A Comprehensive Literature Review


This literature review looks at academic work on food poverty and food bank within a decade, from the year 2000 to date (2019) in the context of the United Kingdom. The review of literature is in two sections: Part A is themed on the policies around food bank, terminologies and conflicts in the definition of food poverty against food insecurity, role of charities and their mode of operation, risk indicators and how food poverty has been researched. Part B focuses on the themes, media representation of food bank users, coping strategy and lived experiences.


Policy development and foodbank use

The 2010-2015 coalition government birthed the “Big Society” political ideology to include communities as part of charities that help in bringing change by addressing social issues (Willets, 2010). The economic recession in 2007 saw the UK governments struggle with its fiscal policy like other European countries (IFS, 2008). After the global economic crisis in 2008, the coalition government introduced austerity policies in a bid to reduce government deficit and get more people off benefit. The welfare reform bill passed in 2012, accumulated stiffer welfare retrenchment measures, which included the bedroom tax, ‘benefit cap’ that capped the amount of benefits households can claim from the state per year (Fenton-Glynn, 2015). However, the result of this harsh reform and its effects on the vulnerable persons has been detrimental to the society (Ridge, 2013). Spending cuts in deprived areas to local governments budget means not only did low income families suffer shortage in their disposable income but also saw the closing down of children centres, clubs and libraries which otherwise would have helped mothers to leave their children and go to work (Beatty and Fothergill, 2014). Local government cuts resulted in the council increasing council tax bills to make up for the losses and keep up with running costs. Rising council tax bills coupled with rise in rent due to increasing house prices meant more low-income families, who are mostly tenants with less disposable income that goes towards food or nothing at all. Most of the research on food poverty by academics, non – governmental organizations, and charities assert that the austerity triggered food poverty and the subsequent use of food bank in the country (Lambie-Mumford, Loopstra et al, 2015; JRF, 2018; IFAN, 2018). The BBC (2018) reported that food bank use is prevalent in the towns where Universal Credit has been rolled out on trial. Likewise, food bank charities also report a strong correlation between universal credit resulting in benefit delay and food bank referrals (The Trussell Trust, 2018).

Rising fuel prices has a direct hike in the prices of food (Lang et al, 2009). According to IFS (2018), high fuel pricing coupled with inflation and stagnant wages makes it more difficult at both national and household levels to acquire and access food, thereby reducing food affordability by over 20%. Benefit sanctions, as the process of stopping benefits for not complying with the DWP rules, has been identified as one of the main causes of food bank use by the Trussell trust. Insecure working conditions like zero contract hours, which does not guarantee regular work but require jobseekers to be always available for work, has been outlined as a cause of food poverty because income is not guaranteed. This breeds the conflict in government statistics with the real life situations in people’s homes. This is due to fact that the statistics show a rise in employment, which also includes figures from zero contract employment adding to the ignorance and denial from the government (Alston, 2018, Thompson et al, 2018).

Conflicting use of terminology – defining food poverty

The findings by O’Connor et al (2016) show literature disparities around the use of the terminologies, food poverty, and household food insecurity, and the complexities around the contextual usage within time and space. There is a lack of a singular acceptable definition of food poverty and an index for measuring the magnitude of it (O’Connell et al, 2018). Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defined food security as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO,2011). This description shows the shift from food availability to food success (Borch and Kjaernes, 2016). In essence, data used by researchers are typically collected from food banks which lacks the capacity to entirely capture the exact number of people experiencing both food poverty or food insecurity or both (Wells and Caraher, 2015; Lambie-Munford et al, 2014). This is partly because not all food insecure households turn to mainstream food bank for assistance and grassroot food charities do not collect data on users and even if they do ,are reluctant to share that information.(O’Connor et al,2018).

Comparing the definition of food poverty by Dowler and O’Connor stating “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so” (Dowler and O’Connor, 2012, p1), to the definition of food security by the FAO gives the trajectory at which the two definitions intersect yet the contrast between the two in social terms. As pointed out by Loopstra et al. (2016), an attempt to use a single measure for the two is controversial as food poverty is multi-dimensional. In a more refined and narrowed conceptualisation, Dowler and Lambie-Mumford (2015) emphasises on sustainable and sufficient secure sources of income to enable household and individuals to afford the necessary food budget that would not compete with fixed and recurring household expenditure. In an economic context, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that household is secured concerning jobs creation and sustainable income. Thus, such understanding draws food insecurity to a national level linked to economic fiscal policies and food poverty to the experiences of individuals and families in their homes (Dowler et al., 2011).

