Opinion

‘We’re facing a policy-driven public health calamity’: Trussell Trust's devastating report

Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, writes that the new Trussell Trust food bank data is "devastating" and shows urgent action is needed from the government

Trussell Trust food banks

Food banks are struggling to cope in the cost of living crisis. Image: Trussell Trust

Today’s devastating food bank data from the Trussell Trust must serve as a wake-up call to elected representatives both in government and in waiting. Not only have millions of food parcels been distributed by around 1,600 food banks but these alarming figures represent a fraction of the UK’s charitable food aid picture. 

IFAN’s data alone, collated from some of hundreds of independent food banks operating across the UK, show relentless increases in demand. What’s more, IFAN food banks are struggling to keep up with the volume and are having to reduce the size of food parcels. Morale is low and volunteers are running on empty. And there are thousands more charitable groups supporting people unable to afford food.

But wider food insecurity statistics tell a far bleaker story still. The UK government’s own data from the Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey found that of UK households reporting severe food insecurity from April 2021 to March 2022, just 14 per cent reported using a food bank. 

That’s 86 per cent of households where people struggled to afford food – skipping meals or cutting back on food because of lack of income – and did not turn to a food bank. It’s evident that legions of people are suffering in silence. Today’s alarming figures are undoubtedly the very tip of the iceberg.  

The growing food insecurity crisis is impacting every age group and cohort of people. IFAN food banks have been reporting a rise in the numbers of parents and carers unable to feed their infants. Healthy Start vouchers don’t even touch the sides when it comes to formula costs. 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, more and more pensioners are asking for the support of food banks. Until recently, pensioners didn’t tend to seek out the help of food banks, but desperate times are changing patterns. 

In-work poverty has become more widespread and even people with multiple jobs are having to resort to food banks for help. Some households need to repeatedly use a food bank as advice and support to maximise income reaches its limit. Meanwhile, food bank teams continue to support large numbers of disabled people and single men who are increasingly falling into destitution. 

The impact of food insecurity on people’s health is well-documented. Food insecurity is linked to malnutrition, poor mental health, chronic disease and poorer child health outcomes. The Money and Mental Health Institute recently ran a survey demonstrating the shocking impact of food insecurity on people’s mental health.

Food insecurity is associated with poorer diets and health and results in negative outcomes across age groups. Not eating and going hungry impacts on immunity and can cause malnutrition and heart disease. People are more likely to fall ill if their diet is inadequate. 

The Childhood Trust recently found that food insecurity was negatively impacting the physical and mental health of children and families. The effects of food insecurity on children include “reduced educational attainment, poor social wellbeing and low quality of life”. Latest Food Foundation data show four million children are living with food insecurity, increasing their risk of malnutrition and obesity. 

Infant food insecurity is on the rise. We’re storing a ticking time bomb that will impact people’s mental and physical health for generations to come. The Institute of Health Equity couldn’t be clearer: “Having insufficient money to lead a healthy life is a highly significant cause of health inequalities.”

As Tom Pollard wrote in his recent report for IFAN and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the mental health impact of poverty: “Beyond the enormous and human cost, long-term health problems put a huge strain on public finances through the NHS, benefit expenditure and lost tax revenue.” Ignoring the writing on the wall is destroying our health and wealth. 

The answer is a cash-first (income-focused) response to food insecurity. Food parcels will only ever alleviate hunger. Increasing incomes is the game changer. Social security payments and wages must provide the means for a decent standard of living. 

An essentials guarantee would be a very welcome start but more will need to be done to ensure everyone can afford adequate and nutritious food. Ultimately a cash-first approach to food insecurity would pave the way for everyone to have a Living Income and a Healthy Standard of Living for All. These are the targets we need to reduce health inequalities and the devastating impact of struggling to afford food in terms of both life quality and quantity. 

And long-term targets should be the goal and a way to bring the UK’s current “permacrisis” to an end. A key priority must be a commitment from the UK Government to “commence” section 1 of the Equality Act. This would mean governments at any level would be obliged to eliminate policies which cause social and economic damage. 

And if section 1 was in the statute book, this would pave the way to adopting socio-economic rights including the right to social security, the right to housing and the right to food. These are rights that the UK is committed to through the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which successive governments haven’t put into force. 

Today’s shocking figures expose just how dangerous a path we’re on. But there is still reason to feel hopeful. Growing awareness will drive change. The concept of taking a cash-first approach to food insecurity is gaining traction. IFAN has co-produced cash-first referral leaflets with local partners in well over 100 local authorities. 
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ending the Need for Food Banks has recommended cash first approaches. The Scottish Government, already committed to a cash-first approach to tackling food insecurity, will shortly publish a national plan to end the need for food banks. We may be facing a public health calamity but politicians can take heed of increasingly stark warnings and turn this ship around.

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