Highlights•The first ethnographic study of food bank use and ill health in the UK.
•Political and media discourse can neglect the many constraints facing food bank users.
•Food bank provision can be unsuitable even in the short term for people with ill existing health conditions.
•Findings question the appropriateness of food banks as a long term response to austerity.In detailEmergency food banks have become an increasingly prominent and controversial feature of austerity in Europe and the USA. In the UK, foodbanks have been called a ‘public health emergency’. Despite this, there has been no UK research examining the health of foodbank users. Through an ethnographic study, this paper is the first to explore the health and health perceptions of foodbank users via a case study of Stockton-on-Tees in the North East of England, UK during a period of welfare reform and austerity. Participant observation, field notes and interviews with foodbank users and volunteers were conducted over a seventeen month period (November 2013 to March 2015) inside a Trussell Trust foodbank. Foodbank users were almost exclusively of working age, both men and women, with and without dependent children. All were on very low incomes – from welfare benefits or insecure, poorly paid employment. Many had pre-existing health problems which were exacerbated by their poverty and food insecurity. The latter meant although foodbank users were well aware of the importance and constitution of a healthy diet, they were usually unable to achieve this for financial reasons – constantly having to negotiate their food insecurity. More typically they had to access poor quality, readily available, filling, processed foods. Foodbank users are facing the everyday reality of health inequalities at a time of ongoing austerity in the UK.