UK charity gives out 2.5m food parcels as need hits historic high

Patrick Butler Social policy editor
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

A record 2.5m food parcels were given out to people in crisis by the UK’s biggest food bank charity during the first year of the pandemic as low-income families experienced what it called “historic” levels of need.

The Trussell Trust said while its outlets had experienced a 33% increase in the number of food parcels they distributed in 2020-21, this was a fraction of the total food aid handed out in the UK by thousands of other charities, schools and councils.

Despite the distribution of unprecedented volumes of charity food, Trussell warned that food aid was not the answer to increasing numbers of people facing destitution amid the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“During this period, food banks across the country have seen historic levels of need, with many new food banks opening to support people through the crisis,” the trust said.

“To feel that we have solved the problem [of poverty] because we have provided food is very dangerous. The answer cannot be to distribute more food. The problem is people not having enough money,” said the Trussell Trust chief executive, Emma Revie.

The charity said high demand for food aid was likely to continue, with many families’ financial resilience having been eroded further in recent months, and with furlough support and the £20 universal credit top-up due to end in October.

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Although it welcomed the £20 uplift, it warned that this had not tackled rising hardship, and wider social security changes were needed.

“What we’ve seen over this year is people’s financial resilience eroded, people going into debt. More people are teetering on the edge, and this system is not equipped to catch them all,” said Revie.

Rising levels of destitution was the main driver of food bank use, the trust said, mainly caused by the low level of benefits, increasing numbers of families hit by the benefit cap policy, and gaps and in the social security system, including universal credit.

As the number of food parcels handed out by the trust’s 1,471 outlets topped 2m for the first time, it emerged that almost 980,000 parcels went to families with children – an average of two every minute, and a year-on year increase of 36%.

Studies have shown low-income families with children have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic crisis, with over a third seeing already their meagre incomes squeezed as a result of higher fuel and food costs under lockdown.

Even with the £20 top-up, research published in February showed that many people who claimed universal credit for the first time during the pandemic were unable to meet essential living costs without falling into debt or using food banks.

Despite record food parcel figures – up 128% over the past five years – the trust said these understated the level of food aid demand.

One in 10 of the parcels it gave out were designed to last seven days – more than twice as large as usual – meaning in terms of tonnage, the volume of food given out increased by 53% year on year.

Alongside the Trussell network, about 1,000 independent food banks were operating in the UK last year, while research by Kellogg’s estimated one in five UK schools ran food banks.

New food banks opened in response to Covid in nearly three-quarters of local authorities, according to the all-party parliamentary faith and society group.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families and have targeted support to those most in need by raising the living wage, spending hundreds of billions to safeguard jobs, boosting welfare support by billions and introducing the £269m Covid local support grant to help children and families stay well-fed.

“We know that getting into well-paid work is the best route out of poverty, and our multibillion pound plan for jobs is helping people across the country rejoin the workforce as restrictions are eased.”