Social Justice

Benefits system is 'utterly failing' as food bank demand reaches record high: 'It's heartbreaking'

As the Trussell Trust reports record demand at their food banks, a disability benefits claimant shares his story of struggling to survive after an injury left him unable to work and reliant on social security and food banks

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A volunteer stacks food in a Trussell Trust food bank. Image: Trussell Trust

Steve never imagined he would need a food bank. He had not planned for life to go wrong.

After a serious back injury left him unable to work, he could not afford his basic costs and his mental health suffered, pushing him even further away from returning to employment.

“For most people, we don’t want to think situations like this could happen,” Steve says. “We have this plan for our lives, which is a working life. If something goes wrong, that plan completely changes. We’re suddenly vulnerable.

“The last few years have really brought that home for people because we had a pandemic and then we’ve had the cost of living, which has meant that a lot of people have struggled financially. Suddenly, a lot of people are rethinking their lives.”

New figures show more than 3.1 million emergency food parcels were distributed by Trussell Trust food banks between April 2023 and March 2024 – more than ever before.

It is nearly double the number provided five years ago. More than 1.1 million parcels went to children. 

Helen Barnard, the director of policy, research and impact at the Trussell Trust, says: “Every food parcel stands for somebody who is probably going through the worst time in their lives.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” she adds. “Our food banks are now saying: ‘We really are on our knees and we’re at breaking point.’ What I find scary is there is real potential for it to get worse in the coming year.”

One-off cost of living payments have ended, so many people on low incomes will actually see their financial support from benefits go down this year, in spite of the April increase. 

Universal credit falls short by around £120 each month of the money people need to survive, research from the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows.

“When you’re going through tough times, the social security system is what you turn to in the hope it’ll help you get through,” Barnard says. “But what people have found is that it is utterly failing in its most basic moral duty, which is to at least make sure people can afford the essentials. And the system isn’t even doing that.”

Steve, who is 45 and based in south west London, was working in security and injured his back during a restraint. He was given two months off work on full pay and two months on sick pay, which was half of his salary. 

Unable to afford not to work, he went back before he was better. His mental health took a hit and he started self-medicating with alcohol. 

“That became a major issue which ultimately forced me out of work, because I was just too unreliable at that stage,” Steve says. “And then I went through a process of rehab and treatment.”

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Steve managed to get the disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA), but that was not enough to cover his costs. He could afford rent on a salary but not on benefits.

Research by the Trussell Trust has previously found that 69% of working-age people referred to food banks are disabled, three times the level seen in the general population (23%). 

Steve eventually got personal independence payment (PIP), a disability benefit which helps people afford extra costs which come with a physical or mental health condition. He was initially rejected and had to appeal the decision at tribunal.

Just 41% of people are awarded PIP if claiming for the first time, but the success rate of those who appeal PIP decisions is around 70%. As the Big Issue has previously reported, the appeals process can be “traumatic”, lengthy and put people off challenging their decision.

“It’s such a stressful process,” Steve says of the disability benefits system. “So many people have anxiety, depression, and then it just really adds to that. The idea that you just have to sort your mental health out and get back to work, it’s not that simple. For a lot of people, the work might be causing the problem.” 

The government is currently plotting to tighten the disability benefits system even further, with prime minister Rishi Sunak saying he wants to eradicate a so-called “sick-note culture”. 

Ministers claim the benefits bill is rising at an “unsustainable rate” because the number of people claiming for mental health conditions has soared, although experts note that cuts to public services and welfare support have led to an uptick.

A DWP spokesperson claimed there are 1.1 million fewer people in absolute poverty compared to 2010 – absolute poverty is the government’s preferred measure. But it rose for the second year in a row in the year up to April 2023. Around 600,000 more people are living in absolute poverty.

They also claimed the government’s £108billion cost of living support package prevented 1.3 million people falling into poverty in 2022 to 2023, but much of this support – including cost of living payments and the energy rebate – has been taken away in spite of people still struggling.

The DWP spokesperson added: “After boosting benefits and raising the state pension, we’re putting more money in people’s pockets by raising the national living wage, cutting taxes and driving down inflation while investing billions through our Back to Work Plan to help over a million people break down barriers to work and become more financially secure.”

But the plans to push people into work, especially those with health conditions, have been repeatedly criticised by campaigners and charities who fear it is a “reckless assault” on disabled people.

Barnard claims: “We need to have much better employment support and financial support for people who are facing particular barriers. We need the kind of employment support that, ironically, the government is actually expanding, but this is not to a big enough scale and it is being swallowed up by negative rhetoric and talk of harsher expansions.

“We need the government to work with employers to open all jobs to be flexible for people who are balancing care or health. The people we see would often love to work but can’t find an employer who would meet the right conditions.”

Barnard describes the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) new WorkWell scheme, intended to support people into work, as “exactly the right direction the government should be going in”. But she says it is being “swamped both in financial and rhetorical terms by poorly grounded, harsh, evidence-free rhetoric”.



For Steve, the DWP’s latest plans are difficult to hear. He found himself in a dark place when he was struggling financially. His mum eventually realised how much he was battling to make ends meet and took him to a food bank.

“I definitely wouldn’t have gone on my own and the anxiety would have been too high and the shame and the stigma, so she took me in there,” Steve recalls. “The people there were lovely. One of the volunteers there had similar experiences, and it was so nice to have someone who really got it.”

A few months later, Steve was doing better and he started volunteering at the food bank so he could use his experiences to help other people – and he also wants to speak out now to encourage others to seek support and to call for changes to protect vulnerable people. 

steve/ disability benefits and food banks
Steve was forced to turn to a food bank because his benefits were not enough to help him cover the costs of essentials. He now volunteers at his local food bank and wants to speak out to eradicate the stigma. Image: Supplied

“In my food bank, in one year, we’ve doubled in demand. People are still generous, but demand has risen so much,” Steve says. “Last year, we were buying in about 20% of the food to top up the stocks. And this year we’re buying in more like 80% of it. There’s a lot of stuff we’re not able to give people anymore.”

The Trussell Trust has raised concerns about the end to the household support fund in September. Funding is given to local authorities to help vulnerable people “meet daily needs such as food, clothing and utilities”.

Its end could mean “crisis support will disappear altogether in many areas” and more people will need to turn to food banks to survive.

The Trussell Trust is calling for urgent reform of the social security system to ensure everyone’s income covers the costs of the essentials they need to survive, and to end the need for food banks for good. 

Steve would also like to see reforms to healthcare services to deal with NHS backlogs and for there to be proper support systems in place so that people can get the help they need.

He believes that he may never be able to go back to work, as much as he would like to.

“It is enraging that this is still happening to people, that we as a society are letting people down this badly,” Barnard says. “We have a collective responsibility to take care of each other. One of the ways we do that is through social security. 

“But I do feel a lot of hope. It’s striking how unified the public are on this. We’re in fairly polarised times, but a large majority of the public says food banks shouldn’t exist, that poverty is really worrying and that the government should step in and act. What we need is our political leaders across the board to realise we need them to do something now.”

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