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