In our examination of one food bank network operating in Britain, which makes up about 60% of all food banks operating, we found food banks are open for only a limited number of hours each week and that there was a relatively low density of food bank distribution sites. These features of access were associated with food bank use, where areas with fewer operating hours and fewer distribution sites per km2 served significantly fewer people. Importantly, these characteristics interacted with disability rates, a risk factor for food bank use and food insecurity in Britain [33, 36]. In places with high levels of disability, food bank use was significantly lower where there were fewer food banks and fewer opening hours. A positive relationship between in-work poverty and food bank use was observed but this relationship did not differ by operational characteristics--in particular, whether or not food banks were open on weekends.
These data support earlier research that has raised questions about how effectively food banks reach people at risk of food insecurity, given the absence of accountability of charitable food aid provisioning, barriers to access formed by eligibility thresholds, limitations and referral processes, and logistical issues including distance to food banks and opening times . While patterns of food banks opening suggest they have been more likely to open in places where there have been reductions in social and welfare spending and in areas of high child poverty [17, 27], this study suggests that even if a food bank is present, it does not mean it is accessible, as operating hours may be limited. In-depth research on food aid providers have shown how often the focus is on the practical aspects of providing food to people who reach food banks [13, 37], with little time put toward understanding the scale of local need and accessibility of their services.
It was not observed that a lack of food bank hours on weekends diminished the relationship between in-work poverty and food bank usage. This was surprising, as it was one hypothesised reason for why there are few people experiencing in-work poverty among food bank users in the UK . However, research in other countries has suggested that low-income households in work are especially averse to using food charity [38, 39]. People with employment may also be less likely to be in contact with Trussell Trust referral partners. Alternatively, in-work poverty is often characterised by employment in industries with non-standard working hours and part-time working in Britain , so it is possible that our observation that most food banks are not open during non-standard working hours is not a barrier to food bank use for the working poor.
Strengths and limitations
To our knowledge, this is the first quantitative examination of how operational features of food banks correlate with food bank usage. One strength of this study is that it makes use of novel data routinely and consistently collected in The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network. Their harmonisation of data collection across their large network of food banks means that studying patterns of usage by operational characteristics is possible.
This analysis is limited, however, in that only measures of operation in three dimensions were captured: when food banks were open, how long they were open for, and the density of distribution sites. There are other features of how food banks operate that could restrict access, including the number of referring agencies, how strict referring agencies are in making referrals, how accessible referring agencies are, and the nature of referring agencies themselves. For example, referring agencies include Jobcentre Plus offices, which may be more likely to see people who are unemployed or receiving disability benefits than people who are in work. Importantly, referral agencies may have their own eligibility criteria for providing food bank vouchers, but to our knowledge, these have not been explored. Another critical aspect is how often people can receive referrals to food banks. The Trussell Trust provides guidance to their member food banks that they should enquire if a referring agent provides more than three referrals in a six-month period. Future research is needed to explore these many dimensions of food bank access. However, studies have also shown that other factors, such as stigma and not wanting to receive help from a charity, also influence who, among people experiencing food insecurity, use food banks . These are also critical factors to explore with regard to how adequately food banks are able to meet the needs of people experiencing food insecurity.
This study is also limited because it relies solely on data from The Trussell Trust. While Trussell Trust food bank distribution centres make up about 60% of food banks in the UK, over 800 independent food banks operate weekly that are not members of The Trussell Trust . Operational data may not be generalizable to food banks outside of The Trussell Trust. However, these findings are consistent with those that have characterised food bank operations in Canada, which found that regardless of whether or not food banks were part of a national network, they shared similar operational limitations . Future research should examine the intersection of Trussell Trust and other food banks and their operations to understand the full scale, and potential limitations, of food banks operating in the UK. Another limitation of the data is that it is cross-sectional and observational data; therefore, though our data show an association between operational characteristics and food bank usage, we cannot conclude that this relationship is causal.
These findings raise questions about the ability of food banks to address food insecurity. We found operational characteristics are associated with food bank usage, suggesting that the ability of people who are food insecure to receive help from food banks is contingent upon how accessible this help is. Of particular concern is that operational characteristics appear to alter the link between need and food bank usage. While efforts could be made to expand the numbers of hours that food banks operate, when they operate, or their availability, because volunteer labour is so intrinsic to food bank models in the UK , the ability to implement expanded operations is questionable. Even in Canada, where food banks have been operating for over 30 years, a recent analysis of operations highlighted that most had limited operating hours and capacity . As has been explored in the United States  and Canada [25, 41], inherent features of charitable responses to hunger often restrict their effectiveness. Public policy interventions are needed to address hunger .
Though from a practice perspective, these data suggest that food banks should coordinate hours across local catchment areas and that local needs assessments should be made to understand their reach in their communities, even if these efforts were made to improve access, other studies have shown that the limited quality and quantity of food available from food banks is unlikely to address the food insecurity and nutritional needs of the populations that access them [20, 23, 24, 42].
This study also shows that food bank operational characteristics are associated with how many people use food banks. This is problematic in the UK because media and policymakers often rely on Trussell Trust food bank usage as an indicator of whether hunger is increasing. This analysis shows need can vary across the country but might not be reflected in demand for food banks where food banks are less accessible. Regular monitoring of household food insecurity in the UK is needed to understand this critical public health issue.