By Jamie Livingstone, Head of Oxfam Scotland and a Director of A Menu for Change.
Today, on World Food Day, I would normally highlight the suffering of people being denied food because of drought, flood, or conflict. Globally, hunger has risen for three years in a row.
But this isn’t only a far-away problem. There are people across Scotland who are, right now, worrying about how they will afford food. Some will even have no money to buy it at all.
Scotland is not suffering from a food shortage, so why are so many people food insecure?
A Menu for Change – a partnership in Scotland between Oxfam, the Poverty Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group and Nourish – was set up to help tackle this problem.
Our latest research is based on the experiences of those facing food insecurity and we tracked their journeys in and out of income crises over time to understand how to prevent them.
The stories we heard should be unthinkable in modern Scotland, yet they are happening all too frequently: parents going without meals so their children can eat, and others unable to afford food for days at a time. We heard how people feel a sense of shame at having to ask for help, with some preferring to go without food as a result.
In recent years, foodbanks have become an all too common feature of our communities because people want to help. They deserve enormous thanks. Yet food aid tackles the symptom, not the cause. If we are to stop the scandal of food insecurity, people need adequate and reliable access to cash so they can buy the food they need.
The precarious nature of the labour market is a key barrier. Alongside low pay, we heard how too often zero-hours contracts and unstable shift work mean people do not know when their next wage is coming or how much it will be.
Compounding the stress this creates is the erosion of our social safety net. We rightly expect the social security system to provide a financial buffer when we face a personal crisis. Yet, many people we spoke to had to turn to food aid because they were not receiving the money they need due to restrictions within Universal Credit, or challenges accessing crisis support from the Scottish Welfare Fund.
These were people like Mandy Galloway, a mother of four from Fife. She suddenly had to start covering almost all her private rental costs after being affected by the benefits cap. She told us she was left with about £20 to pay for bills and food.
Too ashamed to go to a food bank, Mandy struggled through.
Inspired by her experience, she and two other volunteers were supported by A Menu for Change to start a food cooperative called It’s Your Choice. Customers join by paying a £5 annual fee which gives them ‘points’ towards weekly purchases. It will not prevent people facing income crises, but it does help to reduce food bills and increase choice.
Mandy’s story illustrates the resilience shown by those facing food insecurity and underlines the need for the right advice and support, given with dignity and respect, so they do not struggle alone.
Ending the need for foodbanks will require action from government, employers and beyond. We know that short-term food aid is not the final answer. We must stop people in Scotland being dragged into income crisis.
If we do so, we can ensure that on future World Food Days, the scandal of people worrying about going hungry, in Scotland at least, is a thing of the past.
This opinion piece was first published in The Herald newspaper on Wednesday 16 October 2019.