Sep 14, 2017

  • This report, authored by two sociologists at the University of Oxford, is based on a large-scale survey of food bank users; the survey was co-funded by the ESRC and the Trussell Trust.
  • Food bank users are predominantly made up of single, working-age adults without children, lone mothers with children, and families with three or more children, but within the overall group, there is a high proportion of people with a disability; It is noted that these groups have been severely impacted by benefit reforms.
  • Almost all households interviewed had experienced at least one of the following indicators of financial vulnerability: a drop in income in the past three months, unsteady incomes, or an unexpected expense or rise in expenses in the past three months.
  • Among low-income households, people with disabilities are three times more likely to visit a food bank than other people in a similar financial situation, underlining how welfare changes have disproportionately affected working-age people with disabilities.
  • About 39 per cent of food bank users were awaiting the outcome of a benefit application; of these, 19.2 per cent said they had been waiting for seven or more weeks.
  • The survey data suggests that food bank usage is occurring for most users in a context of chronic household food insecurity; two-thirds of survey respondents reported severe chronic occurrences every month or almost every month over the past year, involving skipping meals, feeling hungry but going without eating, or going whole days without eating; the authors suggest that this is a serious public health concern.
  • This briefing will be of interest to members and officers in all types of authorities with an interest in welfare reform, poverty reduction, and food security.

Briefing in full


In the past decade, there has a growth in the number of food banks run by voluntary organisations and in their use among people who use them for emergency food assistance. This growth has been especially rapid in the past seven years. Food security (or insecurity) and emergency food aid in the UK has been the subject of a Parliamentary debate, and an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Inquiry (pdf document).

The coordinating body of the UK’s largest network of food banks is The Trussell Trust. The Trust opened its first food bank in Salisbury in 2000. Between 2009 and 2017 the numbers of food banks operated, or franchised by, the Trussell Trust rose from 30 to over 420, consisting of over 1350 distribution centres. The number of instances of people receiving emergency food parcels through the Trust’s network has grown from about 61,500 in 2010-11 to over 1.18 million in by the year to end April 2017.

Most of the food which the Trussell Trust distributes is donated by individuals, largely through collections at schools, churches and supermarkets. Volunteers help operations by sorting, packing and distributing food in parcels intended to last the recipient and their family for a minimum of three days. Member food banks are asked to follow a standard model of operation which includes establishing relationships with local frontline social service providers, health providers, and schools, who become “voucher holders” or “referral agents”. Each voucher holder receives trackable vouchers, which they issue to clients at their own discretion. Trussell Trust guidance recommends that referral agents provide clients with no more than three referral vouchers within a six-month period, as the model is not intended to habitually support people over a long period of time, but in practice, food banks use their discretion based on an individual’s situation. Clients can be offered ‘signposting’ to other services and increasingly additional services are being co-located on-site.

There is now a large body of literature on food bank usage (see related briefings), but it relies on a variety of approaches to gathering data and different case study sites. This report, authored by Rachel Loopstra and Doireann Lalor (Department of Sociology, University of Oxford) is the first based on a large-scale survey (the survey) of food bank users. It was co-funded by the ESRC and the Trussell Trust.

The specific research objectives of the large-scale survey of food bank users were:

  • o To describe the socio-demographic and economic profile of people receiving food parcels
  • o To understand food bank clients’ access to social security, where gaps in support may exist, or where support may not be sufficient
  • o To explore the prevalence of recent short-term income and expenditure shocks, and describe the causes of these shocks
  • o To understand the severity and duration of household food insecurity and how frequently people received food from Trussell Trust food banks
  • o To explore the prevalence of health conditions and disabilities and the nature of such challenges.

The information required to fulfil these objectives was collected via a survey administered across 23 food banks operating in England, Scotland, and Wales, although this report deals only with the interviews conducted in the first 18 sites over the period October-December 2016 during which 413 people were interviewed. Each participating food bank was responsible for recruiting study participants. It is thought that the sample obtained matched client characteristics as recorded by data routinely collected by foodbanks. At the level of individual food banks, there was little evidence of bias between clients asked and not asked to participate, or between those participating and those who declined to do so.

