Using food banks has become so normalised that children view visiting them in the same way as doing the weekly supermarket shop, a leading researcher has said.
While it is positive that children do not feel any stigma around receiving help from food banks, anti-hunger campaigners are warning against their normalisation because they do not solve the root causes of poverty.
They are calling on the new Prime Minister to counter the “hunger trap” that children are increasingly falling into amid the cost-of-living crisis.
Professor Greta Defeyter, director of the Healthy Living Lab at Northumbria University, said that for the first time ever in her research on food bank usage and children and young people, they did not report feelings of stigma or embarrassment.
Asked if children viewed food banks as providing a similar service to supermarkets, she told i: “That’s their normative way in which they shop.”
She said children saw it as “normal practice” to visit the food bank and then pop into a shop to “top up” their supplies.
“I think it’s really dreadful. We don’t want the stigma there for people using the services, but none of these services in their current form actually address the root causes of poverty. I think it really says something when… children are thinking this is the normal way that you shop for food.”
The findings are the early results of an ongoing research project on the effects of poverty and food aid interventions on child development, which includes 30 interviews with secondary school children and 50 with primary school children in London over the past year.
Professor Defeyter also found that when she asked children in the research project what they were generally excited about, 25 mentioned an item from a food bank parcel such as an Easter egg or branded product.
“It’s very sad. They weren’t excited about the fact they had a trip planned to Legoland or they were going on an outing, they were excited about something they’d had in their food bank parcel. I think that’s just astounding.”
Andrew Forsey, the national director of the Feeding Britain charity, called it “utterly appalling” that food banks were becoming so normalised in the lives of some children.
“An early priority for the new Prime Minister must be to counter the hunger trap in which those children have been ensnared.”
Isabel Hughes, policy engagement manager at the Food Foundation, said it was important to “fight against” the normalisation of food banks because they are not an “appropriate long-term solution to food insecurity”.
“We should instead be equipping people with the incomes that they need to access a healthy, sustainable diet, whilst putting in place adequate safety nets like Free School Meals and the Healthy Start scheme to support people in a more dignified way.”
Professor Defeyter’s findings are consistent with what food banks up and down the country are seeing every day as families increasingly struggle amid the cost-of-living crisis.
“As the poverty crisis escalates, it’s becoming inevitable that the use of food banks is increasingly normal for children growing up in the UK,” said Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, which has nearly 1,200 organisations.
“It’s unconscionable that there is no other option for so many parents than to turn to charity for food for their children. Increasing numbers of children are being forced to live with food insecurity because the Government is failing in its responsibility to ensure people can afford food though adequate social security payments and wages.”
‘Our financial donations have halved’
Dads House, based in London, said parents were increasingly bringing their children with them to visit the food bank because they have no childcare options.
“And younger children do see food banks as normal as they don’t know anything else… and we do try and make it as normal as possible for the dads, mums and children who have to use food banks,” said founder Billy McGranaghan.
He warned demand will go up as energy bills are set to surge again – and that Dads House may struggle to cope.
“We’ve got families here with good jobs and they can’t afford [food], we’ve got people who are self-employed.
“Our financial donations have halved since the end of lockdown, because people were getting back on their feet and then things were getting more expensive. So people who were donating – they just didn’t have the income. We’ve seen a huge drop.”
Polly Jones, head of policy at the Trussell Trust, which runs a network of 1,200 food banks, said families were facing “impossible decisions between putting food on the table or buying school uniform – and many more people are being left with no option but to use a food bank”.
“This is on top of long term increases in need. Last year, food banks in our network provided over 2.1 million food parcels with over 830,000 of these for children. This represents a 15 per cent increase from 2019/20, before the pandemic.
The Government said: “Latest figures show that there were 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs compared to 2019/20. But we recognise people are struggling with rising prices which is why we are protecting millions of the most vulnerable families with at least £1,200 of direct payments, starting with the £326 cost-of-living payment, which has already been issued to more than seven million low income households.
“Through our £37bn support package we are saving the typical employee over £330 a year through a tax cut, allowing people on Universal Credit to keep £1,000 more of what they earn, while all households will receive £400 energy payments.
“Vulnerable families in England are also being supported by the Government’s Household Support Fund – which was boosted by £500m – to help pay for essentials.”