A Menu for Change: Cash, Rights, Food

Anela Anwar – Programme Manager, Oxfam Scotland

Time is running out to prevent food banks becoming a permanent part of Scotland’s social safety net.

A decade ago, they barely existed. Now, they’re prolific.

Yet food isn’t in short supply: anyone who’s been to the shops lately knows supermarket bosses aren’t struggling to fill the shelves. Food insecurity is caused by too much poverty, not too little food.

People in Scotland have responded incredibly by refusing to let their neighbours go hungry – they’ve set-up food banks and continue to volunteer their time or donate money or other basic essentials. But it’s all becoming worryingly normal.

In reality, there’s nothing normal about people in Scotland going hungry. Food banks were never intended to become a permanent feature of Scottish society; they were supposed to be a stop gap measure. Yet here we are.

While the full scale of food insecurity is not known, it is clear the problem is getting worse.

That’s why Oxfam Scotland, along with our partners Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Nourish Scotland and The Poverty Alliance, has launched a new project aimed at going beyond stop gap measures and tonight we’re hosting a major event at the Scottish Parliament.

The project – called A Menu for Change – is focused on tackling the root causes of food insecurity in Scotland. Evidence suggests the key drivers of acute income crises are low income, insecure work, rising living costs, and also the operation and inadequacy of the social security system.

That’s why the solution to ending food insecurity in Scotland isn’t food. It’s cash.

Access to food is a basic human right and even in a time of income crisis, people must be able to access emergency funds so they can buy food.

Sometimes there are ways of getting that cash, such as through the Scottish Welfare Fund, but often people don’t know the Fund exists or that they’re able to use it. 

That’s something we are hoping to help address. By working with local groups and key public sector stakeholders across Scotland, and intensively in Dundee, East Ayrshire and Fife, the project aims to come up with ways to stop people from facing a cash crisis in the first place.

But we also know that however much we try to prevent it from happening, some people will remain at risk of slipping through the net. We know too that building community around food is a powerful means of bridging other challenges – including social isolation. So we’ll also be piloting alternative ways for people to be able to access the money and food they need in as dignified a way as possible.

One Scottish mum, Summer, told us that she’d had to use a food bank because her benefits were delayed by 15 weeks. Without the food bank, she’d have had no way of feeding her three kids. The trouble was that one of her children had a food allergy which made it tricky to get the food she needed at the food bank. To Summer, having access to cash during one of the most difficult times of her life would’ve made the world of difference simply because it would’ve meant she could make meals her child was able to eat.

Ultimately, we don’t want people in Scotland to face hunger in the first place and we hope the evidence we gather from this project will help achieve a country free from the acute income crises which lead to food insecurity.

No-one wants food banks to become a permanent feature of our communities. To ensure they don’t, we need to work together to evolve the emergency response from food to money.

This article was first published by The Herald.