Martin Charlesworth
Foodbanks - it's not just about statistics

Jeremy Paxman’s opening question to David Cameron in the first TV election leaders programme was a scorcher. He started with foodbanks – specifically asking about the number of foodbanks in the UK today. No, the Prime Minister didn’t know the exact number – but the question was really about a new feature of our culture. Apparently, we are now ‘Foodbank Britain’. Some politicians have been visibly uncomfortable with this new phenomenon, as David Cameron was that night on TV.
No election debate in 2010 would have given much prominence to foodbanks. They were scarcely on the political horizon then. Times have changed.
The spectacular rise of the work of the Trussell Trust and the other numerous independent foodbanks is well known. The Trussell Trust alone now has over 400 foodbanks across the country, representing more than 1,000 outlets. No one knows the exact total number of foodbanks in Britain.
The Trussell Trust’s annual statistics always excite interest and emotion. Their figures published this week state that 1,084,604 people used foodbanks in 2014-2015. Since they have no method of identifying unique users, some of these will be repeat users and some will be unique users. Although they have made their method of calculation clear, there has been a predictable media challenge to the figures. However, the simple fact is that there is no easy way of identifying unique users without imposing an enormous burden on the foodbank volunteers themselves.
The problem with all this discussion is that it is in danger of diverting us from far more important issues. So, for the sake of argument, let us estimate that the Trussell Trust figures may represent about 500,000 unique users. That is still a huge number of people.
There are two big questions to think about.
The first question is this: why on earth are so many people resorting to foodbanks? Here the Trussell Trust’s statistics are really helpful. They point out the three main causes: benefits delays (29.6%), low income (22.2%) and benefit changes (13.8%). So there really are problems with the benefits system’s structure and delivery. It’s something we can’t hide from. I am involved in our local foodbank and our experience is similar to what these national statistics describe. However, it is also interesting to note the significant (and rising) percentage of foodbank users who are in work, but struggling to make ends meet. There are complex reasons for this including the rise in living costs and the prevalence of zero hour contracts. But it is shocking to think that over a fifth of foodbank users are in work!
Here’s the second question: what does all this debate about foodbank statistics mean in terms of our attitude to those seeking the support of foodbanks? There is a real risk that debates over statistics prevent us hearing the voices of those whose needs drive them to foodbanks and who, so often, are given more than food when they go to foodbanks.

Let’s listen to their stories and engage with their lives.