A record 1.58 million emergency food parcels were distributed to UK citizens by the Trussell Trust food bank network in 2018 — over 577,000 of them children — as benefit cuts, universal credit delays, and rising poverty fuelled the charity's busiest year since its founding in 1997.
Many claimants simply don't have the necessary savings to subsist over a month without income, putting them in rent arrears as a result. A third of referrals to food banks last year were as a result of "low income", with claimants unable to meet the cost of living, the majority as a result of inadequate benefits income — most working-age benefits have been frozen since 2016.
Our #foodbank figures only show the tip of the iceberg but here’s how many emergency food parcels were handed out across the UK last year. We know #ThisCanChange – find out how here > https://t.co/RpoXA4fTCr pic.twitter.com/FCCqyIuE0u— The Trussell Trust (@TrussellTrust) April 25, 2019
Universal Credit is not the only benefit payment people referred to food banks have experienced problems with, but issues with moving onto the new system are a key driver of increasing need — 49 percentof food bank referrals made due to a delay in benefits being paid in UK were linked to Universal Credit.
The Department for Work and Pensions has challenged the trust's claim universal credit was driving food bank use, although Rudd had seemingly admitted the two were linked earlier this year. It argues that advance loans available to claimants when they claim universal credit mean no one should go hungry for lack of cash. However, Trussell says that having to repay a chunk of the advance each month leaves many claimants unable to meet living costs for long periods, and that this continues to drive them to food banks.
Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie said it was "unacceptable" anyone should have to use a food bank in the first place, and "no charity can replace the dignity of having financial security". She urged the Government to ensure benefit payments "reflect the true cost of living and work is secure", in order to end the reliance of so many on food banks.
Today’s figures show that 2018-19 was the busiest year for #foodbanks in our network since we first opened. Of the 1.6m food parcels handed out to people unable to afford the basics, 550,000+ of these went to children. We know #ThisCanChange. More here > https://t.co/RpoXA4fTCr pic.twitter.com/lctNa5OcU5— The Trussell Trust (@TrussellTrust) April 25, 2019
"What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right. Enough is enough. We know this situation can be fixed — that's why we're campaigning to create a future where no one needs a food bank. Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics. As a priority, we're urging the government to end the wait for Universal Credit to ease the pressure on thousands of households," she added.
The charity also challenged claims by work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd that long waits for universal credit payments were "absolutely not" causing claimants to use food banks — a claim the minister herself seemingly acknowledged in February.
It’s unacceptable that more people than ever before are having to use a #foodbank for help — our benefits system should anchor people from being swept into #poverty. We believe #ThisCanChange pic.twitter.com/R3GwHHx8lD— The Trussell Trust (@TrussellTrust) April 25, 2019
A woman who was forced to use food banks herself and now volunteers for Trussell Trust compared her experience to being "thrown into an unknown world".
"I didn't have any money for three months while waiting for Universal Credit. I couldn't pay my rent and I had to work out whether to eat in the morning or the afternoon because I didn't have enough money for the basics. The food bank got me back on my feet and offered me hope that things would get better. I'm a great believer in giving back and that's why I volunteer my time at Southwark Foodbank. People shouldn't feel embarrassed if they're forced to use a food bank — they are there to help you," she said.
The number of annual uses of Trussell Trust food banks stood at a mere 41,000 in 2010 — although the total number of individual Britons making use of food banks is unknown. A 2014 estimate suggested the Trussell Trust's food banks account for around half (420) of the food banks in the UK, suggesting the actual number of food parcels handed out across the UK, and the number of users of food banks, will be far higher than the charity's own figures. Nonetheless, the number of food banks has also increased since 2010 so far more people have access to food banks, meaning it's difficult to precisely attribute the increase in usage to an increase in demand, rather than availability.