Independent food banks: we need your help

If you’re about to set foot into a food bank for an emergency parcel what you’re in need of most is money not food.

Emergency food bank referrals for people in need have become the default reaction of many job centre staff, doctors, schools and advice workers across the UK. But what if another type of referral was an option? What if someone facing a Universal Credit delay, a benefits sanction or simply not having enough money for food could access cash instead?

Scotland is leading the way in changing the status quo. The Scottish Welfare Fund is accessible for crisis grants and community care grants and the pioneering work of A Menu for Change is boldly making a difference.

The Big Lottery funded project is supporting pilot projects to develop direct access to financial assistance, working with a variety of service providers on the ground. What’s more A Menu for Change is developing a network of change involving key stakeholders across Scotland as well as advocating for policy changes that would genuinely see levels of food insecurity decrease.

But we need to find out how much progress is being made; we need to know if fewer food parcels are being given out as a result of this innovative work.

Until recently, we didn’t even know how many independent food banks there were across the UK let alone the scale of use.

I’ve identified at least 86 independent food banks across 21 Scottish local authorities on behalf of the Independent Food Aid Network but we still don’t know if demand is increasing or crucially decreasing within the independent sector.

Most independent food banks will collect data on food parcel distribution but this hasn’t been collected nationally or regionally. The only existing data on food parcel distribution comes from the network of Trussell Trust food banks – according to its latest figures for Scotland, 170,625 emergency 3-day food parcels were given out by 119 food bank centres last year.

These figures don’t account for the other 40% of Scottish food banks, nor food aid given out by other providers.

The Independent Food Aid Network and A Menu of Change have now joined forces to gather food parcel distribution statistics from Scottish independent food banks. Work is beginning now and I’d love to hear from any independent food bank or food parcel distributor that collects data and would like to be involved.

We’ll be collecting statistics and developing a “common measure” across the sector over September and October. By November we hope to create a data collection form for 2019 with the collaboration of food banks working on the ground.

IFAN and A Menu for Change share a vision of a country without the need for emergency food aid – with this ground-breaking project we hope to see progress towards that goal and fewer parcels being given out as cash referrals take hold and the root causes of food insecurity are tackled.

If you’d like to find out more or are an independent food bank or food bank style operation in Scotland that would like to be involved, please contact me via sabinegoodwin@gmail.com. You can find out more about independent food bank mapping here: www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/mapping

Author: Sabine Goodwin, Research and Campaigns Coordinator, Independent Food Aid Network

UK Government plans to research impacts its policies have on food bank use

According to The Guardian, the UK Government is in the process of finalising plans to research the impacts its policies could be having on food bank use.

Responding to the news, Mary Anne MacLeod, Policy and Research Officer at A Menu for Change said: “It’s welcome news that the UK Government could be finally waking up to the fact that its policies are driving people to the doors of food banks.

“Government researchers won’t have to look far to find the existing evidence that the fundamental problem is one of low income. Benefit reforms, including the devastating roll out of Universal Credit, are unquestionably and directly linked to increased food bank use. Even those in work know it is not a route out of poverty, thanks to low wages and the proliferation of insecure contracts.

“The solutions are at Ministers’ fingertips: all that’s needed is the political will to enact them. Clearly, the UK Government must act urgently to end the benefit freeze and rethink the welfare reforms that are leaving so many people across the country reliant on charity handouts. It’s the only way of preventing food banks from becoming a permanent feature of our society.”

Want everyone to be able to eat? Make sure they have enough money

Across Scotland, more and more people are turning to food banks to help feed themselves and their families.

When you ask why this is happening, the answer is rather obvious; people are going to food banks because they don’t have enough money to afford necessities.

But why not?

According to the Trussell Trust, since their records began, the three largest categories cited as the primary reason for referral to food banks have been “low income”, “benefit delays”, and “benefit changes”.

So, we’ve known for some time that benefit issues are a large reason people need to access food banks. But, the “low income” category has been a bit unclear; often people have assumed it’s made up of people who are in low paid work who don’t receive any benefits.

