Families who rely too heavily on food banks may suffer nutritional deficiencies because so much of the produce is processed rather than fresh, it has been claimed.
Mel Wakeman, a senior lecturer specialising in health and nutrition at Birmingham City University, warned that families forced into prolonged use of food banks may not be eating a balanced diet.
She and students analysed food typically on offer at food banks and drew up menus based on the items available. “We found that it’s very much processed food being donated, with little fresh produce,” said Wakeman. “The meal plans we came up with revealed that in the long term there is a real risk of children and families becoming deficient in fibre, calcium, iron and a variety of vitamins.
“We’re not criticising what food banks are doing and, of course, only food that is safe to eat should be available, which limits the handling of perishable food.”
When Wakeman and her students looked at what was available at food banks, they found items such as tinned soup, meat, puddings and pasta sauce dominated.
“I would like to see more fresh produce in there,” she said. “If levels of poverty continue to rise, then the level of support given to food banks may have to be increased so we don’t have a situation where families are prevented from accessing nutritious food. Over longer periods eating donated food that is often refined could result in nutritional deficiencies.”
In 2013-14 food banks helped feed almost a million people in the UK, about a third of whom were children. Many food banks say their services should be used as emergency stopgaps.
But there is anecdotal evidence that many people use food banks for longer periods. A project in south-west England told last year’s all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger and food poverty that it was supporting people for up to 12 weeks.
An Oxfam report gives the example of a single mother with three sons surviving for eight weeks with the help of food bank donations, while the user of a food bank in south-east London told researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London, they had been using a food bank for almost a year.
Beyond the anecdotal evidence, however, it is hard to find out how many people are using food banks for long periods. The all-party inquiry said there were a huge number of initiatives in the UK and the “food aid landscape” was difficult to document. In its report, the inquiry “detected some concern among food banks and food assistance providers about an over-reliance on donations; both in terms of the quality and variety of food supplied and the reliability of future supply”.
It also said: “A large number of food assistance providers told us that barriers around cost and storage prevented them from asking for donations of fresh food.”
The largest of the networks, the Trussell Trust, which runs 420 food banks in partnership with communities and churches, operates a strict policy of providing “nutritionally balanced ambient food” to help out in a short-term crisis and is careful to work with clients to make sure they do not become dependent on the food bank. Some of its centres provide fresh food.
Adrian Curtis, food bank network director at the Trussell Trust, said: “Although we do not place a limit on the length of support we offer to clients, our systems monitor usage with referral organisations to avoid dependency.” The charity’s Eat Well, Spend Less project aims to teach cooking skills and budgeting.
Wakeman raised the problem of over-reliance on food banks at a conference to discuss child poverty in Birmingham organised by the News in Brum organisation. A series of meetings are to be held for members of the public to work out ways of helping the tackle the problem. A working group will also be established to help students work with community groups in the city on the issue.
As seen on the Guardian