Implementation of foodbank charities, their roles, and mode of operation

Over a decade ago, the word ‘food bank’ was almost extinct until the early 2010 when food banks started to spring up at an alarming rate (Kneafsy et al, 2017). Findings from a study on UK print media covered by Wells and Caraher (2014) frames the UK food banks as foreign and there were no media articles on the phenomenon before 2008. It was until 2012 when numbers started increasing rapidly. According to Wells and Carraher (2014), the Food banks are the key source of giving food aid to people across the country. At the same time, charities, predominantly churches charities, championed the process of giving emergency food assistance (Loopstra and Lalor, 2017).

In the UK, the main food bank charities include The Trussell Trust, Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), Church Action on Poverty, and other grassroots charities that cannot be accounted for (IFAN, 2018). For example, The Trussell food trust was established in the year 2000 and had just 2 food banks by the end of 2004 (Food poverty UK, 2019). In 2018, the number has rapidly increased to 800 food banks with 1249 operating centres across the UK. This also led to distribution of 1.6 million food parcels between April 2018 and March 2019 representing a 19% annual increase from the previous year (Trussell Trust, 2018). Food banks get their supply from retailers, charities, churches, schools and food suppliers and operate through a referral system where health professionals issue vouchers to people in need of the service (BBC, 2019). Thompson et al. (2018) question how these charities, which are not state funded, survive while relying on a referral system mediated by frontline health and social care personnel like social workers. They brand this system as “inherently moralistic and judgemental” (Thompson et al, 2018 p96) because people will have to convince health and social care personnel that they are in need for support. Lambie-Mumford (2013) highlights the cap system operated by the food banks not only as limitation to their operations but also a way of labelling food bank users as the referral system itself quantifies users as needy.

Advocates have criticised the institutionalisation of food banks with the concern that it is helping to weave deeply poverty in the fabric of society (Beck, 2019). Although charities have stepped in to take up the responsibility of the government in fighting food poverty, politicians have argued that the provision of free food by charities encourage people to use food banks (BBC, 2018; Williams, 2013). Contributions made by Food charities are immense and invaluable in tackling food poverty. Charities pay for quality research and contribute to policy by allowing researchers access to foodbanks and volunteers. For example, both the Trussell trust and Joseph Rowntree foundation have sent recommendation from findings of their funded research to the government to make changes to the benefit system. The changes intended to help people out of poverty as the current waiting time of two weeks for Universal Credit was not feasible. These Charities use first-hand lived-experiences of groups at risk and evidence-based findings to inform policy recommendations. Nevertheless, policy makers remain adamant on the severity and reality of food poverty in the country (OHCR, 2018). On this matter, campaigners and researchers have expressed concern on, for example, the lack of standard measure for (food) poverty in the UK despite call on academic researchers and campaigners for this to be instituted (Smith et al, 2018). This is a condition that has caused volunteers and foodbank charities to remain very pessimistic on the situation changing anytime soon suggesting food banks have come to stay in Britain (Douglas et al, 2018).

Charities do not only serve as short term solutions to food poverty but also implies building long term capacity building for food justice through gardening schemes, and education on cooking skills (Kneafsy et al, 2017). However, there is little knowledge through research as to what motivates the setting up of these foodbanks and the rationale behind it. Food banks are also reported to give care and a form of belonging to users as they meet people they can relate to. A critical concern with this aspect of food bank provision is negatively promoting and encouraging formation of groups who would not see it as an emergency but a daily place of meeting and catching up. Dowler and Lambie-Mumford (2015) draw a critical attention towards charities taking up socioeconomic responsibility of the state, and lack of unclear regulations on their operations. However, it should be considered that not all food banks are mainstream solutions and issues involving children and vulnerable people are of great safeguarding concern as well as religious views on food. Lambie-Mumford and Lolar (2017) also stressed on and questions the capacity of charities to meet the demand of the growing rate of food bank users in the UK. This ironically conflicts with the stand of policy makers where they attest that the rise in people using food bank is demand and supply process. This is where users are demanding more because the supply is available for them to use and not a genuine case of people struggling to afford food. Notwithstanding the contribution of food banks in tackling food poverty, food banks have been shown to have their own limitations in operation and capacity to provide food for people in need.