But it turns out that isn’t the case. Far from it, in fact.

We now know, thanks to an update in the way the data is described, that the low income category includes people who are only receiving benefits, people who are in low paid work, and people who are in low paid work and also receiving benefits. The vast majority of people in the low income category – 85% – are only receiving benefits.

This is significant.

It means that over two-thirds of the 1,332,952 food parcels given out by Trussell Trust food banks last year were given out primarily due to problems with people receiving their benefits or because their benefits weren’t providing them with enough money to live on.

This figure would be even higher if you involved people who fall within some of the Trussell Trust’s other related categories, including people who accessed food banks because they had no recourse to public funds (which excludes some immigrants from receiving social security) or people who were refused short term benefit advances.

We all know that the reasons people access food banks are many and complex. But when the single largest, and fastest growing, reason people access food banks is because their benefits aren’t providing them with enough to live on, it tells us people are relying more and more on food banks as the result of chronic, and growing, poverty.

So, what can be done?

People across the country, including A Menu for Change, are calling for changes to Universal Credit (there has been a 52% increase in food bank use in areas where Universal Credit has been in full service for a year) , to improve access to the Scottish Welfare Fund, and to increase the value of benefits. We want people to be able to access the money they’re entitled to and for that money to give them enough to live on.

But there are equally important things that we can be doing right now in our local communities to help reduce the need for emergency food aid.

One step would be for services that send people to food banks to take an honest look at their referral processes. It’s vital that anyone who requests a food parcel also understands what social security they are entitled to and knows where they can receive support to challenge unfair decisions or hurry sluggish bureaucracy.

Advice and support agencies can make sure they are working closely together to make sure they aren’t unknowingly doing the same things and focus on what they do well.

And there are things you can do directly, too, if you’re short on money for food.

  • Seek independent advice or support. If a decision feels wrong or it seems like it’s taking too long for you to receive your money, don’t doubt yourself, even if the office administrating your social security says everything is as it should be.You can call a national advice line like Citizens Advice Direct for free on 0808 800 9060 to see if your hunch is correct and get some advice about what you can do next. Or you can contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau or other local advice agency. They will be able to tell you if you are getting all the social security you are entitled to, help you challenge incorrect decisions, and support you to hurry things up if they are taking too long.
  • You can also ask for the support of your local MP, or file a complaint with the Department of Work and Pensions if things aren’t working as they should, especially if things are taking too long.

Sometimes it can feel like it’s all out of our hands, like people in tall buildings are making huge decisions about our lives and we have no say. But we do have a say. There are things we can all do, whether we are campaigners, advisers, or someone who’s run out of money.

The social security system is far from perfect. The fact that so many of us are turning to food banks as a direct result of issues with the system make that plain. But there are ways to improve the system and push it to work better. We need to keep pushing. We need a better social security system, not more food banks.

Author: David Hilber, Project Officer

New Scottish Welfare Fund figures published

Today the Scottish Government has released new statistics relating to the Scottish Welfare Fund.

The figures show last year a 6% rise in the number of crisis grant applications received by local authorities in the past year.

Read our briefing on the Scottish Welfare Fund here.

Responding to the figures, Mary Anne MacLeod, Policy Officer at A Menu for Change, said: “These figures are a sobering reminder of just how many people in Scotland are struggling to make ends meet.

“What’s also concerning is the fact that councils across the country are facing cuts to their Scottish Welfare Fund budgets, which has forced some to dip into their own already stretched budgets to plug the gaps.

“The Scottish Government must do everything in its power to make sure the Scottish Welfare Fund is a properly resourced, effective safety net which catches everyone facing a crisis.”

Dundee, East Ayrshire and Fife: innovation from the ground up

I can’t decide what my personal best is. It’s either six trains and five buses in one day or when I did a round trip from Glasgow to Fife via Stirling, Perth and, somewhat randomly, Kilmarnock. Not being able to drive has never felt so silly.

