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9 April 2015, 05:00
There is "clear evidence'' linking increased food bank use with UK areas that have seen greater unemployment and welfare and government spending cuts, scientists say.
An Oxford University-led team used official government data and statistics from the Trussell Trust, the UK's largest food bank backer, to look at why people were seeking free food.
Their study looked at the competing claims, one that increased use of food banks is a response to economic hardship, and the other that it is a result of greater access to free food as the number of banks increases.
Senior author Professor David Stuckler, of Oxford University's sociology department, said: "We found clear evidence that areas of the UK facing greater unemployment, sanctions and budget cuts have significantly greater rates of people seeking emergency food aid.
"This pattern is consistent even after adjusting for the possibility that some areas have greater capacity to give support than others.''
The study, published today in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), looked at Trussell Trust data that showed a rise in the number of food banks opened by the Christian charity from 29 in 2009-10 to 251 in 2013-14. The latter year saw it supply food parcels to 913,138 children and adults.
It also used official statistics from 375 local authorities on welfare changes, sanction rates, and economic changes.
The paper looks at where food banks opened and why food distribution is rising.
The team, which also included researchers from the University of Liverpool and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that food banks were more likely to open in areas which had ``experienced higher unemployment rates and greater welfare cuts in years prior''.
The paper says that there was a 14.4% chance of a food bank opening in a local authority area that had seen no spending cuts in the previous two years, but rises to 52% in those LAs that received an average 3% spending cut in both years.
The report says: "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. Food parcel distribution is higher in areas where food banks are more common and better established, but our data also show that the local authorities with greater rates of sanctions and austerity are experiencing greater rates of people seeking emergency food assistance.''
Oxford University's Dr Rachel Loopstra, the paper's lead author, added: "`These data reveal a picture of the UK where religious charities are trying to plug the gaps left from cuts in government support. Yet evidence from North America shows that charities, despite their best efforts, cannot address a systemic problem of insecure access to food.''
The report also notes that there is no standard nationwide system for measuring food security, and that their study has "likely underestimated the true burden of food security in the UK''.
It cites a difficulty in getting referrals to food banks from those able to do so, who include doctors, the police, social workers and Citizens' Advice Bureau staff.
It also points out its study does not include information about those who refuse to use food banks or use those run by groups other than the Trussell Trust.