Groups at risk of food bank use

Lack of national framework to collect data on the users of foodbank and a standard measure of poverty makes it difficult to capture who the real users of food bank are. It is known that an unpreventable and unforeseen life occurrence like death means one is immune to poverty. BBC (2017) reported that food bank users go beyond the stereotypes of struggling families, scroungers, local people, or migrants with complex reasons for using a food bank. However, some groups of people are more at risk of experiencing food poverty than others (CPAG, 2000). Loopstra and Lalor (2017) and the Trussell Trust (2017) indicated that 39% of single males are more likely to use food bank, 13% mothers with children, 12% singe females, and 9% couples with children. Additionally, people living with disabilities and people on benefits as well as working families and women are other emerging at-risk groups (Douglas et al, 2018; Park et al., 2014; BBC, 2019). According to the JRF (2018) statistics, more than eight million people in the UK experiencing relative poverty come from a family where at least one person works. On the other hand, 67% of children experiencing poverty have at least one parent in work. Free school meals policy makes food available to children coming from low-income background and in receipt of one or more state benefit to have access to food during school term (DfE, 2018). This policy, however, has been criticised by children advocates. End child poverty coalition (2019) highlights the limitation that families face while struggling to feed children during school holidays. Notably, children who are in receipt of free school meals have a 28% gap between them and wealthier children in achieving GCSE grades A- C. The lifestyle of traveller communities put members at a high risk of food poverty due to the lack of storage facilities and nomadic lifestyle. There is also high consumption of fatty and salty food intake, which is also the case for the homeless, asylum seekers, and refugees (Maslen et al, 2013).

Impact of food poverty

Vulnerable groups known for experiencing food poverty also show material deprivation, which has a resulting effect on their health and well-being (Taylor and Loopstra, 2016). Food poverty, unarguably, presents negative health outcomes. People who experience food poverty are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression as well cardiovascular related diseases (NHS Scotland, 2015; Garthwaite, 2015). Malnutrition and its associated impaired liver function, obesity, iron deficiency and diabetes is a commonly associated with food poverty suffers especially in Black minority ethnic groups (Diabetes UK, 2011). Greatest concern for campaigners and advocates is the impact of food poverty on children’s wellbeing (Loopstra, 2017). Children from households experiencing food poverty are likely to have future health problems and record a low level of attainment in school. Barker et al. (2012) and Molcho et al. (2007) indicated that school children, who skip breakfast, go without fruits, or have less meals a day are likely to encounter problems with their physical and mental health and subsequent higher life dissatisfaction. In unexpected findings, food poverty in early life was linked to childhood obesity and later on children aged approximately 15.5years (Hill et al, 2018). Food poverty is also evidenced as barrier to breastfeeding and healthy nutrition for new-born babies. (Thomas et al, 2018).

Lived experiences

Over the last decade, there has been a growing base of qualitative research on child poverty in relation to food poverty. Lambie -Mumford and Green (2015) argue that the brunt of austerity has affected children most with children using the food bank most. The Trussell Food Trust (2018) shows a record number of children receiving food assistance from the food charity. Children who experience food poverty suffer negative health outcomes (RCPCH, 2017). In a study on food poverty effect on young people in 3 European countries, Knight et al (2018) found that the experiences of food poverty by young people are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. However, media and political representation of food poverty, which usually is about going without food, does not capture these dimensions of food poverty. In other words, the media, especially politicians, do not cover the magnitude and complexities of food poverty in the lives of young people. Children and young people refute the general notion in the media reports that parents are responsible for providing food for their families (Fairbrother and ohers, 2012). Young people also agree that it is the duty of the government to ensure there is enough resources to enable parents provide money and food for their children but the uncertainty around Brexit and the likelihood of further cuts makes this situation unlikely to change (Knight et al,2018 ; Connell et al,2005).

Coping strategy and stoicism

Lone Mothers: The literature also shows what people do and why they do them in the face of austerity. Not until recently, there were many studies on the coping strategies of people. Dowler and Lambie- Mumford (2015) reveal that people prioritise pressing bills with consequences in default first before food bills. In the face of shame and stigma, families adopt stoicism. The Independent Food Aid network (IFAN, 2017) explains that mothers, especially lone parents, choose to go hungry to be able to feed their children. There are numerous reports of families choosing take away over cooked meals due to unaffordable heating bills (Bulman, 2018; Garthwaite 2016; Lambie-Mumford, 2015, BBC, 2017). Study conducted by Attree (2005) show that groups at risk of food poverty develop management skills in using leftovers and discount vouchers in food shopping. The shame and stigma attached to food poverty means that people developed resistance to hunger with families having more than one occasion of going absolute hungry (Chipendo et al, 2017). Moreover, Lawson and Kearns (2018) demonstrated that food aid claimants heavily rely on payday loans, as many did not have family and friends to turn over to for help. Another research conducted by CPAG (2014) identified that keeping warm is particularly more important in comparison to food so families have adopted the “heating over eating” strategy in the face of budget constraints.

