Food security - a Scotland beyond food banks?

Mary Anne MacLeod is a contributing author to Poverty in Scotland 2016 - tools for transformation. Her chapter looks at food security.

Within the context of unprecedented cuts in public spending and reforms to the social security system, food banks have become the lens through which we view these changes and debate their impacts. While forms of charitable food provision have long existed, it is the fact that food banks are now being used by a wide range of social security recipients and people in work which is cause for particular concern. The growth of food banks raises some fundamental questions about the safety net function of the social security system, and also about the role and responsibilities of the voluntary sector. Such questions require close, critical engagement from us all as they speak to core beliefs about how society should be organised.

Over recent years food banks have become an increasingly integrated part of the UK social security system. Under the Trussell Trust model - which is also followed by many other providers – food bank vouchers are issued by referring agencies such as social workers and GPs and exchanged for a food parcel. In 2014 one in six GPs in England and Wales reported having been asked to refer a client to a food bank, and a third of local authorities directly funded local food banks – in some cases using money from the recently devolved former Social Fund. Since 2014 Scottish Government and other funders have provided some funding for emergency food aid in Scotland, emphasising the need for providers to be building connections with other forms of support. Such investment suggests a formalisation of food banks within mainstream welfare services beyond what was perhaps initially viewed as a temporary response to a crisis situation.

The various reactions to the recent growth of the ‘food bank phenomenon’ in the UK have reflected differences in ideological and political understandings as to the relative roles and competencies of the state and civil society in provision of welfare - and the relationship between the two. Among the many impassioned responses several have drawn parallels with the Poor Law of the Victorian era - suggesting that the rise of charitable food aid marks a return to a time when faith and voluntary groups were the first line of defence for those in need - one which explicitly differentiated between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Many have also pointed to evidence from North America, and the unsustainability of their food banking systems, where stigma limits uptake and donor and volunteer fatigue limit supply of charitable food aid. By contrast, others have focused on food banks as examples of a compassionate civil society, local sites of community care which some suggest might be better placed to offer such support than bureaucratic and increasingly punitive statutory mechanisms.

Thus far there has been a degree of critical debate in Scotland surrounding the growth of food banks. This has included discussion of social justice and human rights with regards to food access. Can food banks be considered a sustainable or socially just form of food provision? Who is responsible for ensuring people have access to adequate food? Are food banks an inevitable feature of contemporary Scotland, and is it possible, or even desirable, to reverse their entrenchment? Debate about food banks needs to go beyond political soundbites and emotive headlines – it requires deep reflection and active engagement from us all.

Such collective debate has potential to provoke a progressive policy response from Scotland’s leaders. This response, I believe, would require clear commitment to use further devolved powers to reduce reliance on food banks and restore the social security system as an adequate safety net. This should include measures to reduce disruptions in income for benefit claimants, such as addressing problems of administrative delay and errors. We need an approach to social security based on rights and which starts from a position of trust in, and respect for the claimant. This approach would recognise the state’s responsibility to fulfil the human right to an adequate standard of living – which includes the right to food. Community-led activity has an important role to play, particularly around food which is a powerful tool in bringing communities together and reducing social isolation. However such activities must be in the context of a comprehensive and well-resourced social security system and decent work which are ultimately the best defence against food poverty.


Poverty in Scotland 2016 - tools for transformation, the latest edition in a now well-established series, provides an indispensable and authoritative overview of the poverty and anti-poverty policies that form the context for a newly elected Scottish Parliament set to enjoy significant new powers.

In a comprehensive, yet accessible, account of the state of poverty in Scotland, the main trends are highlighted and explained, and an account given of how that poverty is experienced.

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