Moving upstream: tackling food poverty before it becomes a crisis in Renfrewshire

The population of Renfrewshire is 178,600. Situated on the west coast of Scotland, there are 14 parks, one Scottish Premiership football team (a gold star if you can name it) and Paisley town centre has the highest concentration of historical buildings outside of Edinburgh. True story.

Sadly, some of those historical buildings now host food banks. Last year, nearly 9,000 people from across Renfrewshire had to rely on charitable handouts to feed themselves. Like many places in Scotland, Renfrewshire is suffering from increasing food insecurity.

A Menu for Change is creating space for communities and service providers to share learning and knowledge about what work is already taking place to ensure more people have enough money to be able to feed themselves and their families well and with dignity. Tackling food insecurity is a priority for the local authority and there is a shared willingness and determination to challenge it among many local organisations, through innovation and collaborative working.

On 23 August we invited local organisations to come together to reflect on the work underway to improve the outcomes for people experiencing food insecurity and to consider what else they would like to happen, at Renfrewshire’s Response to Food Insecurity.

Renfrewshire food bank explained that numbers are increasing and are likely to further increase with the advent of full service Universal Credit. This steady rise puts undue pressure on the food bank to fill an ever widening gap in statutory provision. Originally designed as an emergency response, the food bank now provides support for people through sustained periods of income crisis and destitution.

From the food bank’s perspective, the sound professional judgement of referral agencies is integral to ensuring that all other options have been exhausted before people are referred to the food bank. Staff believe it should always be the last port of call.

We discussed ways people could be helped before they ever reached a food bank. We considered how a simple leaflet, detailing where people could access money if they didn’t have any, could be developed, alongside training for food bank referrers. This is part of a pilot project in East Ayrshire about to be undertaken by Citizen’s Advice Bureau and aimed at ensuring people experiencing an income crisis are receiving comprehensive information about all the support available.

With Universal Credit being rolled out in Renfrewshire, it is more important than ever that people know what their statutory entitlements are to see them through what could be a significant delay in payment. After all, according to the Trussell Trust, the number of people turning to food banks in Universal Credit full service areas has increased by a staggering 52%.

Indeed, a common theme raised at every table discussion was the need for a robust and understandable referral pathway.
Attendees also focused on the benefits of community hubs such as the Maxwell Centre in Dundee where people can access a variety of support at once from one-to-one advice to a community garden, as well as considering how community-led food larders might be a way to ensure people have reliable and routine access to food of their choosing.

Renfrewshire as a local authority council has already taken some innovative steps to tackle food insecurity. An Advice Partnership has been meeting since 2015 to ensure that advice provision is as streamlined and accessible as possible and a Food Bank Sub Group was set up to solve common issues relating to food insecurity. As a result, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau now has food parcels to increase the accessibility of advice provision and reduce the numbers of places people have to visit for support when experiencing an income crisis.

There are now Claimant Support Officers in every Jobcentre in Renfrewshire. They are there to provide an essential link to a variety of Council services, as well as supporting people to access a host of provision, including discretionary housing payments to landlords when Housing Benefit or Universal Credit is not enough.

In addition, Renfrewshire Council recognised that cost is a barrier to getting to and from services for people on lower incomes. With their Transport Grant scheme anyone who does not have the money to make it home can be given an all-day bus ticket from the food bank.

All of these pieces of work demonstrate a way of working which tries to prevent an acute income crisis from happening, where community members have access to knowledge, information and support before reaching crisis point.

There was significant energy to take these solutions forward among the diverse range of attendees. Representatives from Housing Associations, Council departments, advice providers, supportive organisations and community growers were keen to work together to put some of the ideas they’d had into practice.

For many, this was the start of a different conversation and one that could spell a new chapter for people living in Renfrewshire. The aim was clear: do everything possible to ensure that people have enough money so they can choose their own food and make sure that in future, the only connection between food banks and Paisley’s famous buildings is their historic nature.

Author: Anna Baillie, Project Officer