Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:


Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 08 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1775

Rapid Response:

Austerity, sanctions and asylum: some asylum seekers’ diet comparable to pre-Welfare State conditions

We welcome the publication of this important and timely study highlighting the link between austerity, unemployment, sanctioning and food insecurity. We support unreservedly the authors’ call for effective measures of food insecurity and steps to tackle its root social and economic causes. We note the correlation of unemployment and welfare cuts with increased food bank usage, and would like to take this opportunity to share with the authors and BMJ readers the results of an as yet unpublished exploratory study we conducted which highlights the particular plight of asylum seekers. Our findings suggest that there may be a cohort in the UK for whom absolute poverty1 at pre-Welfare State levels, at least in dietary terms,2 is a daily reality.

Primary data for our study was collected using a combination of semi-structured in-depth interviews, a questionnaire to capture demographic and lifestyle information and diet sheets. Our sample was comprised of seven British nationals living on state benefit as their primary income source (three of whom had used a food bank in the weeks prior to interview), six asylum seekers (five of whom used food banks or relied partly on gifts of food) and five European Union migrant temporary agency workers. While all the participants in our study were on a low income, even within our small sample there were marked differences in the nature and severity of hardship experienced, with the asylum seekers experiencing particular difficulty. Being legally unable to work and receiving no benefits, five of the six asylum seekers depended on informal social and financial support. Three were surviving on cash gifts from friends, religious organisations or refugee charities, as much as £15 if they were fortunate, sometimes just £5 a week. At times, nothing. Their diets consisted of low cost carbohydrates like baked beans, rice with chicken, bread and microwave chips. They would have liked to eat fruit and vegetables but were unable to afford them very often. Seldom would they eat more than one meal per day.

Various sources on the diet and health of working-class people in the late nineteenth century show that the diets of labourers, workhouse and prison inmates - known as ‘energy producing diets’3 - were monotonous, starchy fare comprised mainly of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Fruit and vegetables were limited; the priority was food that would provide sustained energy for physical labour, the ‘diet of toil’ reproduced today by some of our participants and an unknown number of others who have fallen through the safety net of the state, surviving hand-to-mouth.

The scale of this is very difficult to quantify, not least because of the challenge defining poverty4 and destitution.5 In their report "What is meant by poverty?",6 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation wrote: "when we talk about poverty in the UK today we rarely mean malnutrition or the levels of squalor of previous centuries, or even the hardships of the 1930s before the advent of the Welfare State”. Poverty is a relative concept, the report goes on to say, where ‘poor’ people are those whose standards of living are out of sync with “the majority of the population in one of the most affluent countries in the world”. However, our findings, which view poverty through a conceptual lens provided by that most basic of human needs - food - suggest that there may be a cohort in the UK who face a daily struggle to survive, living lives comparable to pre-Welfare State deprivation.

Add to the difficulties faced by asylum seekers the bleak picture painted by reports of harshly applied benefit sanctions,7 which we know from this study to have a significant effect on food insecurity, as well as the possibility that migrant workers operating in increasingly insecure labour markets8 may lose their safety net at any time.9 In this letter, therefore, we would like to add our voices to those of these authors, calling for research to explore more closely the intersectional impact of asylum, welfare, and labour market policies on the diet and health of some of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

Funded by the Crucible Programme of the Universities of Bristol, Bath and West of England. The study obtained ethics approval from the Universities of Bath and West of England; informed consent was secured from all study participants.

1 United Nations.The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action: World Summit for Social Development 6-12 March 1995. New York: United Nations Department of Publications; 1995.
2 Oliver, T. The Diet of Toil. Lancet 1895; 145(3748): 1629–35 (accessed 27 June 2014).
3 Amos, D. M. Working-Class Diet and Health in Nottingham, 1850–1939. PhD thesis; University of Nottingham; 2000.
4 Gordon, D. The concept and measurement of poverty. In Pantazis, C, Gordon, D, Levitas, R (eds.) Poverty and social exclusion in Britain: The millennium survey, Bristol: The Policy Press; 2006. p29–70.
5 Fitzpatrick, S, Bramley, G, Blenkinsopp, J, et al. Destitution in the UK: An interim report. JRF Programme Paper. March 2015. (accessed 29 March 2015).
6 Joseph Rowntree Foundation. What is meant by ‘poverty’? (accessed March 19 2015)
7 Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau Service. Punishing Poverty? A review of benefits sanctions and their impact on clients and claimants. October 2013.!350&app=WordP... (accessed 19 March 2015).
8 Maroukis, T. Temporary Agency Work in the UK today: precarity intensifies despite protective legislation. IPR Policy Brief. Bath: University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR); forthcoming May 2015.
9 Wintour, P, Travis, A. Cameron to tell EU: cut all tax credits to migrants. The Guardian. November 28 2014. (accessed 19 March 2015).

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 April 2015
Katie E Collins
Senior Research Fellow
Ceire Costelloe, Thomas Kador, Thanos Maroukis and Kristen Reyher
University of the West of England, Frenchay Campus, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS16 1QY