Socio-demographic and household characteristics

Approximately equal numbers of men and women participated in the survey. The majority of participants were under 50 years of age, with most between the ages of 25 and 49. Female participants tended to be younger, whereas about a quarter of men in the sample were over 50.

Approximately two-thirds of male food bank users were single, while only half of women were single and another third were partnered or married. By gender, the most common household type using food banks is single male households, followed by female lone parents with dependent children, single females, and couples with dependent children. As a proportion of households in the sample, 38.7 per cent included a child under 16 years of age. Among households with children under 16 years of age, 40 per cent of households had three or more children. Only 2.1 per cent of households included pensioners.

People using food banks have much lower formal education levels compared with the general population. Among survey respondents, over one-third had no formal qualifications, but 37 per cent indicated GCSE/O level as their highest qualification, over 20 per cent had A levels or equivalent, and 6 per cent indicated that they had a first degree level or higher qualification (in the general population, about 29 per cent have a degree level qualification). The majority of food bank users were under 40 years of age, which the authors suggest reflect the growing incidence of low income among young people.

The majority of respondents (87 per cent) were born in the UK. Of those not born in the UK, less than half had moved to the UK within the past five years. About 3.7 per cent indicated that they were seeking asylum in the UK. Although small, this proportion among food bank users is far higher than in the general population.

Compared with the general population, there is an over-representation among food bank users of single person households, lone parents with dependent or non-dependent children, and households with three or more children. When compared with the general population of individuals living in low income households (defined according to the official definition of those with less than 60 per cent of median income after housing costs) there is an over-representation among food bank users of single parent households and single male households but an under-representation of couples with or without children and pensioners. Of the children living in households using food banks, a far higher proportion were in households with three or more children than in the general low income population.

It is noted that the proportion of food bank users who are pensioners is far lower than the proportion of pensioners in the general population known to be living in poverty, meaning that low income pensioners either do not need or are not accessing food banks.

Economic status and benefit receipt

About 45 per cent of households accessing foodbanks contained only economically inactive members (mainly for reasons of health, caring responsibilities, or study), 26 per cent contained only unemployed members, and about 5.5 per cent contained members who were either unemployed or economically inactive. Just under 15 per cent indicated that some household income was derived from employment. Where a household contained someone in work, for the larger proportion of households it was for part time work only.

On sources of income, nearly 10 per cent indicated that they had had no source of income over the past month. Nearly 70 per cent indicated that they had received income from one of the main out-of-work benefits, including ESA/IB (42.8 percent) and JSA (16.8 per cent). Compared with the general population, there is a much higher proportion of food bank users claiming out-of-work benefits. When comparing the proportions of food bank users by benefits type with the proportions of each type of benefit in the general claiming population, there are disproportionately high numbers in the Work-Related Activity ESA Group (ESA-WRAG) among food bank users. For some, groups, however, such as the ESA Support Group, the proportion is lower.

About 39 per cent of food bank users were awaiting the outcome of a benefit application. Of these, 38 per cent indicated their application had been approved but they were still waiting for payment, and 60 per cent said they had not heard the outcome. For the majority, it had been 2-6 weeks since they had made their application, but 19.2 per cent indicated waiting for seven or more weeks. The benefits most frequently applied for were JSA, ESA, Personal Independence Payment, Child Tax Credits, and Housing Benefit. According to data collected by the Trussell Trust in mid-2016, 27.4 of referrals to food banks were made because of a benefit delay. Referral agencies tend to only record one primary reason for referral, whilst the survey collected data on people currently waiting for a benefit payment or decision made for applications in response to other reasons recorded by the referral agencies, such as job loss, low income, or changes in household circumstances.

It is noted that as Universal Credit is rolled out, more new claimants will be subject to a waiting period of a minimum of six weeks, but the survey data show that, for some people, waiting just a couple of weeks can mean having to use a food bank.