But there is a reason that I often find myself wandering the length and breadth of the country in the space of a day. It’s because A Menu for Change works intensively across three areas: Dundee, Fife and East Ayrshire.  There are lots of reasons we’ve chosen these areas. They were all keen to be a part of A Menu for Change and they represent the diversity of local authorities across Scotland, which is crucial for a project tackling an issue common to all – rising levels of food insecurity.

The biggest indicator we have that more and more people are experiencing food insecurity across the country are the large numbers of people accessing emergency food aid, alongside the sheer prevalence of food banks in our communities. The Trussell Trust reports that in 2016 /17 it had provided around 150,000 food parcels across Scotland.

That’s enough food to feed the entire population of Dundee for three days.

And it’s only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know how many parcels were given out nationally by all of the numerous independent emergency food aid providers and we simply don’t know how many people find other ways of coping rather than stepping into a food bank.

Food insecurity is a problem of poverty. People worry about being able to buy food; knowingly and routinely compromise the quality and quantity of food they are eating; skip meals and ultimately experience hunger because of a lack of income to afford food or meet their most basic of needs.

A Menu for Change believes everyone should have the money they need to buy food, rather than having no option but to rely on charitable donations. We believe that people should be able to feed themselves healthily and with dignity and that means having adequate income, access to rights and entitlements, choice, and control.

That belief drives the work we’re doing in Dundee, Fife and East Ayrshire, although in each area, there’s already a lot activity taking place to tackle food insecurity.

In Fife there is a burgeoning community food sector and last year a piece of research considering the spread and impact of food insecurity across the Kingdom was commissioned. East Ayrshire has a history of successful partnership working between the job centre, the food bank and East Ayrshire Council’s Financial Inclusion Group to reduce numbers of people having no option but to turn to emergency food aid. And Dundee has Dundee Drop In Network, which brings together all of the drop in cafes which often help people connect to wider support services.

One blog is not enough to do justice to all of the work happening across these three areas but rest assured there are many examples of good practice.

And it’s this good practice that A Menu for Change hopes to build on and share.  Of course we know what’s needed is a social security safety net which catches everyone and secure work which covers the costs of living.  But we also believe there is action we can take right now to tackle food insecurity in our local areas.

That’s why every month we meet with a varied group of service providers and local people in each area. Together we cast a critical eye over the local landscape of service provision to consider our current response to food insecurity and financial crisis is and what it could be.

There are emerging themes which are common across all three areas. Good communication and partnership working is key to ensuring services are as co-ordinated as possible. Another priority is to increase access to knowledge and information for community members, alongside raising awareness of the pivotal role that quality, expert advice can play in resolving and preventing income crises. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a desire across the board for more service provision and investment in resources.

All of these common themes are within the gift of service providers to begin tackling, and indeed they have.

Emerging pieces of work include looking at better referral procedures to preventative services to ensure food bank referrals are only made when other rights, cash-based and more sustainable responses are not available, as well as reviewing Scottish Welfare Fund decision notifications and referral procedures to maximise support to people who apply.

This sort of practice development doesn’t happen overnight. However, having three local authorities approaching these issues from different angles means the learning is rich and diverse.

We hope that by the end of the project we’ll be able to demonstrate local change which can be replicated and adapted throughout Scotland to ensure that fewer people experience food insecurity.

So whilst I may as well live on a bus or train, working Scotland-wide is necessary. I feel privileged to witness the innovation happening from the ground up to improve and evolve the way that Scotland responds to food insecurity.

Author: Anna Baillie, Project Officer

Putting rights on the table

There is something rotten at the heart of our food system. Hundreds of thousands of Scots are now depending on food bank parcels to feed themselves and their families, and this is increasing at a faster rate in Scotland than the rest of the UK.

A Menu for Change is a three-year project working with public bodies and charities across Scotland to test local strategies to prevent food insecurity and advocate for national strategies to address food insecurity.

There is no mystery about what is causing this crisis. The fundamental problem is one of low income. Wages have been squeezed, benefits are frozen and the cost of living has risen. Added to which, the Trades Union Congress finds almost 40 per cent of the growth in employment between 2011 and 2016 came from workers in insecure jobs – zero-hours contracts or insecure temporary work.

