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by Katie Mackintosh
31 October 2011
In hard times

In hard times

The cupboard at the Highland foodbank in Inverness has been freshly stocked with neat rows of soups, cereals, tea bags and other household staples awaiting collection.

It is a dreich, blustery day in the city but it is not long before the first family braves the elements to drop by. Cups of tea are placed in front of the grateful parents while the little girl is told to help herself to a biscuit, or two, as they wait for their emergency food parcel to be packed. Both adults work, but the last ten months spent toiling to get their daughter’s autism formally diagnosed has taken its toll.

They now face another anxious wait as they are assessed for benefits but the delay, combined with the inflated household bills that fluttered through the letterbox this month, have left them struggling to find money left in the household budget for groceries. The three-day supply of food they receive from the foodbank will see them through the weekend and gives them one less thing to worry about.

“I think it is fantastic,” the mum shares. “It is a brilliant idea and the way the country is set up it looks as if we could do with a few more.”

The Highland foodbank is part of a UK-wide foodbank network that is supported by the Trussell Trust. The trust currently has 132 foodbanks across the UK but that number is growing rapidly in response to what the charity says has been an “unprecedented” demand for emergency food aid.

The numbers are startling. The trust launched a new foodbank every week over the last year in order to meet the high demand for emergency food aid, and aims to have opened 200 by 2013. 61,000 people nationwide received emergency food handouts in 2010-11 – an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year, and since 2008 the numbers fed by the foodbanks have increased by 136 per cent.

Last year the Highland foodbank, which was set up six years ago and is run by the Christian charity Blythswood Care, served more people than any of the other centres in the UK, helping 4,100 people with emergency food supplies.

The foodbank works on a voucher basis whereby frontline care professionals and local organisations, such as doctors, social workers, health visitors, housing association support workers, and women’s refuges, can refer those in crisis to the foodbank.

“The crisis could be anything from a delayed benefit to somebody starting a new job and having to wait a month before they get their first pay check. It could be someone moving into permanent accommodation from homeless accommodation. Something could go wrong in the house. An unexpected bill could come along. It could be anything,” says foodbank coordinator Lorna Dempster.

It is all too easy for people to find themselves in desperate situations, but it can be hard to ask for help as one of the volunteers who was a previous service user can attest. When her husband had a heart attack and became too ill to return to work, they too found themselves struggling to negotiate the benefits system. While she had donated to the foodbank previously, she says she never thought she would come to be in need of it herself.

“My husband and I have worked all our lives. We felt we should be able to put food on our table,” she says.

Those who come to the foodbank exchange their voucher for three days of food, which consists of non-perishable staples such as pasta, rice and tinned fruit and vegetables, all of which comes with a menu guide giving ideas about how the supplies can be turned into simple breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

The volunteer says she knows just how grateful she felt to receive the package. “I had no food left in the house and no money,” she states. “So for me, it was a godsend.”

Emergency food boxes are also prepared and issued to organisations in some of the more remote and rural parts of the Highlands and Islands for those who are unable to travel to the city-centre location. While at the centre in Inverness those who pop in are also offered a safe, warm place to sit and chat over a cup of tea or coffee.

“If they want to chat through their issues then there is somebody there to listen. Likewise, if they want to just sit and have a cup of tea and not talk at all that is equally fine,” explains Dempster. “It is just having a listening ear there and we have other organisations that we can point people on to if they feel that they need that extra help.”

Across the country unemployment, with rising fuel costs, unemployment and food prices – which over the last five years have risen by more than twice the rate of the National Minimum Wage – are continuing to hit hard those on low incomes. As the cost of day-to-day living rockets, a recent poll revealed that one in twenty people have been forced into skipping a meal over the last twelve months so that their families can eat.

The poll, conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Oxfam Scotland, also found that one in four said that the quality of the food they are eating has dropped in the last year, while 23 per cent said they had £40 or less to spend on food each week.

“The direct effect on the people in the UK, particularly Scotland, is if your income is so low that you’ve got to start making choices then one of the choices is the kind of food that you are going to buy,” says Jim Boyle, Oxfam’s poverty programme coordinator in Scotland.

Food and energy are tied closely together, he explains, as high gas and electricity prices mean the increased cost of cooking must be factored in alongside the increased price of food when choosing what meals to prepare. While others face a more distressing choice between heating their homes or eating at all.

“So it is not just the price of food, it is the price of energy. [When] food prices are high, you make the choices. If energy prices are high, you can’t afford to cook the way you have cooked in the past. So you get a double blow if you are on a low income,” he says.

Rising food prices are a global phenomenon, Judith Robertson, Head of Oxfam Scotland states. But despite the UK being one of the world’s richest economies, she says it’s affecting people here too.

“It is a gross injustice that poor people in Scotland are finding it increasingly difficult to feed themselves and their families,” she says. “They are far from being alone, however – one in seven people in the world go hungry every day.”

Oxfam argues that the food system is ‘broken’ and has launched a campaign with a simple premise: everyone should always have enough to eat. The GROW campaign calls on governments around the world to work together to deal with the food crisis effectively and stop people having to face such dilemmas.

“People are making desperate choices. Now. In 21st century Scotland,” says Boyle. “The UK is the sixth largest economy and we are now in a position where people are having to make that choice of either to eat well or eat what you can afford, which is not necessarily the same.” This is the human impact of food price spikes, he says.

“They treat food as a commodity but it is a basic human right. It is one of those building blocks that can build up to a basic way of living, to keep your health up, to support your family. We see increasingly that food is becoming a major problem in people’s lives as to what they can afford to eat.”

No one has been left unscathed by the scale of the economic crisis, and Boyle argues that more families are now being touched by food poverty. “I think we are seeing this across the board. People who were above the poverty line, people who seemed to be comfortable, now are faced with choices that people have been faced with for years.

“I think the difference now is that as people who wouldn’t usually see their income drop are now being affected in the same way. People who have had low incomes for a number of years in some way have the ability to make the choice – it is not the choice we want them to have to make, but now we have people who may recently have been made unemployed who are wondering, ‘How do you make ends meet?’”

The recession may officially be over, but its spectre lingers on. Many lives continue to be touched by the reverberations of the economic downturn and people will continue to turn to foodbanks, like the one in Inverness, for help. Indeed, such is the weight of demand at present that the Trussell Trust estimates that the numbers fed by foodbanks could swell to 500,000 by 2015.

All of the food provided by the foodbank has been donated by local people and as I say my goodbyes, another van packed full with donations arrives from one of the local churches to restock the cupboards. However, the organisation also appeals directly to the community at large by taking its shopping list into supermarkets and asking shoppers to consider purchasing a couple of extra items from the list to donate.

Dempster argues it is an important feature of the foodbank that it seeks to involve the community in its work and bring the issue of food poverty home to people.

“The foodbank as we see it, we want to make it a community thing, so rather than go to Tesco and say can you give us your out of date stuff or £200 of non-perishable food – that is behind the scenes and it is not really involving the community and saying, ‘We have this need on our doorstep and you can help us.’” It could be your next-door neighbour, or your family member that needs help, she points out.

“So what we are trying to do is involve the community to support this and have some ownership of what we are doing. People are very generous. But it is as much about raising awareness of the issue as it is receiving the food.”

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