Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer
Menu Search the University of Manchester siteSearch
Search type

Alternatively, use our A–Z index

Food Poverty: Experts Say Foodbanks Are Inevitable in the UK

01 Oct 2014

Food insecurity and malnutrition in the UK is a much wider problem than has been recognised, according to experts from the University of Manchester.

Dr Kingsley Purdam says the demand for foodbanks is underestimated with large numbers of people thought to be at risk of malnutrition in the UK. Many older people also face food insecurity. The rapid growth in the number of foodbanks and food donation points in supermarkets suggests a ‘normalisation’ of food aid.

The research drew on survey evidence, case studies of foodbanks and interviews with foodbank users, and identified that:

  • In one Northwest city, there are seven Trussell Trust foodbanks, and a further thirty other food aid providers in the area.
  • Substantial numbers of people are constrained in their food choices and are skipping meals to prioritize their families.
  • The Government spends an estimated £13 billion on disease-related malnutrition each year (BAPEN 2012). The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has identified better nutrition as one of the key cost-saving initiatives for the NHS.

Dr Purdam said: “In political and media debates foodbank users have been variously described as being: ‘opportunists’, ‘not able to cook or budget’ and ‘living like animals’. Yet evidence from the Citizens Advice Bureau suggests that the main reported reason for referring a person to a foodbank was a delay in benefit payments.

“Moreover, the research suggests that people using foodbanks have a clear understanding of the costs of food and are limited in how they could change their financial circumstances. Many people were reluctant to use a foodbank because of the stigma and embarrassment. Grandparents and parents reported skipping meals so their children could eat, and also stated that they were not able to afford to have their children’s friends around for tea.”

Extracts from the case studies:

The foodbank users’ accounts demonstrate that they had concerns about the social stigma of asking for food aid:

  • “It throws your pride out of the window...I am doing it for my kids, I am not going to make my kids suffer just because of my pride.”  (Female, 34). 
  • “I was nervous coming here, I thought I had done something wrong…having to ask for food your ego takes a battering.” (Male, 40).
  • A mother described how she had collected a food parcel on behalf of her grown-up daughter who was too embarrassed to come. She stated: “My daughter doesn't want to be seen as a scrounger.” (Female, 55).
Many of the people visiting the case study foodbanks were vulnerable and in urgent need:
  • “I was willing to turn to prostitution if I did not get help from the foodbank.” (Female, unknown age).
  • “I need to make sure my kids have full bellies.” (Female, 40).
  • “We say to my mum make sure you eat but she says she’s not hungry…she’s just making sure we eat first.” (Child visiting foodbank with her mother).

Dr Purdam said there seems to be an inevitability to the scale of food insecurity given the economic recession and the present welfare reforms. He said: “Many of the foodbank users we spoke to seemed to be surviving from week to week even day to day. Some of the older people in need of food aid were not able to collect food parcels themselves and were having parcels delivered. Moreover, many people in need of food aid may not live near a foodbank. We also found that some of the foodbanks were running low on food supplies.”

“Whilst local authorities have provided some funding, food aid is predominantly reliant on volunteers, food donations and the support of supermarkets and food manufacturers.”

He said: “It can be questioned why the levels of food insecurity and malnutrition are so high in the UK and whether the government’s reliance on food aid is economically and politically efficient given the impact on people’s health and well-being”.

“Food has an important role in defining our identities and in terms of family relationships. Yet this seems to have been neglected in the political debates surrounding food aid.” 

Notes for editors

Dr Purdam is available for interview.

The paper by K. Purdam, E. Garratt and A. Esmail entitled ‘Hungry? Food Insecurity, Social Stigma and Embarrassment in the UK’ is available upon request. The research is supported by the University of Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing and Manchester City Council.

For further information or to request an interview, please contact Kath Paddison, Media Relations Officer, The University of Manchester, 0161 275 0790 or