Back in March this year I spent three weeks in West Lothian food bank conducting interviews as part of Oxfam, CPAG and the Trussell Trust’s “Emergency Use Only” project. The research was a chance to get to the bottom of some of the questions a lot of us have about food bank use in Scotland. How - in one of the richest nations on earth - can 71,482 households have needed food parcels last year? And how should we react to food banks? Should we welcome them as an expression of society’s generosity or reject them as a symptom of its failure?
Over the course of the project I spoke to six families about their lives, their recent experiences and what had brought them to the food bank. For me, what I saw and heard during my time at the food bank answered a lot of the tricky questions we all have.
I now know, for example, that nobody I spoke to was using the food bank out of anything other than necessity. Not only because they wouldn’t be allowed to (they all needed to present a referral voucher from a social worker, doctor, housing officer or similar), but because it can be a harrowing experience. Despite the best efforts of the staff, the hot tea and background music, many of the people I spoke to described their shame and embarrassment at having to ask for help. They described it as humbling and frightening. They said they had reached rock bottom.
Their stories also illustrated just how difficult life had become and how badly many of these families had been failed by the social security system. Many had fallen straight through the safety net we assume would catch us if we were made redundant, became ill or had to care for a loved one. More specifically, the interviews and the wider research* showed the extent to which delays accessing benefits, the disproportionate use of sanctions and changes to disability benefits are pulling the rug out from under peoples feet.
One woman had been made redundant because her arthritis meant she couldn’t keep up in her role as a care assistant. Three months later, she was still waiting for an assessment of Employment Support Allowance and struggling to make ends meet.
Another family with three young kids were surviving on £40 a week after their benefits were suspended following a change of circumstances. The mother explained how the experience had triggered her depression, making her “ think things she shouldn’t be thinking”. She was reluctant to go to the GP in case they took her children away. I was delighted to learn a few days ago that this woman is now back at work and that her husband has taken up volunteering to help other families in crisis.
One of the hardest questions is still whether food banks are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The food bank staff I met were fantastic. They were welcoming, compassionate and kind. They referred families to information, advice and counselling that was so badly needed. The service they provided was vital. But – and I suppose this is the crux of the issue - it shouldn’t have been. This research shows that food banks are symptomatic of a wider failure. They are there because people are being denied what they should be entitled to as a right. An efficient and workable social security system that doesn’t fail them when they need it the most. This is something which the UK Government must take seriously and address by reforming sanctions policy and practice, improving access to ESA and making sure people have access to the information they need to navigate the system. Much of this can be done immediately and without legislative change.
The Scottish Government and local authorities also have a role to play in providing information and advice, investing in the Scottish welfare fund and reducing the costs which can scupper struggling families, such as childcare, housing, school costs and transport.
All these actions together should take us a step closer to repairing the safety net and removing this need for food banks.
*The report, 'Emergency Use Only' interviewed 40 food bank users at seven Trussell Trust food banks, including six interviews in Scotland whose experiences help shed light on the factors that are driving food bank use in the UK. These interviews were backed up by additional data collected from 903 recipients at three Trussell Trust food banks and an analysis of the cases of 178 clients accessing an advice service at one food bank.