Household incomes and financial insecurity

Households using food banks had incomes that were well below low-income thresholds for 2015-16. Most households had incomes that fell between £100 and £500 in the past month. The average household income, adjusted for household size, was £319.43. After excluding households reporting no income in the past month (16 per cent of households), the average household income was £387.54.

Just over one-third of respondents reported that in the past month their income had been less than it had been three months previously, indicating a recent loss in income. In the majority of cases, an income loss was tied to a benefit related change, such as a sanction, a benefit transition, no longer receiving a benefit received previously, or because of a change in benefit allowance. In some cases, income losses were tied to loss of a job, fewer work hours, or wages not being paid by an employer. In general, personal or household circumstances such as separation, maternity leave, or sick leave were less frequently indicated as reasons for losses in income.

When respondents were asked to rank how steady their incomes were from month to month or week to week, 44 per cent of households said their incomes were somewhat unsteady or extremely unsteady. A high proportion of households with employment indicated having unsteady incomes.

Over 60 per cent of households indicated one or more types of expenditure shocks in the past three months. Rising living costs related to housing-related costs (e.g. heating costs) and food prices were most frequently reported, but about 10 per cent of respondents had experienced unexpected expenses related to an accident or emergency, a new baby, or new medical condition. The most frequently indicated experiences in the other category included rising costs related to children and unexpected or rising debt repayments. A number of people noted how difficult it had become to cover their council tax bill

Household food insecurity, food bank use and other indicators of material deprivation

Household food insecurity was measured using a Food Security Survey module used to monitor food insecurity in the United States and Canada. Households were classified as marginally food insecure if they answered affirmatively to only one question on the food insecurity scale, usually relating to anxiety about food supplies running low or being unable to eat balanced meals. Households were scored as moderately food insecure if they had experienced qualitatively changing diets and possibly cutting back on food. Severe food insecurity is indicated when households have cut back on food intake, experienced hunger, or have gone whole days without eating,

In this survey, 78 per cent of respondents had experienced severe food insecurity in the past 12 months. The prevalence of severe household food insecurity in the sample is more than five times higher than that observed among a study of low-income households in the UK Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey over 2003-2005 and is more than 10 times higher than the level of moderate and severe food insecurity observed in the general population in the Food Standard Agency’s 2016 Food and You Survey. Compared to small studies of people using food banks in Canada and the Netherlands, this level of severity is also about 20-40 percentage points higher.

The figures suggest that food bank usage is occurring for most users in a context of chronic household food insecurity. Almost all households reported at least a low-level of chronic food insecurity in the past 12 months, but two-thirds reported severe chronic occurrences every month or almost every month over the past year, involving skipping meals, feeling hungry but going without eating, or going whole days without eating

Respondents were asked to say how often they had used foodbanks in the past 12 months and past 3 months. Those whose number of visits in the past 3 months matched the total number of visits in the past 12 months were classed as recent users. Those using food banks four or more times were classed as frequent users.

Some of the households reporting food insecurity had used food banks frequently in the past year, but for more than half of them, it was a new or recent event, suggesting a long period of time before households received food from a Trussell Trust food bank. In addition to receiving help from Trussell Trust food banks, about 17 per cent of respondents reported receiving food parcels from other agencies, such as other food banks or a local authority, in the past 12 months.

Households interviewed for the survey had also experienced deprivation in other basic essentials. About 16 per cent of households using food banks were homeless, and more than 20 per cent of respondents indicated that they had slept rough in the past 12 months or were currently doing so. Over 50 per cent of respondents had gone without heating for more than four days in a given month, had been unable to afford essential toiletries, or had been unable to afford appropriate clothes. Many households reported being behind on bill payments. Paying rent was a struggle for many households, with 21.3 per cent of social renters saying it was “very difficult” compared with 34.8 of private renters.

About half of respondents reported having an outstanding loan. Loans from family and friends were the most frequently indicated source. Among households who indicated other unexpected expenses, a number indicated debt repayments as a shock expense in the past three months.

