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 understanding what food bank use tells us about poverty and household food insecurity in the UK. Findings from this body of research has been used in the following ways: 1) To illustrate the need for monitoring of household food insecurity in the UK and persuade the Surveys Branch within the Department for Work and Pensions this should be done. Through the Spring 2018, I consulted with civil servants within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Disadvantaged Families Analysis Team about a new piece of research the DWP was considering undertaking and which proposed to survey food bank users to understand hunger in the UK. In this consultation, I presented findings from two papers (both under review) to illustrate how focusing on food bank users to understand hunger would be short-sighted for two reasons: one, only a fraction of households that experience food insecurity use food banks, likely due to issues of access and stigma; and two, the distribution of characteristics of households using food banks differ from the broader population of households that experience food insecurity in the UK. I argued that to understand food insecurity in the UK, regular monitoring of food insecurity in a nationally representative household survey was needed. I recommended the Family Resources Survey be used because household food insecurity is a measure of material deprivation, and this is the key survey for measuring this outcome in the UK. In February 2019, it was announced that a measure of food insecurity will be added to this survey starting in April 2019. 2) To illustrate how rising food bank is explained, in part, to the rise of sanctions among benefit claimants, leading to the recommendation from the Work and Pensions committee that the Government evaluate the impact of sanctions on personal and financial well-being. In May 2018, I submitted evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee based upon findings from my 2018 Journal of Social Policy paper on sanctioning and food bank use. This paper illustrated the dynamic relationship between area-level sanction rates and food bank usage, finding that as the rates of benefit claimants increased across local areas, so did rates of food bank usage. This work complemented qualitative and case-study evidence gathered from the committee illustrating stories of people who have been sanctioned and not had the finances to be able to afford enough food to feed themselves or their families. On the 31st of October 2018, the Work and Pensions committee published a report using evidence from my study to support their recommendation for the "Department [Work and Pensions] include in the evaluation we have recommended an assessment-to whatever extent is feasible-of the impact sanctions have on claimants' financial and personal well-being, as well as on wider public services. It should take expert advice on how to achieve this and consider commissioning external research if necessary."
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 Measurement of household food insecurity to be included on UK-wide survey
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
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 ESRC London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (LISS DTP) Collaborative (CASE) Studentship Competition
Amount £76,000 (GBP)
Funding ID Hadfield-Spoor_KCL_1+3 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2022
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
Description Creation of knowledge exchange website and research network (Evidence and Network on UK Food Insecurity) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact There is increasing interest in the issue of household food insecurity in the UK, and also a growing body of research. In this context, a website was created to:
* To make facts, figures and evidence on household food insecurity easily accessible for researchers, policy makers and civil society organisations.
* Disseminate research findings from the award and also researchers from across the UK working on household food insecurity
* To foster connection, collaboration, and knowledge exchange between researchers, civil society organisations, and policy makers working on household food insecurity.

Over 60 students, academics, and third-sector employees have joined the research network. The Twitter account associated with the website has 277 followers. Researchers will be invited to submit short descriptions of their research findings as they emerge, providing a forum for the dissemination of research results in a timely manner. Blogs comment on news items related to food insecurity and research findings as they are published.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
Description Multi-disciplinary research conference on food and poverty in the UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact In the face of persistent year-on-year increases of emergency food provision and data pointing to the stark realities of food insecurity levels in the UK, I hosted this conference to take stock of the growing amount of research focused on food and poverty in the UK, and evaluate how this research can inform the development of policy and practice going forward. A call for papers from across academic disciplines but focused on food and poverty in the UK was circulated from October 2017. Over 55 abstracts were received; 25 were accepted for full oral presentations (15 minutes each) and 24 were accepted as pitch presentations (8 minutes each). These were presented in four sets of parallel sessions over the two days. In addition, three keynote speakers presented on the history of food insecurity research in the UK (Prof Elizabeth Dowler), food insecurity research in Canada (Prof Valerie Tarasuk), and minimum income standards (Prof Donald Hirsch). A panel discussion featured presentations from Dr Andrew Williams (School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University), Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite (Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, University of Birmingham), Dr Rebecca O'Connell (UCL Institute of Education, University of College London), and Dr Rachel Loopstra (Department of Nutritional Sciences, King's College London), who talked about their approaches to research on food and poverty in the UK, including ethnography, mixed methods, and quantitative analyses. Lastly, a panel discussion with representatives from Sustain, The Food Foundation, Church Action on Poverty, and The Trussell Trust, discussed how research on food and poverty informs their frontline work, campaigning, development of local food strategies, and policy development.
Summary of Key Themes Explored at the Conference
As awareness of food bank use has risen in the UK, it is has sparked interest in the experiences of people using food banks: what is it like to have to receive food charity? It has also sparked debate: should these charitable networks be relied on to provide the most basic of needs to vulnerable households and how effectively and fairly do they do so? It has also sparked questions: why do people need to use food banks? Many of the presentations focused on research aimed at answering these questions, highlighting the over-representation of people with disabilities, households in rented accommodation, and people affected by benefit changes and benefit reductions, in food banks, the shame that many people feel about having to use food banks, and the dilemmas inherent in relying on charities to provide food to people in poverty.
Yet, as illustrated from research presented by conference keynote speaker, Prof Valerie Tarausk, from Canada, people in food banks only represent a fraction of the households who experience insecure and insufficient access to food. A key theme that emerged from the conference was the need to for research to be conducted with people who are experiencing food insecurity but who may not use food banks. Firstly, there is a critical need for the problem of household food insecurity to be measured regularly on a national household survey. This was done in the 2016 Food and You Survey and showed that over 20% of adults were experiencing insecure food access, but ongoing monitoring of this problem has not been committed to by the Government. Experiences of households not having sufficient amounts of food and being unsure about whether their food supplies will last is a critical indicator of poverty, and Prof Tarasuk showed how monitoring this problem in Canada has enabled identification of policies that can reduce food insecurity in the population.
Along this same theme, some research presentations featured findings from interviews conducted with ethnic minority communities and found that within these communities, food banks were rarely used and that different forms of support - from faith communities and family-were used when households struggled to afford enough food. A number of presentations also focused on other strategies for helping households on low income acquire sufficient amounts of food, such as out-of-school food and activity programmes for children and social supermarkets. Early findings from evaluations of these types of programmes were presented, but questions are still outstanding about how well both food banks and alternative food programmes do at actually addressing the often chronic and severe food insecurity experienced by households in Britain.
Gaps in research were also identified. These included a lack of research focused on the health impacts of food insecurity in the UK, and the associated costs to the healthcare system associated with these outcomes. There is also a need for more research focused on evaluating how policy interventions impact on households' ability to afford sufficient amounts of food.
Lastly, the conference was greatly enhanced by the number of end users in the room. These included public sector representatives and third sector organisations. In particular, the last panel session focused on how research on food and poverty can be conducted in a way that can inform policy development and the work of organisations providing frontline services. Conference attendees heard from key third sector organisations on strategies for engaging the public, policymakers, and practitioners with their research findings.

