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Who attends foodbanks in the UK and why? The impact of food poverty on health and wellbeing

By ucyow3c, on 3 August 2015

pencil-icon Written by Edwina Prayogo, UCL Centre for Behavioural Medicine PhD student

(from l–r) Dr Angel Chater, Dr Mary Barker, Edwina Prayogo and Dr George Grimble

(from l–r) Dr Angel Chater, Dr Mary Barker,
Edwina Prayogo and Dr George Grimble

UK foodbank use has unmasked food poverty – a condition that leads to poorer health and reduced wellbeing in millions of British people. I have been involved in interdisciplinary research that combines health psychology and clinical nutrition, with the aim of uncovering who attends London foodbanks and why.

Alongside members of our UCL Grand Challenges-supported research group, as well as other experts, I was privileged to present our research to an audience of academics, health professionals and people working in NGOs at an event on 20 July.

To start, Dr Angel Chater (UCL Life Sciences) described how the research arose from my MSc project at UCL. For this, I investigated fruit and vegetable consumption and the psychological wellbeing of London foodbank clients, and this developed into my current PhD project.

Then, Dr George Grimble (UCL Medical Sciences) explained how his interest in the area of food poverty was piqued by his involvement as advisor to Channel 4’s The Food Hospital, during which he assisted in a ‘fibre challenge’ smartphone app experiment. He went on to replicate the experiment for an MSc project with foodbank clients, and in doing so exposed the very poor diet of many participants.

Dr Grimble, a nutritional biochemist who normally uses quantitative methods, commented on the value of the project to his own work: he had become a convert to qualitative research as a result of collaborating with researchers using the tools of psychological analysis.

Chris Mould, Chairman of the Trussell Trust, described the genesis of foodbanks for people living in crisis in the UK. This franchised model now has 450 distribution centres. He explained the mission and operation of the trust, and the development of a nutritionally-balanced, non-perishable food list. He pointed out the need to raise public awareness of the impact of food poverty on health and congratulated the UCL team on its work.

Next, Sarah Chapman, a trustee of Wandsworth Foodbank, discussed their annual Food Poverty Report. Since last year, usage of this particular foodbank has increased. Four in 10 of their clients have children and the main triggers for referral were low pay and benefit sanctions. In recognition of the links between food and fuel poverty, Wandsworth Foodbank recently launched a scheme called Fuelbanks to help clients with their energy bills.

Mr Jeffrey Vanheek, a foodbank user, shared how homelessness after losing his job had affected his mental and physical health. Stripped of dignity, he was vulnerable to abuse. He neither begged nor depended on state benefits, but survived by doing petty jobs before his referral to a foodbank.

I then presented our team’s current work, highlighting foodbanks as a ‘nutritional safety net’. Clients were both grateful for, but embarrassed by, the need for this help, but were aware that their lack of income had reduced their quality of diet and their physical and psychological health. I concluded that future research should focus on how to improve the nutritional quality of food provision by foodbanks – something we are now seeking funding for to continue our investigations.

A lively discussion between the panel of speakers, including Dr Mary Barker (University of Southampton) – another member of our research group – and the audience revealed a clash of opinion on the right balance between offering charitable food aid and the responsibilities of the government.

Demand for foodbank services are rising, school holidays can be a ‘food-desert’ and planned benefit cuts are expected to increase food poverty, but there was a debate about whether this was best addressed by providing fruit and vegetables at local markets or greengrocers, or from supermarket surplus. At the heart of the debate was recognition of the cost to human dignity of receiving cast-off and second-best food.

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