Health conditions, illness and disabilities

Survey respondents were asked to indicate if they personally had a health condition, and whether or not any household members had a health condition. Almost two-thirds of respondents indicated they had a health condition, and another 5 per cent of respondents did not have one themselves, but had a household member who did. Most respondents reporting a health condition said that it had a moderate or severe impact on daily living. Among food bank users, households with disabilities are almost three times more prevalent among low-income food bank users than among low-income households in the general population.

Almost one-third of respondents (or a household member) in the total sample had a mental health condition, depression being among the more commonly reported. Again in comparison with the general population, these conditions are over-represented among people using food banks. Other common conditions included respiratory problems, most frequently asthma, followed by back problems and neck pain.


Food bank users are predominantly made up of single, working-age adults without children, lone mothers with children, and families with three or more children, but within the overall group, there is a high proportion of people with a disability. It is noted that these groups have been severely impacted by benefit reforms (see related briefings), including the transition of lone parents with children over five from Income Support to JSA and increasing conditionality for lone parents, changes to the local housing allowance for individuals under 35, the benefit cap (which particularly impacts on large families), the introduction of conditionality and sanctions for people with disabilities deemed able to prepare for work, and increasing conditionality and sanctions for JSA claimants. However, reductions in income were for some respondents simply due to processing delays linked with new claims or changes in their current benefits.

A large proportion of households indicated financial pressures generated by the rising costs of food and heating, which combined with the freeze in the real value of benefits (see related briefings) suggests that current benefit levels are insufficient to protect households from food insecurity and destitution.

It is already well-known that people living with a physical limitation or who suffer from poor mental health face a much higher rate of poverty than the rest of the population, but the scale of over-representation of these groups among food bank users is significant. Even among low-income households they are three times more likely to visit a food bank than other people in a similar financial situation, underlining how welfare changes have disproportionately affected working-age people with disabilities. The high prevalence of mental health conditions among food bank users indicates a ‘bi-directional’ relationship between mental health and food insecurity. Financial insecurity and household food insecurity can lead to declines in mental health, but mental health conditions can also contribute to difficulty obtaining and maintaining work. More generally, the high rates of chronic severe food insecurity among food bank users are likely to have serious consequences for the health of this population. The ability or otherwise of people to acquire sufficient and adequate food is a serious public health concern requiring food insecurity be made a cross-departmental priority in the UK.

Questions are raised about whether the type of short-term intervention offered by agencies like the Trussell Trust can meet the needs of the people using food banks. The findings of this research, it is argued, strongly point to the need to address ‘upstream’ drivers of this problem, particularly insecure and insufficient incomes. Insecurity and unsteadiness in income means even those in work can be in income crisis.


Data from the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) indicate that the statistics made available from the Trussell Trust given only a partial picture of a much larger phenomenon. It is estimated that there are about 1,373 distribution centres that operate out of Trussell Trust’s 419 food banks, which alongside 651 ‘independents’, make a total of 2,024 food banks. It is not known, or clear, how the addition of hundreds of free breakfast clubs for children would alter the picture of food insecurity among families in Britain. Although the scale of the problem is hard to quantify exactly, it is clear that the problem is growing, as evidenced by the Trussell Trust’s time series set out in the introduction. Currently, nearly every community in Britain has a food bank.

Although the overall picture remains somewhat muddied, the Oxford University study gives a clear indication of the prompts to food bank usage, which clearly lie in unexpected drops in income, themselves linked to changes in the benefits system. In general, the real level of working age benefits are falling, but many people experience lengthy delays, both in waiting for the outcome of an application and for payment once an application has been decided. It is difficult to understand why this should be an especially difficult problem to fix.

Despite the robustness of the data collected by the Oxford University researchers, there are still areas of uncertainty. For example, it is unclear to what extent people in work are subject to food insecurity, because the profile of food bank users could be influenced by the operation of the referral system. Clearly, food insecurity is a mounting public health problem and deserves more public support in understanding its causes and devising remedies.