The conference was attended by a wide range of people engaged and interested in research on food and poverty in the UK. These included:
o Academic staff 45
o Graduate students 40
o Public-sector staff (Central government) 10
o Public-sector staff (Local government) 5
o Third-sector staff 25
o Undergraduate students 4
o Private-sector staff 3
o Other 23
Impact: A survey of conference participants was conducted after the conference. Key takeaways indicated by participants emphasised the need for UK-wide food insecurity monitoring and the need for research to be conducted at the community or population level, rather than among participants solely selected from food banks. Over 94% of attendees conducting research indicated that learning from the conference would influence their analysis and discussion of their findings going forward. Among attendees involved in campaigning, 77% said the conference content would influence their work; among those involved in policy development, over 90% said the conference content would influence their work; and among those involved in public engagement, 85% indicated the conference would influence their work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Presentation of research findings for the Policy, External Affairs & Research team at The Trussell Trust 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact On the 16th August 2018, I hosted a presentation for the five members of The Trussell Trust Policy, External Affairs & Research team to share latest findings from my research, which focuses on understanding the disconnect between the numbers and types of people who experience food insecurity in the UK and the number and types of people who visit food banks. Discussion followed on the policy implications of the findings and how The Trussell Trust can use them in their campaigning activities. We also discussed the role of food banks in addressing household food insecurity and whether actions should be taken to address the fact that so few people experiencing food insecurity use food banks in the UK, potentially due to difficulty accessing them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Workshop for civil servants at Department for Work and Pensions on Household Food Insecurity 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact On 24 July 2018, I ran a workshop on household food insecurity for the Department for Work and Pensions. At the workshop, I gave a presentation focused on the following:

1) Why measure household food insecurity when material deprivation and low income are already monitored in the UK? Review of available measures and relationships with household food insecurity.
2) Available evidence on food insecurity in the UK:
a. Socio-demographic risk factors for food insecurity in the UK in 2016 and how has risk changed since the 2003-2005 Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey.
b. The role of food practices and supermarket access in household food insecurity.
c. The discrepancy in the characteristics and magnitude food bank use in comparison to food insecurity in the UK.
d. Relationships between food insecurity and food intake and socio-emotional health: available evidence and the need for more health research.

A period of questions and discussion followed, which included discussing the strengths/limitations of different surveys for monitoring household food insecurity in the UK, research gaps on household food insecurity and how to address these, and how to build cross-department working on issue. The workshop was attended by 15 attendees from a range of areas in the Department for Work and Pensions. These included the Surveys Branch, the Children, Families and Disadvantage directorate, the Universal Credit Analysis Division and the Income Analysis teams. Some key attendees were:
Donna Ward - Director, Children, Families and Disadvantage Directorate.
Joanna Littlechild - Head of Surveys Branch
Joanne Dalzell - Senior Analyst, Children, Families and Disadvantage Directorate
Iain Wright - Senior Analyst, Universal Credit Analysis Division

The most significant outcome was that it was directly reported by the DWP host of the event that attendees views on the importance of measuring household food insecurity were changed, resulting in the recent announcement that a measure of household food insecurity will be added to the DWP Family Resources Survey starting in 2019/20.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018