There is also little mystery about the action that needs be taken to address the failings of the social security safety net or the jobs market.

The UK Government must act urgently to end the benefit freeze and rethink welfare reforms that are leaving so many reliant on charity handouts. Universal Credit may be right in principle, but where it has been rolled out, new data shows 52 per cent more people are seeking emergency food aid.

Companies also need to go beyond food bank collections in their supermarkets and workplaces. They can make a significant difference to those with the lowest income by paying the real living wage and offering secure employment.

So far, so UK.

However, with the emergence of the Good Food Nation Bill, Scotland has a new opportunity to hold the Scottish Government to account for the food insecurity  – worrying where your next meal is coming from – experienced by its citizens. Having another lever to hold the government to account can only be a positive thing. Despite the outcry about the extent of food insecurity and concerted campaigning across the UK, policy change in these areas has been agonisingly slow.

The Good Food Nation Bill provides a unique opportunity to enshrine the right to food in law, making Scotland the first part of the UK to do so. Although there are some minimum standards for the food Scotland produces and consumes, the food system is broadly left to the direction of market forces or interventions by the charity sector. Emergency food aid is a case in point with an army of volunteers contributing four million hours of unpaid work to run the UK’s food banks last year.

Recognising the right to food wouldn’t stop charities and volunteers stepping up to help, but it would place the responsibility for protecting any of us from going hungry firmly with the state. Preventing hunger is such a basic and fundamental part of the contract between state and citizen, it is peculiar this hasn’t yet been matched with legal powers to enforce this right.

The Good Food Nation Bill is more than a right to food. It also enables us to act strategically to improve the food in every part of our public life – from land to table and back again. The policy landscape is littered with siloed food initiatives, be it emergency food aid, holiday hunger or food waste, which address part of the same problem without addressing the root cause or joining them up.

By looking at every area of public life through a food lens, we can ensure the Scottish Government’s new social security system reflects the actual cost of living; introduce a duty on local authorities to guarantee vulnerable people have access to nutritious food; and make sure all pupils have eaten well enough to be able to learn, in and out of term-time. We could adapt the approach the Scottish Government has taken on climate change to introduce statutory targets for tackling household food insecurity.

Scotland has distinguished itself among the UK nations for its vocal commitment to address food insecurity. With hundreds of thousands of people still worrying where their next meal is coming from, there is plenty more to be done – at every level of government. The Good Food Nation Bill is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to galvanise action around the food system and for all of us to assert our right to food.

Author: Polly Jones, Project Manager

This article originally appeared in The Geographer magazine.

Using action learning to improve responses to food insecurity in Scotland

A Menu for Change is working intensively in three local authority areas – Dundee, East Ayrshire and Fife – to support local stakeholders to review and improve current practice and develop models of intervention that address the underlying causes of food insecurity to prevent repeat crises.

Since October 2017, our project officers have been meeting with small groups in each area – with representatives from local authorities, the Scottish Welfare Fund, advice services, emergency food providers, community food initiatives and people with lived experience of food insecurity – to support the identification of local action to local challenges.

We’re using action learning sets as a method of engaging the people directly involved in responses to acute food insecurity to consider practical ways these responses can better support people to access cash, rights and food in a crisis.

What is action learning?

Action learning provides problem-solving time for people with busy schedules. It is an opportunity for personal learning and development and insight into how others achieve different solutions.

Action learning sets become groups of individuals who are, for a period of time, mentors for each other. They support and challenge each other to reflect on the issues each person brings to the group, and they offer some accountability for the actions a presenter agrees to take.

How does it work?

We are working with groups that have 9-10 members in each area. We wanted a wide range of perspectives and views in the room and also wanted to ensure everyone involved was able to offer something valuable to the discussions.

Each month, our sets gather in Dundee City, Kilmarnock and Levenmouth to work through an issue or challenge brought by members of the group.

Everyone sits in a circle, and one person presents. The rest of the group listens to the presentation without interruption and then asks open questions to help the presenter reach a deeper understanding of the issue. There are no tables, pens or paper – all the focus is on the presenter and helping them to think through their challenge.

