Interview: Tom Say from the Trussell Trust on the link between foodbanks and Universal Credit

According to the Trussell Trust, more than 14 million people in the UK, including 4.5 million children, are living in poverty.

The trust supports more than 1,200 food bank centres in the UK, who provide a minimum of three days’ nutritionally-balanced emergency food to people who have been referred in crisis. spoke with the trust’s senior campaign manager, Tom Say, about the link between Universal Credit and poverty, and how we can help create a future where foodbanks are no longer needed.

How did the Trussell Trust come about?

Carol and Paddy Henderson founded the Trussell Trust in 1997 based on a legacy left by Carol’s mother, Betty Trussell.

The Trussell Trust’s initial projects focused on improving conditions for the 60+ children sleeping at Central Railway Station in Bulgaria.

In 2000, Paddy received a call from a mother in Salisbury who said her children were going to bed hungry, asking him what he could do.

Paddy investigated data on poverty and deprivation in the UK and found that significant numbers of people faced going hungry as a result of a sudden crisis. So Paddy started Salisbury Foodbank in his garden shed and garage, providing three days’ of emergency food to local people in need.

The Trust now supports a network of foodbanks which provide emergency food to people in crisis, and additional support to help tackle the root causes that sweep people into poverty and build people’s resilience so they are less likely to need a foodbank in the future.

How has the way people use foodbanks changed in that time?

The need for foodbanks is at an all-time high. The network rapidly expanded ten years ago, since then the number of foodbanks has stayed the same while the demand has gone up significantly.

April 2018 to March 2019 was the busiest year for food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network since the charity opened. During the past year, 1,583,668 three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in the UK. More than half a million of these went to children. This is an 18.8% increase on the previous year.

Basically, there are significantly more people in need. The average income of families using foodbanks is £50 per week after paying their rent, that’s £50 between all of them. Half of them had no money coming in the year before. This is not right, we should all have enough money for food.

What kind of people use foodbanks?

The short answer is all kinds of people. Around 22% of those referred are single parents. Three quarters have some kind of health issue or live with someone who does, while mental health problems are common in about 50% of people who come to food banks.

Between 2018 and 2019 around 33% of people needing emergency food were referred because their benefits were consistently not covering the cost of living, while more than 20% of foodbank referrals were made due to a delay in benefits being paid.

What is the link between Universal Credit and foodbanks?

The Trussell Trust has been monitoring the roll-out of Universal Credit, the largest welfare reform in a generation.

When Universal Credit goes live in an area, there is a demonstrable increase in demand for local Trussell Trust foodbanks. On average, 12 months after a roll-out, foodbanks see a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas where Universal Credit has been in place for three months or less. This increase cannot be attributed to randomness and exists even after accounting for seasonal and other variations.

It’s because, from the very start, everyone who applies has to wait at least five weeks for a first payment, which is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics. Families are facing eviction, people are losing their jobs because they can’t afford to get the bus to work.

When Universal Credit was first introduced, volunteers were ringing asking what had happened because they were being inundated with people in need. Our volunteers are on the front line, picking up the pieces of the wreckage the new system is causing. Universal Credit should be fighting poverty, it shouldn’t be forcing people to foodbanks.

What can be done to reduce the need for foodbanks?

It’s hard to break free from hunger if you don’t have enough money coming in to cover the rising cost of absolute essentials like food and housing, nevermind transport to work and school uniforms.

Poverty acts like a current that sweeps people away leaving them with nothing, and for many people staying above water is a daily struggle. The only way to stop people being swept away is to increase benefits, ending the benefit freeze is not enough.

Most people have savings or family who can help them, but then there are others for whom that is not an option, they are the ones who need help. The government needs to provide local councils with the funding to provide emergency support and welfare assistance for people in need when no one else can.

We need a system that ensures those who have been hit with financial crisis have access to help. We created the current system, we can redesign it to make sure that there is enough for everyone.

What can people do to help?

Don’t accept that this is normal.  Continue to be shocked and saddened by the news of increased foodbank use and think about how you can play a part in working towards a future where foodbanks are not needed.

If you can, donate food or money. They are all volunteer-run individual charities so if you can donate cash that would help.  Volunteers are grateful for all donations, but each foodbank has different demands and shortages. If you’re planning to donate, find your local foodbank on social media. They will be doing shoutouts for what they need. People can also donate their time by volunteering at a Trussell Trust foodbank or warehouse.

If you don’t have the time or money there are other things you can do; if you’re part of a community group you can encourage them to donate to their local foodbanks. Or get in touch with your local councillor or MP and ask them to speak about the increased need for foodbanks in parliament.

For more information click here. 

Photo Credit – The Trussell Trust


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