Media representation and labelling of food bank users

Narrowing down the literature review to address stipulated research objectives, in-depth consideration of the language and discourses used to describe food bank and food bank users by people, politicians, and mass media form core aspects of the second section. The media has a greater influence on the public and have the power to change and steer the direction of affairs (Buse et al, 2012). Language used in representing food-bank users’ influence greatly how readers perceive users and the users themselves. Newspaper reports often lack objectivity and critical analysis partly due to competition among journalists and as a marketing strategy to sell tabloids, journalist stir up sensationalism through use of marginalising language (Wells and Caraher, 2014). Apart from research from foodbanks and the media report from the UN’s special rapporteur, Philip Alston, not all newspaper articles reviewed online featured the voice of people experiencing food poverty themselves.

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Media coverage of how food banks has been reported in the UK by Wells and Caraher (2014) sampled 330 news articles over a period of 8years, and to know how the media has covered the food bank situation in the UK. The study concluded that the trend in reporting foodbank use in UK media was in the USA and New Zealand in 1993.There was no article on UK foodbank use before 2008 and until 2013 when it started to flood front pages. Besides the trend in media report, the study also found out that those stakeholder voices, emergence of food banks and users are major themes that newspapers in the UK mostly reported.

Chauhan and Foster (2014) argue that UK media representation of people experiencing poverty is highly politicised by favouring the governing party, which mostly lacks detailed information. However, the same information has a high tendency to stereotyping and posing groups at risk as a threat to society. Similar to these findings and with a wider focus on politicians, Sippit and Tranchese (2015) analysed how media and politicians represented people living in poverty in the 2015 elections and found out that politicians framed poverty as a moral issue void of social policy intervention in the UK. Language used by politicians and social commentators is deemed inappropriate and dehumanising. Edwina Currie, former conservative politician alludes that food ban users do not earn cooking skills but rather choose to get a new tattoo (Currie, 2014). Social commentator Katie Hopkins compared food bank users to cancer patients (Hopkins, 2014). The language used in describing food bank users in the media and politicians is dehumanising.

A search through newspaper archives returned some interesting title of articles. For example, The Guardian on 21 December 2010 published an article titled “Jobcentres to send poor and hungry to charity food banks”. Ironically, right wing politicians whose policies have led to the burgeoning of food bank use have been quoted using derogatory words in describing food bank users (Wells and Caraher, 2014). Among the common phrases found include, ‘undeserving poor, opportunist making use of free food, lazy, poor financial planners, lacking money managements and cooking skills’. Similarly, the attitude of people using food banks concerning how they feel is the same. People reported feeling shame, stigma and anger while being labelled as drugs and alcohol users. Lawson and Kearns (2018) reported findings that users felt guilty and helpless in situations where people depended on them. Food bank users have been labelled as opportunist by JRF (2015). This is something that makes it difficult for people using food bank to genuinely feel embarrassed and therefore use the service anonymously.

Research Gap

Using this literature review as a backdrop, there are identified gaps on the subject of food poverty that this research seeks to address. The majority of the literature has mainly focused on the themes identified above with a handful on media representation. Predominantly, media representation of food poverty and food bank use has been about print and screen media coverage of the phenomenon less how these representations informs groups at risk. Thus, this dissertation is needed to address this gap with the following research objectives:

To identify media representations of food poverty and frontline food banks

To explore some of the ways in which groups in receipt of informal food services narrate food choice

To consider some of the way’s groups in receipt of food services make sense of media representations in relation to their lived experiences.

In what ways do these narratives challenge or support absolute/relative indicators of food poverty?

To consider what this might mean for access and equity in frontline food service

In conclusion, most of the literature on food poverty covers the themes discussed above, which prompts the need to have a research that links the media and food poverty. The literature search brought just few researches that focus on media representation and food poverty within a geographical context of United Kingdom. McKendrick et al (2008) concluded the findings on a large-scale study of media persons and people at risk of poverty through a focus group discussion, which showed that the media representation of poverty is vague, and most often does not succinctly reflect poverty in the UK. This study acknowledged its limitations and suggested a number of issues for further investigations, which include the need to use the influence of the media to disseminate poverty to the public more effectively. It also called for a more systematic and extensive process to present poverty as temporary experience and not a permanent condition.


Fenton-Glynn, C., 2015. Austerity and the benefit cap: in whose best interests? Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 37(4), pp.467-469.

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