Food banks in perspective
The Trussell Trust supplies a tiny fraction of the nation’s food needs.
It has been widely reported today that food bank usage has reached record levels. For example, the Guardian reports that More than a million people have used food banks in past year. However, as the stats-checking website Full Fact points out, that’s not what the evidence shows. In fact, the Trussell Trust points out in its media release that it has no way of knowing how many unique users it had - its statistics actually count up the number of food vouchers used, multiplied by the number of people fed from each voucher. On average, people used the service twice in a year, so that suggests that half a million unique users were fed by food banks at some point.
As for the ‘record numbers’ of people using food banks, this rise does not mean that more people are going hungry - we just don’t know that from these numbers. But we do know that the number of local authority areas with food banks jumped from 59 in 2009 to 251 in 2013, so we would expect the total number of users to have risen sharply, too. On top of that, more agencies now refer people to food banks than back in 2009. So these figures reflect the fact that there is greater demand in terms of referrals and greater supply in terms of food banks.
But perhaps a little bit of perspective is required, too. If food banks fed 1.1million people for three days, that suggests that they supplied 3.3million person-days of food. How does that compare with the economy as a whole? Well, the population of the UK is about 64million. In a year, each of those people would need 365 person-days of food. So in total, the country provided (in theory) 23.3 billion person-days of food. That’s over 7,000 times as much food as was supplied by food banks.
Of course, we don’t want anybody to have to rely on a handout of food. People shouldn’t go hungry because, for example, they are poor or their benefits are delayed (the two main reasons for food-bank referrals). But let’s put all that into perspective. The overwhelming majority of meals - roughly 99.99 per cent - were bought and paid for. The obsession with food banks in popular discussion has much more to do with finding a stick to beat the government with than it has with the social importance of food handouts.