After about 30-40 minutes, the presentation and questioning finish and the presenter is asked to identify actions that came from the discussion that they’d like to be accountable for pursuing.

Since the other set members are only allowed to ask questions – rather than provide advice, suggestions or guidance – during the main part of the discussion, there is a reflection round at the end. This provides time for each person to share their thoughts and feelings about what they heard or what they will take away for their own practice and to offer encouragement and support to the person who presented.

Finally, all set members have an opportunity to identify actions that they will take away, either as an individual to their own organisation or as a group.

Why use action learning?

Ultimately, A Menu for Change wants referral pathways to be clearer, faster and better coordinated in local  areas so that people in crisis can access the financial support they’re entitled to, prevent future crises and, if it is still needed,  have a wider choice of food in an emergency.

Our action learning sets bring together stakeholders from across statutory, voluntary and community sectors and include representatives with relevant experience and influence to help identify and take local action.

In some cases, the participants meet in other contexts, but our aim is to provide a new way for people to explore and address the challenges they face.

What have been the benefits?

We’ve had some really encouraging feedback so far.

Participants in Dundee have told us that the format makes them feel comfortable to ask challenging questions without anyone feeling like they’re interrogating each other and that they appreciate the chance to discuss relevant and timely issues in a supportive environment.

In fact, having the dedicated time each month to think about specific challenges has led to ‘eureka moments’ for some participants, where solutions to problems have been discovered, and tangible, meaningful actions have been taken away as a result.

One presentation about lack of staff and volunteer capacity in an over-stretched community centre led to the identification of a wide range of changes needed in their referral process to ensure that everyone seeking a food parcel referral was receiving all the relevant advice and support they were entitled to.

Membership of the groups has also been a key strength: participants feel they have gained a deeper understanding of what other services in their area are doing, and there have been practical benefits for sharing issues and solutions with people who have the power to address some of the challenges that are being discussed.

Although there have been some challenges, such as the difficulty of building trust within the group if people aren’t able to commit to attending each meeting, it is clear that participants are finding the structure and focus on actions a useful way to engage with the broader issues around responding to food insecurity.

Next steps

A Menu for Change’s Action Learning Sets will continue to meet monthly until September this year. We hope that the solutions identified in our groups will help provide new ideas and models to inspire others around the country so we can reduce the need for emergency food aid by ensuring people in crisis access cash, rights and food when they need it most.

Keep up to date with A Menu for Change by registering for our newsletter and following us on Twitter @MenuforChange

For more information on action learning, visit Action Learning Associates.

Author: Chelsea Marshall, Project Officer

Beyond the food bank in Aberdeenshire

Wages are not keeping up with inflation, benefit rates have been frozen for three years, and the number of people turning to food banks is ever increasing.

For most of us, things seem pretty bleak.

While we wait for governments to fix the problems, there are people all over the country who are trying to do something to support those who have the least. And they are doing some amazing things that are having a real impact.

In March we held a workshop in Aberdeen to celebrate the good examples in Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and to consider what else can be done. We had a great turn out, with over 60 people from a variety of backgrounds coming to share their ideas and passion for reducing the need for food banks in their community.

We heard about the good practice already happening in the North East, including Food Poverty Action Aberdeen’s extensive alliance of organisations and their upcoming action plan for tackling food insecurity.

We learned about local community projects, such as the Tillydrone Community Flat and their involvement in the Sustainable Food City Partnership Aberdeen Action Plan.

We heard how advice agencies have made it easier for people to use them. For example, Aberdeen City Council’s Financial Inclusion Team changed to an 0300 number instead of a “private number” so people are more likely to answer their calls, they text people with appointment reminders, and they run surgeries in community centres.

We also learned about centralised referral pathways, including Cash in Your Pocket. They take referrals from support services and pass them to the most relevant money advice agencies. This means support service workers and volunteers only have to call one phone number instead of keeping track of several agencies.

People thought local partnership working has improved in recent years and, despite the harmful effects of welfare reform, the North East is working better together.

There’s a lot to be proud of. But, of course, there is always more that can be done.

