Food banks in the Trussell Trust network, and those which operate independently, have been doing an incredible job in formidable circumstances of ensuring that those in financial crisis continue to be able to access essential food supplies. We have also seen an amazing response from partner organisations, several businesses and individuals that is helping to support this vital activity across the UK.
Ensuring that food banks can keep operating at this time is vital, but it is also crucial that the necessary action is taken to ensure that more people are not forced to rely on food banks as a result of the economic impact of Covid-19. While we welcome the steps that the Government has taken to protect the income of many people and lessen the economic shock to the country, these must be kept under review and more support provided to ensure that the most vulnerable are not cut adrift.
1. The Trussell Trust supports a nationwide network of food banks and together we provide emergency food and support to people locked in poverty, and campaign for change to end the need for food banks in the UK.
2. Our food bank network consists of over 420 food banks operating out of 1,200 food bank distribution centres across the UK. Each of these provide a minimum of three days’ nutritionally balanced emergency food to people who are in crisis, as well as offering support and signposting to help people resolve the crises they face.
3. Between April 2018 and March 2019, food banks in our network provided 1.6 million food parcels to people in crisis, a 19% increase on the previous year. Our mid-year figures for the current financial year show a 23% increase compared to the first six months of last year. The coronavirus pandemic therefore comes at a time of already rising demand.
4. We want to see an end to the need for food banks in the UK. We therefore bring together the experiences of food banks in our network to highlight the socio-economic factors that lock people in poverty, and campaign for change towards this goal.
5. We welcome the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry into COVID-19 and food supply. Food banks in our network are responding to unprecedented challenges as a result of this pandemic, yet we are also seeing resilience, generosity, and collaboration in the face of adversity.
6. It is our firm conviction that food banks should not be necessary in a society such as ours, and we continue to work towards this by campaigning for change on policies that we know drive food bank use. However, as things stand, food banks are providing an essential service to people experiencing destitution across the UK. As such we are doing everything we can to support food banks in our network to sustain and rapidly reconfigure their services at this time, so they can continue to serve those with the fewest financial resources to deal with the present situation.
7. This submission outlines some of the challenges that food banks currently face, some of the ways we are responding to these in partnership with others, and some of the policy levers that have the potential to significantly reduce demand for emergency food provision. It follows the structure provided by the questions posed by the Inquiry, giving greater attention to areas on which we have more expertise to offer.
8. The 3-day emergency food supplies that Trussell Trust food banks distribute are made up of non- perishable items; these are inevitably also items that members of the public are currently stocking up on for their own households. This includes items such as UHT milk, tinned foods, pasta and so on. By way of example, we expect to need 38,837 units of UHT milk each week to meet projected demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
9. In general, food banks sometimes run low on certain items but we have not heard from any food bank in our network that they are currently running out of all food donations. We are continuing to monitor this closely though internal reporting.
10. Some food banks in our network have reported that – although they have funds to purchase emergency food supplies – they are unable to buy the items they need due to supermarkets either being out of stock or having purchasing restrictions in place. These restrictions are rightly aimed at limiting panic buying by individuals, but they are having an unintended impact,
preventing food bank staff and volunteers from purchasing larger quantities of food for food banks. Social distancing and social isolation will likely see more people switching from in-kind giving to making financial donations, so food banks’ ability to replenish their stock in this way will become increasingly important.
11. We are working collaboratively with supermarkets to put arrangements in place to ensure that staff and volunteers shopping on behalf of food banks can purchase larger quantities. We are also working in partnership with EFRA, Fareshare and major food retailers to find further ways of protecting the supply of food to independent and Trussell Trust food banks including via direct donations from supermarkets.
12. Trussell Trust food banks normally operate on the basis that people who have received a voucher from a referral agency visit a food bank in person, and a parcel is then made up for them to take home. In response to social distancing guidelines we are currently supporting food banks to develop processes for delivering pre-packed 3-day food supplies to the doorstep for families and individuals in crisis.
13. This includes recruiting and training volunteer drivers and assistants, sourcing vehicles where necessary, and developing the administrative processes to plan and record deliveries. These plans are progressing well, and we are drawing on support from new and existing corporate and voluntary sector partners to support their delivery. This will be of particular benefit to households who are self-isolating, but it also represents a safer way of providing the service for all involved.
14. Our referral system is crucial to ensuring that donated food goes to those who really need it because they are in financial crisis. It helps make sure that people using food banks are linked in with other agencies who can support them and means that food bank volunteers are not making judgements themselves about whether or not someone needs support. Referral agencies include statutory bodies, local charities, GP surgeries, community groups and churches.
15. The closure of referral agencies – or at least of their buildings - is a significant risk in terms of maintaining access to food banks. We are working to mitigate this through accelerating uptake of our existing e-referral system across our food bank network and fast-tracking the development of a centralised referral system that can be used remotely, which we are implementing rapidly in close collaboration with Citizens Advice.
16. These steps will ensure that people in self-isolation can be referred to food banks even though they are unable to visit a referral agency. They are also necessary to sustain the service for those who are not self-isolating, because of wider restriction on movement and given that many of our referral agents will be operating on a working-from-home basis.
17. We are working with local authorities, supermarkets and other corporate partners to support food banks with deliveries, including through the in-kind provision of vehicles and drivers.
18. It is important to emphasise that these delivery services will continue to be for people experiencing acute poverty (including those who are self-isolating), rather than for people who are self-isolating or shielding but not in financial crisis.
19. Trussell Trust food banks provide very short-term support for people who are facing crisis and unable to afford food. Typically, a household might receive three-day emergency food supplies
on two occasions. They do not represent a viable means of providing for economically vulnerable households on an ongoing basis.
