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The mass expansion of food banks across the United Kingdom is associated with cuts in spending on local services, welfare benefits and higher unemployment rates, a study has found.

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The findings by researchers from Oxford University, Liverpool University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The researchers linked data covering 375 local authorities of official government data on welfare changes, sanction rates, and economic changes to food bank statistics from the Trussell Trust, the only source of routinely collected surveillance for the past decade. They found that food banks were more likely to open in local authorities with higher unemployment rates - and that greater welfare cuts increased the likelihood of a food bank opening.

Professor David Stuckler of Oxford University's Department of Sociology, senior author of the paper, said: 'We found clear evidence that areas of the UK facing greater unemployment, sanctions and budget cuts have significantly greater rates of people seeking emergency food aid. This pattern is consistent even after adjusting for the possibility that some areas have greater capacity to give support than others.'

Starting in 2009, the UK witnessed a rapid spread of food banks. The number of local authorities with food banks operated by the Trussell Trust, a non-governmental organisation that coordinates food banks across the UK, jumped from 29 in 2009-10 to 251 in 2013-14. What is causing the rise is a topic of ongoing debate: some commentators argue that people are taking advantage of food made freely available, while UK food charities claim that they provide emergency food aid in response to economic hardship and food insecurity.

Read more on the University website (opens new window)