Government officials have commissioned an investigation into the explosion in food banks, soup kitchens and school breakfast clubs as fears rise over the impact of austerity on the living standards of low-income families.
The research will examine the extent and effectiveness of emergency food aid, amid concern that increasing numbers of low-paid and benefit-dependent households are forced to use charity food sources.
The growth of food banks has become politically sensitive, with the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, citing them as a sign that the coalition’s austerity policies have left many low-income households in food poverty.
Labour seized on the research, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as an admission that ministers and officials had been taken by surprise by the rapid growth in crisis food provision in Britain over the last three years.
Labour’s food spokeswoman, Mary Creagh, said the investigation highlighted how behind the curve ministers were when it came to food poverty. “They have an awful lot of catching up to do on the reality of the nutritional recession affecting large numbers of people in the UK.”
The research will explore what causes “at-risk individuals” to become “food aid users”. It will assess the impact of emergency food provision on recipients, including how much it alleviates the underlying causes of food poverty.
It will look at the US, where charity food aid has become a core element of the welfare infrastructure over the past 30 years. An estimated 37 million people there receive charity food assistance, while in Canada an estimated 900,000 people use food banks each month.
The most cited UK data on emergency food use is from the Trussell Trust charity. It operates 309 food banks, up from 28 in 2009, and approves another three every week. This year it has fed more than 240,000 people, many of them experiencing a financial crisis because of benefits sanction or delays.
But the Trussell figures exclude the informal and unmonitored emergency food aid provided by churches, charities, social workers, advice centres, housing associations and schools. Anecdotally, many report a rise in the numbers of people needing emergency food.
The move came as the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, warned against allowing charity food aid, such as food banks, to become a permanent feature of the welfare landscape in European countries, as they are in the US and Canada.
He said: “Food banks are the safety net of safety nets. It is only when government fails that food banks have to step in.
“Important as [food banks] are I admire and commend the people working in food pantries and soup kitchens they are not a substitute for social policies that protect people.”
He added fiscal austerity policies increased the risk that the poorest households in western countries would become “food insecure” meaning they were unable to access healthy food on a regular basis.
“What we should be concerned with in wealthy countries is people who are ‘food poor’ because of the poverty in which they find themselves.”
In a lecture in London organised by the poverty and human rights charity Just Fair, De Schutter said even working families in developed countries were experiencing food insecurity, a phenomenon he described as “[something] we thought we would not see again”.
He said: “Although they work, and may even work full time, [these households] cannot afford to have decent housing, heating, clothing and food. Even working does not protect you from social exclusion.”
Hunger and starvation was still relatively marginal in wealthy western countries, but as welfare safety nets shrink, wages stagnate and living costs soar, deprived households were both eating less, and buying cheaper, nutritionally-poorer food, he said.
The UN food rapporteur role has focused primarily on food poverty in developing countries in Africa and Asia. But Professor de Schutter caused a stir last year when he issued a formal report critical of Canada, sending a clear signal that he considered food insecurity a policy issue for wealthy western countries.
He said widening economic and geographic inequalities in western countries such as the UK were reinforcing the existence in deprived neighbourhoods of “food deserts” places with few shops and where cheap, healthy produce was hard to come by.
This was contributing to a “ticking time bomb” crisis of obesity and other diet-related diseases that would explode in the next 10-15 years, he said.
Poverty campaigners warned this week that welfare cuts could put the UK in breach of human rights conventions because they threatened to leave thousands of low-income households with insecure access to food.