People felt local agencies could work even closer together to reduce the number of agencies people have to go to in order to receive the help they need. Ideas for addressing this included the development and continuous updating of an Aberdeen City registry of agencies with a brief explanation of services they provide, in the same way Aberdeenshire Council does. People also thought more co-location of services and advice hubs should be developed, just like the Here for You Centre.

There was a call for more training for staff who work with vulnerable people because many felt people accessing services were not always treated with the respect they deserve.

The most powerful part of the day was when local residents spoke about their experience of navigating the social security system. The challenges they faced with Universal Credit and the Tax Credit system highlighted the problems inherent in both systems.

We heard the in-built wait for a first payment and administrative issues, so well associated with Universal Credit, cause rent arrears and force people to turn to food banks. Though there are mechanisms within Universal Credit that are supposed to prevent these issues, we heard many examples when these were not properly implemented and someone was left to fend for themselves with the help of their local community.

“It is so hard to ask for help for food, for someone like me who has worked, paid taxes and NI. I don’t want to ask for charity.”

We also heard about the impact zero hour contracts have on families. The stress and uncertainty caused by low wages and insecure hours is bad enough, but when you add the uncertainty of getting enough hours to maintain a working tax credit claim; the bureaucratic difficulty of proving this; and the effects of HMRC being unsure if enough hours are being worked and suspending your tax credit award; it’s easy to see why so many working people are turning to food banks.

“We need to get rid of zero hours contracts.”

Despite the challenges, the take away from the day was overtly positive. People felt motivated to do more together and everyone took away personal actions to improve their community by tackling food crisis and reducing the need for food banks.

One person pledged to develop a checklist of financial assistance available and ensure all workers know how to access them before they resorted to issuing food parcels.

Another committed to run more “town meal” style events where free food is provided and the focus is on eating together as a community.

Someone is going to increase their knowledge of benefits so they could make more appropriate referrals for people in crisis.

Someone else said they would encourage people to access income based solutions.

There are big, big challenges for people on low incomes. Low wages and changes to social security continue to devastate the lives of the most vulnerable of us all over the UK. But there is so much local communities can do, and are doing, to help mitigate these effects. Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have many excellent examples of people making herculean efforts to make sure no one goes without food. But more importantly, despite doing so much, they are driven to do even more.

If you’d like to find out about our upcoming events, please subscribe to our e-newsletter here.

Author: David Hilber, Project Officer

 

 

The Scottish Welfare Fund – an alternative to emergency food aid

We know that the best way to help someone who is left with no money for food is to give them money. It means people can choose when, where and how they access their food. That’s why the Scottish Welfare Fund is one of the most important ways of helping someone who has no money for food.

It’s not perfect: there’s an application form to fill in, an administrative period, and rules for who can and cannot receive money. So, on the face of it, it might seem like a food bank referral is a simpler, faster response. But when you look closely, the Scottish Welfare Fund has many advantages over a food bank parcel, on top of the benefits of a cash based response.

What is the Scottish Welfare Fund?

The Scottish Welfare Fund is administered by each local authority in Scotland.

There are two kinds of grants available from the Scottish Welfare Fund: crisis grants and community care grants. To be eligible, you must have a low income or not be able to access your money. Both are grants and do not need to be repaid.
Community care grants are not typically used to provide emergency living expenses (e.g. food and utilities). These grants are often for things like furniture, white goods, clothes or money.

Crisis grants are available to people who need living expenses as a result of an emergency, such as having no money for food, or disaster, such as a fire or flood. They must be paid in cash or “cash equivalent” (e.g. PayPoint, voucher that can be used at a number of outlets, bank transfer, etc.).

A better alternative to emergency food aid

On top of a cash based response, the Scottish Welfare Fund is a better alternative to food aid because many food banks face even greater limitations on their service.

1. Opening times

Scottish Welfare Fund grants are typically only available during regular business hours. This means people who find themselves in crisis in the evenings and weekends will be unable to access payments immediately.

