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January 19, 2021

Why food banks must end

The ubiquity of the food bank in our communities and the teams of local volunteers on hand to distribute food parcels has been praised and condemned in equal measure. Praised because it is an indicator of the kindness and compassion that the pandemic has revealed across the country. Condemned because of the disgrace that the fifth largest economy in the world tolerates a  level of poverty that prevents every citizen being confident that their human right to food will be met with dignity. Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland is unequivocal – the food bank era must end.

Pete Ritchie, Nourish Scotland

One of the first lessons we’ve had to learn in this crisis is that running out of food is not a problem of supply. It’s a problem of distribution. £1 billion worth of food that would otherwise be on the shelves, is in people’s cupboards and fridges.

Meanwhile, foodbanks up and down the country view the lockdown announcement with alarm. Will they get supplies from public donations or be able to buy them from the supermarket?

How will they cope without the (often older) volunteers who are now not allowed to leave their home to work in them? Will they be allowed to stay open?

There’s no doubting the good intentions of the people who run and work in foodbanks. They have been picking up the pieces of ten years of austerity. But now, enough is enough.

It’s completely possible to give people money to buy food themselves if they have run out of cash. In Scotland, it’s called the Scottish Welfare Fund, and it’s just been more than doubled by the Scottish Government. It’s perfectly possible to issue people with a card to use in shops which the government then loads with money. In Scotland it’s called Best Start Foods. It’s perfectly possible in the short term for GPs, schools and welfare agencies to hand out supermarket vouchers if people need them.

We have an amazing food distribution system. Cunningly, shops have been located near where people live, and most of them deliver. They are open much of the time. Let’s put the systems in place to ensure everyone can access the food distribution system on equal footing. It’s a matter of human dignity.

Making foodbanks inessential takes a little money, sure. To cover the cost of the food given out each year by Scotland’s foodbanks would be around £6-7 million – 2% of the £350m investment in tackling poverty announced last week by the Scottish Government.

To raise the incomes of the poorest 10% of the population of the UK by £30 per week and make a real dent on food insecurity would cost £10bn – 3% of the rescue package announced last week by the UK government.

And it needs a little work to imagine a Scotland without foodbanks – but rather less than imagining a national lockdown, a ban on weddings, rail renationalisation, no football, no church, no Olympics.

We’ve discovered that we genuinely are all in this together this time. So let’s not pretend that it is essential for people who have run out of money for food (who may themselves be vulnerable) to go to an agency to collect a voucher to take to another location when there’s little or no public transport to get a parcel of food which they haven’t chosen, often from an older volunteer who themselves should also be staying at home. And remember, the food itself has come from the supermarket where everyone else goes.

Let people stay home, and let’s get them the money they need to get the food they need to sit this one out.

Foodbanks are not essential, and it’s time to close them for good. We are all enlisted now.

Pete Ritchie is director of Nourish Scotland.