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Greater use of food banks linked to welfare cuts

GPs more likely to be asked for referrals to food banks

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 09 April 2015

The growth in the number and use of food banks across the UK is linked to cuts in spending on local services, welfare benefits and higher unemployment, say researchers in an analysis* published today in The BMJ.

Increased use of food banks is also likely to mean growing numbers of GPs being asked by patients for a referral to these non-profit, charitable organisations that distribute food to people who have difficulty purchasing enough food to avoid hunger.

The number of local authorities with food banks operated by the Trussell Trust, a non-governmental organisation that coordinates food banks across the UK, rose from 29 in 2009-10 to 251 in 2013-14.

Food bank charities increasingly seek a referral from a sanctioned support agency, which can include GPs, schools, or a job centre, to make sure their support is going to people who most need it.

A team of researchers from the Department of Sociology at Oxford University in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Liverpool, used government data and statistics from the Trussell Trust to determine why people were in need of help.

The rapid spread of food banks was a new phenomenon and its cause was a topic of considerable debate, they said, deciding to look at two theories – one that increased use of food banks is a response to economic hardship, and another that it is a result of greater access to free food as the number of banks rises.

The researchers, therefore, decided to test whether the rise in emergency food assistance was linked to economic hardship, austerity measures, and sanctioning or whether it was a result of food charities creating their own demand.

They linked information on the Trussell Trust’s food bank operations to budgetary and socioeconomic data from 375 UK local authorities from 2006-07 to 2013-14.

Their analysis showed that food banks were more likely to open in local authorities with higher unemployment rates, and that greater local authority and central government welfare cuts increased the likelihood of a food bank opening.

They estimated that the likelihood of a food bank opening in an area that did not experience a cut in local authority spending in either of the past two years was 14.5%.

This figure tripled to 52% for a local authority that experienced a budget cut of 3% in spending in both years.

The authors said: “More food banks are opening in areas experiencing greater cuts in spending on local services and central welfare benefits and higher unemployment rates. The rise in food bank use is also concentrated in communities where more people are experiencing benefit sanctions.”

Doctors had a key role as advocates in this area, they added, and in the current food bank system, they were having to take on gatekeeper roles.

According to statistics from the Trussell Trust, an estimated 27,000 front-line care professionals, such as GPs, provided referrals in 2013-14.


* Rachel Loopstra, et al. Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK. BMJ 2015;350:h1775 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h1775

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