Like the Scottish Welfare Fund, many food banks are only open during regular working times on weekdays. Others are only open even less frequently: one or two days per week or only in the morning or afternoon. There are food banks that are open on weekends, but this varies from area to area.

Also, many food banks require individuals to go to a referring agency to get a voucher before they can receive a food parcel. These agencies are typically only open during business hours. So, not only are individuals limited to the opening hours of the food bank, they are limited by the opening times of the referring agencies.

2. Application process

Crisis grants must be applied for. Local authorities are required to provide at least three methods of applying. Online and phone applications are often promoted by local authorities as they are easiest to administer, but people facing income crisis may not have access to these methods. You should be able to put in a claim at a local authority office, but may face barriers to doing so (e.g. travel costs or mobility issues) and not all local authorities offer this service.

As we’ve said, many food banks don’t allow you to simply show up and receive a parcel. Instead, you have to go to a referring agency where you will be assessed and given a voucher. You then need to go to the food bank to receive your parcel. This process may be well intentioned but it can be a difficult, especially for people who don’t know they need a voucher and go directly to a food bank.

This two-step process makes it even more expensive for people who have far to travel to reach a referral agency and a food bank.

3. Decision making time

The Scottish Welfare Fund guidance states local authorities must make a decision by the end of the business day (defined as 9am – 4:45pm) after the day in which the application and all necessary information is received. If an application is received after 4:45pm it is treated as being received the following business day.

This means you could make an application for a crisis grant at 5pm on a Monday and the local authority would be within the allowed timeframe if it made a decision on 4:45pm on the following Wednesday. If the local authority needs to gather more information, or if an application is made on a Friday, a decision can take even longer.

When it comes to turn around, food banks may appear to have the advantage. People can typically receive a food parcel the same day they request one, so long as they are able to attend both the referring agency and food bank on the same day.

However, getting help from the Scottish Welfare Fund can actually be just as quick; with the latest stats showing that two thirds of crisis grants were made on the same day as the application, and nearly all of them (98%) were made within two working days.

4. Application limits

Local authorities only have so much money they can distribute so there are limits to the number of crisis grants you can receive in a given period. The general rule is that you can only receive three crisis grants in a rolling twelve month period.

Local authorities do have discretion to pay a fourth or subsequent award in exceptional circumstances, and many do, but they don’t have to.

Local authorities also don’t have to consider an application if it is made for the same items or services within 28 days of a similar application if there has been no change of circumstances. Arguably, requesting money for food within this time period is not the same item (it is different food after all) but the decision rests with each local authority.

Like crisis grants, many food banks limit the number of times an individual can access their service in a certain timeframe. Each food bank sets its own rules but many follow the principle that no more than three parcels should be given in six months. But, like the Scottish Welfare Fund, many food banks will give beyond this limit in exceptional circumstances.

5. Award limits

Most food banks only provide enough food for three days. Crisis grants, on the other hand, should be awarded to last you until your next expected payment. If you’re receiving Universal Credit, this could be an entire month.

Official data shows the average crisis grant award in Scotland was £78 between July and September of 2017, although it does not show how many days this award was supposed to last. While the limitations initially appear similar, crisis grants are typically more generous and should last you much longer.

Cash, rights, food

The fact that a crisis grant is a cash based response is the most important difference between the Scottish Welfare Fund and food banks. Getting money gives you a much greater choice to decide how much and what kind of food you eat. Also, it allows you to buy more than food. Crisis grants can be awarded for fuel, clothes and other necessities. In this way the Scottish Welfare Fund can provide more help to someone facing income crisis than a food bank ever could.

But more than that, the Scottish Welfare Fund is the same or better when it comes to ease of access, the application process, limits on applications and the value of what you actually receive.

Food banks are an excellent example of communities coming together to fill a gap in support our governments should be providing. But the Scottish Welfare Fund is an example of an excellent government service that may be underutilised. No one should be referred to a food bank without first being told about the Scottish Welfare Fund. There is room for improvement in how the Scottish Welfare Fund operates, but by getting money into people’s pockets, it is the best way to stop people facing hunger.

Author: David Hilber, Project Officer