Molly Hall, of our Research and Campaigns team, looks at the rise of foodbank usage during the Covid-19 pandemic
While the use of food banks has been increasing for some time, lockdown has seen a steep rise in individuals relying on food parcels across the UK and in Gateshead.
The number of food parcels given out by food banks each year across the UK has increased consistently since 2015. The Trussell Trust reported a 74% increase in the number of three-day food parcels distributed over the last 5 years (fig 1.) Years of stagnant wages and capped working age benefits mean that those on the lowest incomes have become vulnerable to income shocks. Heriot-Watt University carried out research for the Trussell Trust showing that the need for food parcels is often caused by a combination of inadequate or reduced benefits, a challenging life experience, and a lack of support.
Despite this constant rise in need, the number of people turning to food banks increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in the number of emergency food parcels given out in April compared with the same month in 2019. The Gateshead Foodbank helped double the ‘expected’ number of individuals in April, delivering 17 tonnes of food to local people in crisis4. Currently, the Gateshead Foodbank helps around 600 people per week with food parcels.
The main reason for the soar in usage is accredited to financial instability as a result of the pandemic, with 56% of food bank users reporting a drop in income since March 20205. The Trussell Trust also highlights debt as an issue, as well as the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments. They report that 73% of surveyed households were in debt, while ‘one in five households during the pandemic were waiting for a decision on a benefit application, or the first payment’. Health and social support are also important factors at play, with some shielding individuals struggling to access food during lockdown because they were self-isolating.
Many of the individuals that Citizens Advice Gateshead refers to the local food bank have complex, overlapping issues. One client, 'Gary', used to be self-employed as a construction worker but can no longer work due to a medical condition (damaged discs in his spine and associated nerve pain). He receives Universal Credit but is still waiting for the outcome of his PIP assessment which happened over three months ago. After housing costs, his income is £210 per month which has to cover utility bills and food. He also has to pay off debts to a loan company, the bank for his overdraft, and the DWP to repay the advance loan advance on his Universal Credit. His debts, low income, and restricted support network meant that Gary struggled to pay for food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gary contacted Citizens Advice Gateshead who could help with debt & budgeting advice, and a referral to the food bank.