Reflections on the growth of food aid in today’s Scotland

Dr Nicola Livingstone

Although it could be argued that the charitable giving of food has been a feature of society for many years, the early 21st century has seen a substantial rise in the number of food aid providers in the UK.  As part of a Scottish Government project, Dr. Nicola Livingstone and Dr. Filip Sosenko reported on the diverse nature of food aid in Scotland.  Surely the growth of food inequalities is a worrying development in UK society and a reflection on both the government’s welfare reforms and our austerity economy?

A recent report compiled by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty estimates that more than half a million people are now relying on food aid in the UK.  In June 2013, The Telegraph suggested that ‘an estimated 18% of the country were forced to skip meals, ask friends or family for food, rely on a food bank, or go without so their kids could eat in the last year’.  The vanguard response to the experience of food poverty in the UK has been led by the Trussell Trust, a self-defined ‘social franchise’ established in 2004, which partners with churches throughout the country to set up food banks.  Their vision is to provide a ‘foodbank in every community’, with the expectation that the need for food banks is only going to increase.  In 2012-13, Trussell Trust food banks fed 346,992 people across the UK, a significant increase on the 2008-09 figure of 26,000.  In total there are 374 Trussell Trust food banks operating today across the UK, with more opening each week.  To receive food from a Trussell Trust food bank, you must be formally referred.  Typically referrals come from the job centre, doctor’s surgeries and local councils.  The Trussell Trust collect key information from those referred, such as their ‘reason for referral’. In addition to the Trussell Trust food banks, there is an established and diverse spectrum of food aid providers in the UK, from the Salvation Army (providing hot meals and food parcels), to locally run soup kitchens and more informal ad-hic food providers (where referrals are not necessary), such as drop-in centres and other religious organisations.

The growth of food aid has become a topical point with the media in the last couple of years, particularly with The Guardian, which has produced a stream of articles and publications on food crises through their ‘Breadline Britain’ debates.  These articles reflect on the stigma associated with food aid, their substantial growth in the UK and their failure to address the root causes of poverty.  Food banks are apparently being used by the government as an extension of the welfare state, although the state fails to see links between welfare reforms and increasing food inequalities.  Indeed, food banking has been a feature in America and Canada from as early as the 1960s and is an established part of the welfare safety net.  In 2012, The Guardian commented that by 2016 there will be 500 food banks in the UK, however the Trussell Trust suggest that in order to fully address the food aid problem in the UK 750-1,000 food banks would be required.  So what do we know about the food aid situation in Scotland specifically?

Reflecting the Scottish Government’s interest in tackling poverty and inequalities, our research team was commissioned for a scoping study.  We assessed the ways in which the increased demand and supply for food aid was being met in various locations, the future opportunities for monitoring change and whether the Trussell Trust was representative of general movements in the food aid landscape.  The BBC (2013) reported that the numbers accessing food banks in Scotland had ‘more than doubled’ from 5,726 in 2011-12 to 14,318 in 2012-13.  In 2012/13, The Scotsman reported that between the months of April – September over 23,000 referral vouchers were issued to Scotland’s 42 Trussell Trust foodbanks.  Scotland is experiencing an upward exponential growth trend in food aid provision, in line with its wider evolution across the UK.

The areas we studied were both urban (including Glasgow & Dundee) and rural (Fort William & Kirriemuir), but the food aid landscape generally was dynamic and expanding.  Unsurprisingly urban areas had a higher proportion of both formal and informal food aid provision, such as soup kitchens, food banks and specialist food aid services. For example, numerous providers in Glasgow are specifically orientated towards assisting destitute asylum seekers and refugees.  Many food aid providers have established supply networks throughout the local communities and with supermarkets (the Trussell Trust itself is partnered with Tesco).  Supply in the 8 areas studied was seen as continuous and reliable but fluctuating: the general consensus was that more food donations would always be welcomed!  Although logistics and distribution are more challenging in rural areas, some providers offer delivery services.  One rural food bank redistributed food over an area of 850 square miles.  In all 8 areas we studied, interviewees expected to see continual growth in demand for food aid provision in coming years.  Interviewees from both formal and informal providers suggested that the growing need in both urban and rural areas appears to be linked to the changes in benefits, income support and welfare reform (even though the government thinks otherwise).

One stark notable difference from the research is related to those accessing the ‘types’ of food aid providers.  There is a stark contrast between users of the informal, ‘unconditional’ food aid providers and the more formal, referred users of the Trussell Trust food banks.  In some respects many of the most vulnerable in society cannot benefit from the Trussell Trust system – many people in need of assistance, such as the homeless, have nowhere to cook the food distributed through parcels and others, due to personal circumstances, are unable to acquire vouchers through the referral system.  One interviewee commented on how they disliked the system enforced by the Trussell Trust, they viewed it as judgemental, conditional and restrictive.  However, through the client information collected via the current Trussell Trust referral system it is possible to monitor activities within the food banking community, so it has its benefits.  Our report found that the data collected by the Trussell Trust is a good indicator of the general provision and demand trends experienced by other providers of food aid.  Further increasing the level of monitoring would prove problematic, as many informal providers are unable (and in some cases unwilling) to provide personal detailed information on those who use their services.  Therefore, although the overall trends in food aid can be forecast through current data, such data cannot be considered representative of all clientele across the varied food aid providers.  It would be challenging (but not impossible) to accurately monitor the usage of informal food aid providers, however this would offer a more rounded indication of how food aid is developing.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for food aid in Scotland. Drawing on our research and the Trussell Trust indicators, it is likely that under the current welfare and economic regimes food aid (and inequality) is here to stay.   

Dr Nicola Livingstone is a Teaching Fellow in the Institute for Housing, Urban and Real Estate Research, Heriot-Watt University.