Research from universities and charities means we have increasing amounts of data on food banks, giving us a fuller picture of their provision across the UK.

We have the clearest picture of food bank provision in Scotland, where we now have data on independent food bank distribution, as well as data from the Trussell Trust – a UK food and poverty charity. 

Other studies are providing a more detailed picture of the characteristics of food bank users across the UK. The number of three-day emergency food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust, which runs over half of the food banks in the UK, rose again in September 2019. This Insight gives an overview of how data is collected, what is tells us about distribution and who is using food banks.

How do we measure use of food banks?

Food banks are run by groups of volunteers, churches and charities, and they collect data on their own work. There are just over 2,000 food banks in the UK. 1,200 are run by the Trussell Trust, while 822 are represented by IFAN, the Independent Food Aid Network. IFAN is the UK network for non-Trussell Trust food aid providers and it has started publishing food bank statistics in the same format used by the Trussell Trust.

Food banks collect data on the quantity of three-day emergency parcels they distribute rather than the number of individual users, so that any user who returns is counted a second time. The Trussell Trust has two sizes of food parcel: adult and child. Independent food banks distribute almost as many food parcels as Trussell Trust food banks.

In its mid-year statistics the Trussell Trust reported a 23% rise in the number of food parcels they distributed in April to September 2019, compared with April to September 2018. The figure rose from 658,048 to 823,145 parcels. This is the steepest increase it has recorded for five years. Around a third of these were requested for children.

The chart below shows statistics from 2005 to March 2019:

A bar chart showing the number of Trussell Trust three-day emergency food parcels from 2005/6 to 2018/19.

Who is using food banks?

In November 2019 the Trussell Trust published State of Hunger, the largest research project into food bank use in the UK to date. It surveyed more than 1,100 people using Trussell Trust food banks, 28 food bank managers and 306 referral agencies in 13 areas. This three-year study is being carried out at Heriot-Watt University and has identified characteristics of food bank users. It has so far found that out of those referred to a Trussell Trust food bank:

  • 94% were ‘facing real destitution,’ unable to buy essentials to stay warm, dry, clean and fed.
  • 23% were homeless.
  • Over two-thirds had experienced a problem with the benefits system in the year before they needed emergency food, including long waits and benefit award reductions.
  • Over three quarters were in arrears, most commonly rent, and 40% were repaying debts.
  • In the year prior to using a food bank seven in ten respondents reported at least one ‘challenging life experience’ such as eviction or divorce, while a large minority also reported having experienced an ‘adverse work-related experience’ such as losing a job or a reduction in work hours.
  • Nearly 75% reported at least one health issue in their household, over half of which were mental health problems.
  • 22% were single parents.
  • Nearly half were single person households.
  • 89% were born in the UK, slightly above the 86% of the population as a whole.

What do we know about independent food banks?

Historically there has been little data on the operation of food banks independent of the Trussell Trust, but this has changed over recent years. 

IFAN has now mapped independent food banks, of which there are at least 822 in the UK today.

Added to the Trussell Trust’s 1,200 this makes over 2,000 food banks in total, suggesting that reliance on the Trussell Trust food parcel figures alone significantly underestimates food bank usage in the UK.

IFAN has worked with A Menu for Change (an alliance of poverty charities) to collect data on independent food banks in Scotland.

In March 2019 they published detailed data on emergency food parcel provision in Scotland from April 2017 to September 2018, when there were 118 Trussell Trust and 94 independent foodbanks.  The data showed that although there were fewer independent food banks, they distributed almost as many three-day emergency food parcels (221,977) as Trussell Trust outlets (258,606) in Scotland.

In January 2020 they published data for the period April 2018 to September 2019 and reported a 22% rise compared to the total during the previous 18 months recorded.

IFAN is now working to extend this data collection to the rest of the UK to provide more accurate food bank statistics nationwide.

This Insight was updated on 30.01.20. It previously said that the IFAN and A Menu for Change collected data on independent food banks in Scotland with the support of the Scottish Government.

Further reading

Food banks in the UK, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Gloria Tyler is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in economic policy and statistics.