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Calling on the Scottish Government to end reliance on food banks

Hannah Mackintosh, Food Workers for Food Justice, writes for IFAN

In a letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, workers and volunteers from food banks, community food groups, and supporting organisations, have outlined their concerns over the Government’s reliance on charity amid a sharp increase in the number of people experiencing food insecurity. The letter calls for an end to the Government’s dependence on food banks, instead it stressed that direct monetary relief must be provided to those in need, so that everyone is able to access food with safety and dignity.

Hannah Mackintosh of Food Workers for Food Justice and volunteer with IFAN member organisation Queen's Park Govanhill Foodbank tells us more:

When I look back over the past three months what stands out to me most are the conversations I’ve had about food.

I volunteer at a small independent food bank and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, at a larger charity delivering emergency food relief. I’ve listened to the experiences of many people. They tell me about their inability to afford food, their frustration and loss of hope, and the growing stress of living so precariously.

Through involvement in Food for Good Glasgow, I have heard the experiences of people working and volunteering in emergency food provision across the city. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness, resourcefulness and dedication they have committed to ensure that people have access to food.

Both groups of people share an uncertainty about the future.

For people working in community food, there are critical questions about the sustainability of our work. The ‘emergency’ phase is ending, yet the number of people facing food insecurity is increasing. IFAN figures show a 246% increase in the number of food parcels distributed in Scotland in April 2020 in comparison to last year. We have common concerns around future funding, food supplies, furloughed volunteers returning to work, loss of space as buildings re-open, and the practicalities of working at this level of intensity over a longer term.

For people forced to rely on food banks, what was already a difficult process has gotten harder.

Independent food banks have tended to give out more food than usual in Scotland but parcels will only last a few days or week, meaning that people unable to leave their homes have now experienced over three months of trying regularly to arrange food parcel deliveries. For people who can access food banks in person, the essential safety measures and adaptations brought about by the pandemic have often come at the cost of losing the personal touch, the welcome and the signposting, leading to a reduced sense of dignity.

The Scottish Government’s decision to rely heavily on the third sector only works if people are able to access or contact the third sector groups that can help them. Distance has become a much bigger issue, as people who used to take the bus or get a lift to pick up their food, now often can’t. For many, the prospect of even a five-minute walk with heavy bags can mean they are physically unable to access food. For others, a lack of internet or computer access, phone credit or data, English as a spoken and/or written language, and limited literacy, are all factors that make it incredibly difficult to know who to call for support, where the nearest food bank is, or even be aware of the Scottish Welfare Fund, never mind apply for it.

However, even before the current crisis A Menu for Change and IFAN figures showed that 596,472 emergency food parcels were handed out in Scotland between April 2018 and September 2019, equating to more than 1000 food parcels every day – a 22% increase in comparison to the previous 18 months. And then there are the large number of people who need food support but don’t use food banks. A study carried out in fifteen economically deprived areas of Glasgow found that ‘a little over one-in-six of those who had experienced difficulty paying for food had used a food bank, including less than a quarter of those who frequently struggle to afford food.’

Food is such a personal thing, often connected to place and memory, a part of our identity. It can create community and give pleasure or solace. It is vital to our survival and access to it represents a fundamental human right.

What angers me most about the violation of this right is that none of this has to happen. Food banks are not inevitable – they have become normalised in our society through political choice. This political choice includes a benefit system which often leaves people short of enough money to live on, enforcing inequality, and creating stress, debt, ill-health, and uncertainty.

Food Workers for Food Justice is an alliance of community food workers and volunteers who hold a strong belief that the Scottish Government must end their dependence on food banks and reliance on the private and third sectors. Instead, direct monetary relief should be provided to those in need, so that everyone is able to access food with safety and dignity. The right to food must be enshrined in Scottish law to ensure that the duty to address food insecurity is placed squarely on the Government, and not on local communities or charities.

Last week, we sent an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon raising these issues. We asked also that food hubs be opened, or for established food banks to be supported to transform into community-led food hubs, in areas where people have little or no access to nutritious food. These are places where anyone could easily access healthy, affordable food, close to home, in a dignified way that would grow and empower communities. People would visit because they want to, not because they have to.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the generous feedback and advice we’ve received, especially at such a busy time. Every time a person or organisation has been in touch to discuss their views on a point raised by the letter, or add their signature, I’ve felt hope. If this many people care so much about the right to food, change is possible. We look forward to hearing from the First Minister.

If you would like to join this discussion, please contactus@foodjustice.co.uk. To read our letter visit the Food Workers for Food Justice website at https://foodjustice.co.uk/open-letter

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