Sainsbury's food bank

It’s getting rarer by the week to see branches of HSBC, Lloyds, Barclays and the like on our high streets, with the number of bank branches in the UK declining by 40% between 2012 and 2022. However, over that period and since, we’ve seen a steady – sometimes meteoric – rise in other types of bank: food banks, as well as baby banks, warm banks et al. These are usually less visible, without neon signs, but they are very much here. We need to do more to make sure they’re not here to stay.

Imagine for a moment we received a decree that all food banks in the UK must close overnight. The results would be devastating. That in itself highlights starkly what a treacherous position we in the UK have got ourselves into. Emergency charitable food aid feels like it’s been normalised and entrenched in the UK – something we and others warned about over a decade ago. There are still calls from some quarters to ramp up surplus food redistribution to feed those in need, when that can only ever be a sticking plaster response.

No blame here is attached to the people donating food or the people working on the ground, often voluntarily, to support and feed people that are struggling. This is largely a failure of state. Some will argue it’s been intentionally designed this way and is a political choice. All I’d say is there has been a failure of successive governments to provide a properly functioning safety net, to introduce a plan for genuinely addressing inequality and to implement an inclusive, long-term food strategy.

The recent Farm to Fork Summit included the cheerful announcement that the UK’s food security was ‘broadly stable’ according to its new Food Security Index. Yet by the following day, new figures published by the Trussell Trust showed how flawed and already outdated the ‘broadly stable’ claim was. Between April 2023 and March 2024, the number of people that used a Trussell Trust food bank for the first time in the UK was 655,000. That number doesn’t include those already using Trussell Trust food banks, independent food banks, other forms of charitable food aid, or even the many people who are severely food insecure but haven’t resorted to emergency charitable food aid.

The UK government’s Food Security Index is trying to be a proxy for national, rather than household, food insecurity. Nonetheless, the two are inextricably linked. And if you broaden the set of measures beyond the narrow nine indicators in the index, by adding for example levels of farmer confidence, then the current picture could hardly be described as ‘broadly stable’. Even a glass-half-full commentator would surely describe the current situation as challenging at best.

The UK government needs to find ways to get closer to real-time data, rather than data from 18 months ago in what is a rapidly changing environment. Crucially, it also needs to better incorporate other elements of food security and nutrition security – that better reflect short and long-term resilience, and link to climate and biodiversity pressures.

Good food? Don’t bank on it. Let’s not wait for political posturing in the run up to the UK general election. We need to rebuild the foundations of a fair food system for all, now. Let’s start talking about the right to good food for all – why that matters and how we can move forward.