Growing need, hidden hunger or supplier-induced demand: a quantitative examination of rising food bank use and insecure food access in the UK.

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Diabetes & Nutritional Sciences


Nearly unheard of five years ago, in 2014/15 the UK's largest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust, distributed over one million food parcels, over sixteen-times the number distributed in 2010/11. In light of rising food bank use, the issue of hunger is at the forefront of domestic political debate in the UK. Have welfare reforms caused rising hunger or are people just taking advantage of newly available free food? Are people really struggling to afford enough food or is this a problem of lack of food skills? These debates have revealed the limited evidence on the scope and causes of insecure access to food in the UK, impeding development of appropriate policy and practice responses.

The need to understand this problem is pressing. Insecure access to food has profound impacts on social well-being and health, impacting child development and ability to learn, mental health, and nutritional intakes. Identifying whether the problem is increasing, what is driving its growth, and the level of vulnerability in the population are urgent concerns. There have been calls from government agencies and non-profit advocacy groups alike for systematic research on this problem.

This study will fill these knowledge gaps and advance understanding of insecure access to food in the UK. Specifically, study aims are:
1. To develop a conceptual framework for understanding and evaluating food insecurity in the UK

2. To quantitatively evaluate the change in food insecurity and its determinants through the recessionary and austerity periods in the UK and compare these trends with the rise in food bank use.

First, I will bring together key debates and evidence on food bank use in the UK to map a conceptual framework for understanding insecure access to food and its drivers. Next, using data from publicly available datasets, including Understanding Society (an ESRC priority dataset), I will construct novel indicators of food insecurity to allow me to examine trends in insecure access to food through recession and implementation of welfare reform. These will then be compared with trends in food bank use, enabling me to examine the extent to which (1) there is evidence rising food bank use has exceeded rising insecure access to food, suggesting 'supplier-induced demand', or (2) there is evidence that trends in food bank use are not capturing the extent to which food insecurity has risen, suggesting there is 'hidden hunger'. Lastly, I will use data from these surveys to understand what household factors are associated with vulnerability to food insecurity, such as unemployment, loss of wages, and experience of welfare reforms.

Given the importance of this work for resolving public and policy debate about rising food bank use, key study aims also include having impact in policy, practice, and academic communities in the UK. Specifically, the impact aims of this project include:

3. To contribute to a better informed public sector, civil society, and public by answering questions about the extent to which food insecurity has increased and its causes.
4. To advance policies and practice recommendations aimed at addressing food insecurity.
5. To enhance theoretical understanding of what food insecurity is, how it can be measured and monitored, and why it is important to do so.
6. To build a collaborative research network to take forward monitoring and research on food insecurity.

This project builds upon established relationships with food aid providers, policymakers, advocacy groups, and researchers, who include the Food Foundation, Oxfam GB, the Trussell Trust, and members of the Feeding Britain network. Knowledge exchange activities include establishing a stakeholder advisory group, a one-day conference for food aid providers, a policymaker roundtable, and a collaborative two-day research conference for researchers and stakeholders to share research findings and set a research agenda for food insecurity in the UK going forward.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of this research include the following groups and interests:
Public Sector: Department heads and senior advisors in government, Cabinet Ministers, MPs and Peers, particularly members of the Feeding Britain network (formerly the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger); and local government. This research is of relevance to the public sector because the existence of hunger and inability for individuals to meet basic food needs raises questions about potential gaps in the social safety net. The launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Defra commissioned report on food bank use highlights interest in these questions. I will engage the public sector through the stakeholder advisory group, by producing a publically accessible research report and specific policy briefing, and by hosting a policymaker roundtable. This work will have impact in this sector by informing the need to monitor the problem in the UK population and policy intervention.

Civil Society Organizations (opinion-formers): The rise of food banks in the UK has prompted many civil society organizations to make hunger in the UK an area of focus, as evidenced by reports produced by the Church of England, Church Action Against Poverty, Oxfam GB, and Fabian commission, among others. My research questions have been informed through my engagement with these groups, and a specific aim of my project is to produce evidence to inform policy recommendations. I will engage these groups through my stakeholder advisory group, partnering with them in knowledge exchange events, and sharing the project report with my contacts in these groups and inviting their comment. These findings will impact this sector by proving evidence to shape policy and programmatic advocacy work on reducing food insecurity.

