Defra commissioned the University of Warwick and the Food Ethics Council to do a Rapid Evidence Assessment in February to March 2013 to help improve understanding of the ‘food aid’ landscape in the UK. In particular, the review addressed who might be asking for such help, as well as how and why they do so.

The research included a rapid but systematic literature review, brief case studies and an expert workshop. The project was framed by Defra’s responsibility for household food security, which is met when people can be confident of having sufficient money and access to shops selling affordable, culturally appropriate food to be able to meet food needs for a healthy life.

The research provided a rapid picture of the wide diversity of food aid work currently undertaken in the UK and elsewhere. It offered a detailed snapshot of the available research evidence base.

The review encountered a lack of systematic documentation of the range of food aid initiatives and their practices. Food aid includes a range of initiatives which provide food to people in need, including food banks, meal projects, soups runs, food vouchers and community care projects such as meals on wheels. The best-known national network of food bank projects is The Trussell Trust. However, there are many independent initiatives (food bank and other food projects) whose existence and reach is hard to capture. Estimated numbers being helped are likely to be underestimates.

Despite the general lack of systematic, published UK research on the drivers of food aid use and trends, the report was able to draw the following conclusions from the available evidence:

1. There is growing demand for help to meet food needs, both from first-time food aid users and from those who had already been helped continuing to need food. The key drivers of this growing demand are described by providers as ‘crises’. Crises in household income, such as loss of a job or problems with social security benefits, are often underpinned by on-going problems of low income, rising food and other costs and increasing indebtedness. This growing demand may have contributed to more food aid being provided, through existing and new structures. There is no systematic evidence on the impact of any increased supply of food aid. We found no evidence to support the idea that increased food aid provision is driving demand. All available evidence both in the UK and international points in the opposite direction. Put simply, there is more need and informal food aid providers are trying to help.

2. Where provision is adequate, appropriate and tailored to the needs of users, informal food aid may be able to relieve short-term symptoms of food insecurity such as not having enough money for food. However, whether short-term or more sustained, the evidence suggests that informal food aid does not address the underlying causes of household food insecurity.

3. Many food insecure households struggle to manage food needs, and adopt a range of tactics to avoid having to ask for help. Seeking food aid is usually a strategy of last resort. Even so, many households do not use food aid, for a variety of reasons, including access, awareness and stigma. International research findings on household behaviour under financial pressure are a useful contribution to understanding this problem in the UK.

4. Food aid providers see the other support they are able to offer to supplement their food aid provision systems or projects as a particularly important aspect of what they do (for example personal contact, signposting to other sources of advice and support). Our research indicates the importance of this work. Coordination with other support systems to address underlying causes of food insecurity is essential to the long-term success of food aid programmes.

5. UK food aid provision is vulnerable to not being able to meet existing or rising demand. It is dependent on donations and volunteers, which may not be sufficient to meet rising need. There is a risk that collecting, sorting and distributing food for people’s immediate needs occupies all available volunteer energy and resources, leaving little focus on developing long-term solutions to household food insecurity.

6. All the evidence points to the need for those involved in food security policy and other responses – from across government, business and civil society – to focus on both the short and long-term causes of household food insecurity to achieve the best outcomes. Short-term causes of a household’s food insecurity include sudden reduction in income, caused by, for instance, losing a job, having to work fewer hours or changes to social security benefits. Long-term causes of a household’s food insecurity include incomes continually inadequate for essential household needs, rising food (and other) prices, and lack of accessible shops stocking affordable food for health.

Professor Dowler from the University of Warwick said:

“We are delighted our report has been published. We urge the Government to learn from it and from those living in harsh circumstances, and to find creative, fair ways to enable all in this rich country to have enough money to be able to eat healthily. This work is urgent.“

Dan Crossley, Executive Director, the Food Ethics Council said:

“The evidence indicates that informal food aid in the UK does not address the underlying drivers behind people being unable to afford to eat, and to eat healthily. Food banks – and other types of food aid provision – are intended to be an emergency, short-term response and not a long-term solution. We need additional research, but we also need urgent action – from all sides – to address the root causes of food poverty.”

Dr Eric Jensen, Associate Professor, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick said:

‘The peer-reviewed literature makes clear the need for systematic interventions by government to relieve long-term suffering from food poverty and insecurity. The best available evidence suggests that thousands of people in Britain, who don’t know whether they can meet basic food needs for themselves and their loved ones, will continue to face this terrible chronic stress without such interventions’.

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