More people depend on food banks than ever before in Britain, new figures show, as “increasing” numbers of households – including pensioners, NHS staff and teachers – seek help amid the cost of living crisis.
New research from the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), shared with the Observer, found that nearly 90% of food banks surveyed reported increased demand in December 2022 and January 2023 compared to a year earlier. Half of the 85 organizations running 154 food banks that responded said that if demand increased further, they would either have to reduce support or turn people away.
The Trussell Trust, which with more than 1,300 food banks is the UK’s biggest provider, expects this winter to be its busiest ever, warning in November that food banks were at “breaking point”. Between April and September alone it distributed 1.3 million emergency food parcels – a third more than the same period in 2021 and more than 50% more than before the pandemic.
Figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed how, despite easing inflationary pressures, the cost of living crisis is still raging. Food inflation is at 16.7% and gas costs are nearly 130% higher than a year ago. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast in November that household disposable income would fall by 4.3% in 2022-23, the biggest drop since comparable records began in 1956.
Falling wages in real terms and rising inflation have sparked the most widespread public sector strikes in decades. Voting with more than 45,000 junior doctors closes on Monday, with results to be announced later in the day.
Food banks are struggling to meet record demand from working people – including NHS staff and teachers – Ifan research has found. More than 80% reported supporting significant numbers of people for the first time, while many said demand was growing among retirees and families with babies.
Sabine Goodwin, co-ordinator of Ifan, said: “It’s very clear that people have been trying to confuse winter with credit and are now creating debts that will push people over the edge.” Accusing the government of an “unsustainable and unethical” reliance on charitable food aid, he said without a change of approach there would be “nowhere for the world to turn”.
Cost of living increases were given as the biggest problem, followed by insufficient wages and waiting times for initial universal credit payments. A third of independent food banks said sanctions and withholding of benefits were a driving factor.
Many food banks also report problems of burnout among staff and volunteers. Judith Vickers, from Lifeshare in Manchester, said: “Staff are reporting burnout, heavy caseloads and a steady stream of new referrals. We cope, but the level of demand is relentless. Volunteers often feel like we can’t do enough for people.”
Many of those who have turned to food banks are striking workers. Industrial action by NHS staff continues to enjoy strong public support. Nurses were supported by 64% of the public for their strike action, an increase of 7 percentage points since early January, according to the latest Opinium Research poll for Observer. Ambulance workers are supported by 60% of the public and rail workers are supported by 39%.
The BMA has warned the government that if its junior doctors’ ballot succeeds, there will be a 72-hour full strike next month, with action across NHS services, including emergency care.
In a speech to be delivered at a conference in Bristol today, Professor Philip Banfield, chair of the BMA council, will warn Rishi Sunak and health secretary Steve Barclay that they must ensure fair pay and “save the NHS from the brink of the cliff”.
A government spokesman said: “We recognize the pressures of rising living costs, which is why we delivered £1,200 of immediate support to millions of households last year, including £400 for energy costs, and will offer an additional £1,350 of support to the most vulnerable households in 2023- 24.
“The energy price guarantee also saves the typical household another £900 this winter, we are increasing benefits and the state pension in line with inflation to 10.1% from April and our household support fund helps people with essential costs” .
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Under a multi-year deal we have agreed with the BMA, junior doctors’ pay has increased cumulatively by 8.2% from 2019-2020. We have also introduced a higher salary range for more experienced staff and increased rates for night shifts.
“The health and social care secretary has met with the BMA and other medical unions to discuss pay, conditions and workload. He is clear that he wants to continue to discuss how we can make the NHS a better place to work for everyone.”