Civil Society Organizations (frontline emergency food aid providers): These organizations include the Trussell Trust Foodbank Network, independent community food banks, and other food redistribution networks (i.e. Fareshare). These groups are eager for empirical research to answer who is vulnerable to hunger in the population to improve their targeting and referral systems, what other problems individuals face which can inform their signposting and provision of other support, and what types of policies will reduce the demand for their food assistance. In addition to reaching this group through activities listed above, in partnership with the Trussell Trust, I will host a conference for these organizations aimed at co-production of answers to these questions. This work will impact this sector by contributing to identification of ways to improve their intervention efforts and reach.

The media: The media has actively engaged in covering stories of rising food bank use, telling stories of hardships faced by users as well as stories of people taking advantage of free food. Journalists have raised questions about the accuracy for Trussell Trust data (e.g. BBC More or Less) and highlighted the political debate about causes of food bank use. This research will impact the media by providing empirical data to resolve key debates about rising food bank use. I will engage the media through working with the press office and through partnering with The Guardian to host graphics highlighting key research findings.

The public: Widespread media coverage of rising food bank use has raised questions about the existence of hunger in the UK among the public, causing both disbelief and anger. I will reach the public with my research through media engagement, production of a publically accessible report targeted toward a general audience, writing blog posts and maintaining a twitter account. In addition, I will impact understanding of the problem by designing an event for the ESRC Festival of Social Science that highlights competing demands on household food expenditure for low income families informed by findings in this research.


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Description My ESRC fellowship has enabled me to undertake a range of research projects exploring the recent rise of food bank use in the UK. The rapid rise of people seeking charitable food assistance from food banks has been an issue of intense political debate. Many view rising food bank use as a sign of growing failure of the social security system to provide adequate financial protection for low-income individuals and families when they are unable to work or receiving too little employment income. Changes to the welfare system in the UK have also meant new methods of administration of benefits and new sanctioning penalties, which can mean benefit payments do not reach intended beneficiaries efficiently or at all. But food banks are also providing a new service in places where this form of charitable assistance has not existed before. Thus, others question whether rising usage is an outcome of growing poverty or instead, that it could just be that people who have always struggled to make ends meet are now newly using food banks, in addition to other services and methods of coping on low incomes. My research focuses on disentangling what rising food bank use tells us about poverty and household food insecurity in the UK. Using a novel dataset of households using food banks, I am conducting secondary analyses to understand the profile of households using food banks. This work has identified key household types who are over-represented in food banks compared to the UK general population and compared to the low-income population. In general, the pattern of households using food banks reflects groups identified to have been particularly impacted by changing welfare entitlements. Thus, their over-representation in food banks supports arguments and earlier evidence that welfare reforms and reductions in entitlements targeting single parents, people with disabilities, and large families have meant they do not always have sufficient financial resources to afford enough food. These findings have been shared with Members of Parliament, Government Ministers, food bank providers, and the general public to aid understanding of who is particularly vulnerable to needing to use food banks. Outcomes of these dissemination events are still being tracked. Food bank use does not provide a complete picture of who is struggling to afford sufficient amounts of food in the UK. Through an analysis of the 2016 Food and You survey, which newly included a measure of household food insecurity, I have identified household risk factors associated with marginal, moderate, and severe food insecurity in the UK. These findings can be compared to the profile of households using food banks to identify who, among food insecure households, are using food banks and who are not. This work has been shared at the End Hunger UK conference in October 2017 and with policy analysts working for the Department for Work and Pensions. It is important for two reasons. First, it raises questions about the reach of charitable food assistance: how do characteristics of how food banks operate shape who is able to use them? Second, it identifies groups experiencing hunger who are invisible when food bank data alone are relied upon to describe vulnerability to hunger in the UK. This analysis has contributed to the public and policymakers having a wider view of the problem of food insecurity in the UK, beyond that only visible through food bank use. This work has contributed to campaigns for household food insecurity to be regularly measured and monitored in the UK.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Expert advisor to The Food Foundation
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Policy Advisor to End Hunger UK
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Through advising on the need for household food insecurity measurement in the UK, I have contributed to this being named as a key policy ask for the End Hunger UK campaign. Their campaign on measurement has reached the public, policymakers, and other civil society groups. MPs signed on to a Private Members' Bill in support of measurement of UK ( Although the bill has yet to have its second reading in the House of Commons, a poll conducted by the YouGov following the campaign to measure food insecurity found that 77% of adults agree the Government should measure household food insecurity (
Description King's Together Award
Amount £19,500 (GBP)
Funding ID MEN3603 
Organisation King's College London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2017 
End 06/2018
Description Small research grant
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation Oxfam GB 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2017 
End 07/2018