20. The best and most dignified way to ensure that people who are economically vulnerable have sufficient access to food at this time is to make sure that people have enough money to purchase food for themselves – whether through employment or social security.
21. We welcome the significant steps the government has already taken to protect household incomes through its support for businesses, for salaries and for the self-employed. We also welcome the £20 per week increase to the Universal Credit standard allowance and the basic element in Working Tax Credit, along with support for many people who rent their home and a new Hardship Fund for local authorities in England.
22. Nevertheless, many people are losing their jobs or facing significantly reduced hours and pay at this time: this is reflected in the dramatic increase in Universal Credit applications over recent weeks. We are concerned that the measures taken to date will not go far enough to prevent large numbers of people from falling into destitution, nor to support households already in acute poverty. Failing to act further could risk unnecessarily putting health services under further pressure, as people are forced to make difficult choices between following public health guidance and being able to afford daily essentials.
23. We are currently forecasting a 20% increase in the number of people needing emergency food supplies from food banks over the coming three months. This is on top of an already projected 20% increase in line with the existing trend of increasing need for food banks prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
24. We do not believe this needs to be that case, nor should it be. This is an important time for us to come together and help one another in our communities, but it should not be a time when thousands of people have to use a food bank for the first time.
25. The Trussell Trust commissioned Heriot-Watt University to conduct the largest survey to-date on the drivers of the need for food banks as part of a major research programme entitled State of Hunger.1 Over 1,000 households who had been referred to food banks were surveyed, and the researchers also analysed eight years’ of Trussell Trust food banks’ own data. This research showed that 94% of people who use our food banks meet the criteria for destitution - lacking the essentials that we need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. These are people who – even if they can get out to a supermarket and the items they need are on the shelves – are not able to afford the food and other basics their families need.
26. The research found that the average weekly income for people referred to food banks is just £50 after housing costs, and almost 20% of people had no income at all in the month before they visited. In addition, 25% of households using our food banks have a household member with a long-term physical condition or illness, and one in six households include someone with a physical disability. Those with the most severe illnesses may now be supported by the local authority hubs that are being set up to support the 1.5m people identified by the NHS as needing to self-isolate, but there will be many more people with less severe underlying conditions who are additionally vulnerable due to being in acute poverty at this time.
27. The vast majority of people using food banks – 86% according to the State of Hunger research – are on social security benefits. Problems with benefits were a key reason for people needing a food bank’s support. The main factors underlying drops in benefit income are due to built-in features of the system: the five-week wait for Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, changed criteria of eligibility for health-related benefits, benefit penalties, and the benefits freeze.
28. Notably, 32% of people needing to use food banks were repaying debts to DWP via deductions to Universal Credit. This includes repayments of ‘advance payments’ made to bridge the gap that
the five week wait creates, and demonstrates the hardship that these arrangements are causing.
29. The significance of the benefits system in relation to food bank use means that the government has an opportunity to make a substantial positive difference to families and individuals experiencing or at risk of destitution. The Government can build on its initial steps by strengthening the welfare safety net, for example by ensuring that:
a. people have enough income to protect them from being swept in to destitution
b. the benefits system alleviates problems rather than creating more challenges for people
– for example removing the difficult choice people have between waiting at least five weeks for the first payment or taking out an advance which then results in deductions from ongoing monthly payments
30. Attention also needs to be given to provision for people in acute poverty who are outside the benefits system, such as asylum-seekers who have no recourse to public funds, and no right to work in the UK.
31. Like other organisations, we anticipate that coronavirus will have a significant impact on the availability of staff and volunteers across our food bank network and are putting plans in place to adapt to this.
32. We are pleased that our workforce has been recognised at key workers and are therefore able to continue providing support, as long as their personal circumstances, age and health permit.
33. Nationally, the highest rates of volunteering are found amongst 65-74 year olds according to NCVO.2 Whilst we don’t hold data on the ages of volunteers across our network – we know that many people get involved in food banks in their retirement and that older people make up a significant proportion volunteers. Self-isolation amongst over 70s is therefore significantly reducing the available workforce at some food banks.
34. Our national appeals for new volunteers have attracted a lot of interest so far, with around 6,000 new applications in the past week. This is encouraging and we greatly appreciate the public’s willingness to help.
35. Typically, 10% of applications convert into actual volunteers, though this figure may prove to be higher in the current circumstances. We have been able to successfully fast-track the implementation of a new volunteer management platform to match volunteers with local needs as efficiently and effectively as possible. New video training for incoming volunteers has been developed.
36. The project manager role – the person who leads and oversees the food bank operation - is more difficult to replace in the event of illness or self-isolation because it involves considerable knowledge and relational networks. 40% of Trussell Trust food bank project managers are aged over 65. Some food banks have warehouse managers who can step up into this role if required, in others this remains a challenge. We are working to secure funding for paid staff to cover periods of illness or self-isolation. In the few cases where workforce issues are placing food banks at risk of closure we are working with local authorities and corporate partners to put alternative provision in place.
37. Importantly, the service our network offers is also affected by workforce issues faced by our referral partners, who play a crucial part in facilitating access to food banks. As mentioned
above, we are working hard to ensure that referrals can be made remotely where referral agencies are operating in this manner too.
The Trussell Trust 2 April 2020
1 Sosenko, F., Littlewood, M., Bramley, G., Fitzpatrick, S., Blenkinsopp, J. and Wood, J. (2019) The State of Hunger: A study of poverty and food insecurity in the UK, The Trussell Trust. https://www.stateofhunger.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/State-of-Hunger-Report-November2019- Digital.pdf
2 NCVO (2019) UK Civil Society Almanac 2019. https://data.ncvo.org.uk/volunteering/demographics/