansion of food banks, communities are now looking for ways to help people experiencing food insecurity, especially in ways that make the receipt of food more socially acceptable. Yet these programmes — holiday hunger clubs, community shops, cooking activities — may be limited in some of the same ways as food banks. They too are often voluntary and outside of social norms (i.e. shopping from supermarkets, cooking in your own kitchen, feeding your own children). They can also be ill-matched to the needs of people experiencing food insecurity. There is an urgent need for well-designed, UK-based research that explores if these interventions prevent and alleviate hunger, and who they reach.

Any findings also need to be placed alongside research on social protection, including social security and housing. Low and insecure incomes, unemployment, and unaffordable housing are all risk factors for households not having enough money for food. Evidence suggests that across Europe, countries that had high levels of investment in social protection over 2005 to 2012 were largely protected from the increase in food insecurity associated with the unemployment and declining wages observed during the Great Recession.

In contrast to voluntary community programmes, social protection policies have the potential to have large, population-level impact. Here, in particular, social policy researchers have a unique contribution to make in this field and will need to be at the forefront of proposals for progressive, evidence-based ways forward.

Hannah Lambie-Mumford is a Research Fellow at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (Speri), University of Sheffield. Her book Hungry Britain: the rise of food charity was published by Policy Press in 2017. She tweets @hlambiemumford.

Rachel Loopstra is a Lecturer in Nutrition in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at King’s College London. Her review, “Interventions to address household food insecurity in high-income countries” is forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. In 2017, she published a report on the profile of people using food banks across The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network. She tweets @rloopstra.