The UK cost of living crisis has led to a record number of people turning to food banks, with more than 750,000 people seeking help from the Trussell Trust for the first time. The charity's network distributed almost 3 million food parcels in 2022-23, a year-on-year increase of 37%, and the highest ever total. Over a million children were living in households receiving the trust's food parcels.
The charity revealed that one in five people using its food banks were in work, highlighting the difficulties that many low-income households face in affording everyday essentials amid soaring energy bills and food prices. Emma Revie, Trussell's chief executive, said that the demand for food parcels last year was even higher than during the first year of the Covid pandemic.
The scale of demand has forced the charity to rethink the logistics of food distribution as levels of food donations have failed to keep pace. Trussell had to spend £7.5m last year, £4.5m more than in the previous year, replenishing food bank stocks. The number of Trussell Trust food parcels distributed has grown by 120% over the past five years, with the figure increasing in four of the following five years before reaching its current peak.
Food bank use has soared across all regions of the UK, with the north-east of England experiencing the biggest annual increase in food parcel distribution at 54%. No region or nation of the UK saw less than a 28% rise in food parcel numbers given out.
The Trussell Trust's chief executive, Brian Thomas, says that they are experiencing an unprecedented rise in the number of people coming to the food bank, particularly employed people who are no longer able to balance a low income against rising living costs. Until recently, the bulk of people using food banks were destitute, but static incomes and rising prices have changed that profile. People in low-paid and insecure jobs, typically in retail, social care, hospitality, and warehousing, are increasingly reliant on charity food.
While the Trussell figures are a reliable general indicator of worsening trends in levels of UK hunger and poverty, they only represent part of the picture of people struggling to afford food. The trust does not operate in about a quarter of UK local authority areas, and thousands of food banks and food aid charities exist outside its network. Government figures suggest that just 14% of people in severe food insecurity visit food banks, indicating that food banks as a whole do not capture the full extent of hunger.
Although the government has made one-off cost-of-living payments to help low-income households, the Trussell Trust's data suggests they did not make a lasting difference. Food bank use fell slightly in the weeks following these payments in August and December, only to rise again soon after. Sabine Goodwin, a coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, believes that food bank users should be given cash or food vouchers rather than food parcels, and welfare benefits should be increased to tackle poverty in the long term.
Earlier this year, the Trussell Trust called for a change in the law to ensure that the value of welfare benefits meets the real costs of food, energy, and everyday basics. Its research with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that core benefit levels were at least £140 a month less than basic living costs.
The government has stated its commitment to eradicating poverty and recognizes the pressures of the rising cost of living. They have uprated benefits by 10.1% and made an unprecedented increase to the national living wage this month, on top of changes already made to universal credit that allow claimants to keep more of their hard-earned money - a boost worth £1,000 a year on average.