It is almost two months after Christmas and food banks are recovering from one of their most active periods of the year. One of the UK’s busiest food banks in Newcastle-upon-Tyne saw the biggest surge in use in its three-year history in December with 100 people coming through the doors within a couple of hours.

Yet, the 1.1 million people who received emergency food supplies from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2015 – 2016 barely scratches the surface of people living with insufficient food in the UK today.  Food bank data underestimates the number of people facing insecure food access in the UK and is, hence, providing a misleading picture of UK food insecurity.  United Nations (UN) survey data suggests that an estimated 8.4 million people – 10.1% of the UK population – were food insecure in 2014, while one in every eight workers  – 3.8 million people – are now living in poverty.

Trussell Trust foodbanks are the most commonly discussed form of assistance available for people struggling to afford food, but there are many other forms of support that are just as active at this time of year. We looked in detail at food aid providers in Bradford, a city in the North of England, and found food aid to be varied and dynamic.  It includes charities providing food parcels to take away, soup kitchens, community cafes and community allotments, many of which have a long history but, like food banks, have responded to apparently rising hunger in the UK since 2008.

Despite the generosity of many of those involved, some of the realities of food aid require closer scrutiny. In Bradford, a city with a multi-ethnic population, faith-based food aid was common, but most faith-based providers were Christian, with very little Muslim provision of (or use of) food aid. In particular, Christian food banks and soup kitchens reported serving very few Pakistani and/or Muslim clients. Although the reasons for this were not stated, we identified possible forms of unintentional exclusion, such as the inability in most organisations to cater for cultural diets, over-representation of people of a ‘White British’ ethnicity among the staff and clients and, in some food banks and soup kitchens, the expectation that clients engage with Christian doctrine or symbols.

We also found that, in the context of austerity, food aid is adopting service responsibilities previously borne by the state, it is addressing issues – poverty and hunger – which, according to the 1945 welfare model, were traditionally the prerogative of the state. Food aid, however, is not developing into a proxy welfare state but is reflective of a pre-welfare state system of food distribution, supported by religious institutions and individual/business philanthropy, but adapted to be consistent with elements of the ‘Big Society’ narrative. In this context, staff, unrestricted by accountability frameworks, may distribute assistance according to ‘deservingness’ or adherence to standards of behaviour. With the progress of food aid, we are going back into the past.

The rise in food poverty and food aid appears, on the surface, to be a new phenomenon, which has only since 2008, and particularly since 2010, gained real traction in political, policy and media debates. However, only a minority of the organisations we spoke to in Bradford were founded post-2008.  Newer organisations were more likely to be food banks and social food charities. Some older organisations had recently expanded their food activities into emergency food provision, while some long-standing emergency food providers discussed serving a new type of in-work client.

Nevertheless, community food-assistance for people in need was long-established in the case study area and even organisations that appeared new tended to be affiliated to older organisations, often churches, with a long history of charitable work. The ‘new’ element of community food aid relates to the people served.  All types of organisation were assisting a new type of client:  people whose needs were urgent, who felt desperate and who had nowhere else to turn.

As food and fuel prices rise, it is likely that food poverty and food aid will remain key – and increasingly urgent – issues in 2017. It is vital that the government faces up to the reality of hunger in the UK and the inadequacy of charitable coverage.

Read the open access article by Maddy Power here.


  1. While resources and energies are deployed to relieve hunger through technical measures such as improving agriculture, and as important as these are, inter-related issues such as poverty means that political solutions are likely required as well for meaningful and long term hunger alleviation.

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