A future without food banks?

There are over 200 food banks operating in Scotland, with the first one opening just seven years ago. We are all too familiar with this trajectory. The cost of living is going up, while wages and benefits stagnate. More and more people in work are turning to emergency food aid to make ends meet. 13 per cent more emergency food parcels were given out this year than last .

This is why the effect of the Food Poverty Referral Gateway in North Lanarkshire is so staggering. A coordinated effort by many support services, driven by North Lanarkshire Council, has sent the statistics in the other direction. Basics, the largest network of food banks in North Lanarkshire, has seen the number of people turning to them for support drop by 22 per cent.

The Food Poverty Referral Gateway is a simple initiative designed to route people in crisis, who are seeking emergency food, to the Scottish Welfare Fund as a first port of call. The Scottish Welfare Fund team find out what has caused the income crisis, assess whether the person is entitled to a crisis grant and make an award if possible. Then they refer people onto specialised support services if that could help prevent a crisis in the future. They will also refer someone to a food bank for an emergency food parcel if they are not eligible for a crisis grant but have no money for food.

A crisis grant has many advantages over an emergency food parcel. You can buy the exact food you need. You can pay your energy bill. You can buy toiletries, nappies and sanitary towels. Most importantly, it gives you some power and agency to meet your own needs, just like everyone else in society.

The Gateway has been operating for two years with consistent results which demonstrate that a significant number of people are able to get the help they need without turning to emergency food aid.

This should be music to the ears of food bank volunteers. Week in week out, an army of volunteers run the UK’s food banks. Last year they contributed 4 million hours of unpaid work . Many of them stepped up to help when the coalition government’s austerity policies started to bite in 2010 and increasing numbers of people couldn’t afford to feed themselves or their families. But this was never meant to be a long-term safety net.

Finding themselves in a similar position, an inspiring group of pensioners in Canada started the Freedom 90 Union . They set the Canadian government a target to provide a universal safety net so no-one need depend on a food bank and the food bank volunteers could retire by the time they reach the ripe old age of 90.

Scotland may have mountains and lochs to rival Canada. But as far as emergency food aid goes, it is in a very different position. Food banks have been a de facto part of the Canadian welfare state for the last 30 years. Many civil society organisations in Scotland, with the support of the Scottish government, are working together to prevent our country following Canada down this route. We are committed to tackling the underlying problems behind the rise in food insecurity and the proliferation of food banks by ensuring people get the cash, rights and food they need before they are in crisis and need emergency food aid.

A Menu for Change is a three-year project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and managed by Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Nourish Scotland, Oxfam Scotland and the Poverty Alliance . It is working intensively with a wide range of organisations in Dundee, Fife and East Ayrshire, from Citizen’s Advice Services and job centres, to the Council and food banks, to identify local solutions to local issues of food insecurity. Ground-breaking research with people who use food banks is being conducted. There is also a comprehensive programme of workshops to share the best examples, from across Scotland, of ways to tackle food insecurity.

This programme kicks off on the 23 February in the heart of North Lanarkshire, where we will be asking how the Food Poverty Referral Pathway can be replicated ? Just imagine if the number of people needing emergency food aid dropped by 22 per cent across the whole of Scotland.

Of course, we want to go further and build a Scotland where no-one worries about where their next meal is coming from and there is no need for emergency food aid. We know this requires fundamental change in government policy (from both Holyrood and Westminster), the world of work and our food system. In the meantime, North Lanarkshire’s experience demonstrates that we don’t have to wait for change at a national level, we can also reduce the number of people worrying about where their next meal is coming from by working together to take action in our own communities.

Author: Polly Jones, Project Manager