Majority of food banks based in schools, research suggests

New research from the University of Bristol suggests that a majority of food banks are now being provided by schools. The working paper, Feeding Hungry Families: Food Banks in Schools in England, investigates the number and distribution of food banks in schools in England. Data used in the study indicates food banks exist in more than a fifth (21 per cent) of schools and this rises to a third (33 per cent) in schools with the highest numbers of students from deprived backgrounds. Charitable and third sector organisations, chiefly The Trussell Trust and The Independent Food Aid Network, remain key players operating 1,646 and 1,172 food banks respectively. But the latest data indicates schools now outstrip this, running an estimated 4,250 food banks. 

Government figures also show that increasing numbers of children in the UK are in food insecure households. Recent data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) indicates it had risen to 17 per cent of all children in 2022/23 compared to 12 per cent a year before. DWP data also suggests that 30 per cent of children living in poverty now live in food insecure households. However, the Bristol report draws on wider research evidence, including from the Food Foundation, to suggest that one million children experienced destitution in the UK in 2022 and an estimated three million were living in food insecure households.

The report claims policy makers are largely unaware of the nature and scale of the problem, in contrast to previous high-profile media campaigns for universal free school meals and holiday food vouchers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lead author Dr William Baker, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol School of Education, said: ‘There is a policy vacuum around charitable food aid in schools in England and across the UK. Although much attention has been given to free school meal provision, the pressing wider problem of children going hungry routinely at home due to rocketing food costs and other budget pressures, such as fuel prices and interest rates, isn’t being properly addressed. The fact schools are running food banks en masse is falling under the radar with no national support, guidance, or oversight. Food charity is not the solution: people need secure, fairly-remunerated jobs, and support through the benefits system so they can afford to properly feed and clothe their kids.’

The report calls on local authorities and the Department for Education (DfE) to systematically collect data from schools on the charitable food aid work they are doing. It also suggest that central and local government should develop research informed guidance for all schools about providing food support to families, identifying best practice and  with a particular focus on reducing stigma. 

Responding to the report Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, commented: ‘In recent years we have increasingly heard from school leaders who are going above and beyond to help children, and as well as setting up food banks, some are dipping into their own pockets to help families with food, clothing and learning resources. While schools do a great deal to try to mitigate the effects of disadvantage upon their pupils, they are not a replacement for a fully functioning social care system and cannot address the underlying drivers of poverty nor nullify all the impacts it has on children’s lives. The government hasn’t done nearly enough to support children’s recovery from the pandemic, tackle the root causes of poverty, or properly invest in social care, family support and mental health services, which have all been under-funded over the last decade. Until this changes, we will continue to see worrying levels of poverty and the disadvantage gap will continue to have a pernicious impact upon children’s life chances.’

Full report:

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