Martin Johnstone explains why he is calling on the Scottish Government to increase benefits and give food poor Scots their dignity back
Every week in Scotland thousands of people have to visit foodbanks in order to feed themselves and their families. Thousands more choose not to do so. It is a national disgrace that there are so many hungry people, especially in one of the richest countries in the world.
We should be under no illusion; it does not need to be this way. Food poverty is a choice, not of the citizens who suffer it but of the state which allows (and even causes) it to happen.
Last week the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty submitted its report to the Scottish Government. As the chair of the group, I know that it lays out the critical steps which my fellow members and I believe to be essential if we are to eradicate the need for foodbanks within the lifetime of this parliament. Scotland may be a very different country by 2021 but surely there would be few greater achievements that the eradication of hunger.
At the heart of our recommendations are three core drivers: dignity, money and justice.
The right to food must be just that – a right – and not primarily a charitable responseMartin Johnstone
Food poverty is about dignity. Whether it is in job centres, health centres, social work offices, third sector organisations or foodbanks, there are too many occasions when people who are financially struggling are not treated with the dignity that they deserve. I am, however, convinced that the people who are best placed to co-design a more dignified social security and food systems are those who are using them. In the words of the Poverty Truth Commission, "Nothing about Us without Us is for Us."
Food poverty is about money. We recognise that the fundamental cause of food poverty is not a lack of food – we have that in abundance in Scotland – but a lack of money. In the short term, the group proposes a range of measures to maximise income including growing the the number of employers paying he Scottish Living Wage, continuing to challenge the insidious benefits sanctions system, promoting access to the Scottish Welfare Fund as the first response to food insecurity, and ensuring that people are receiving all the benefits that they are entitled to.
In the longer term, the Scottish Government has an important opportunity to design in collaboration with other partners across the country a fairer and more dignified social security system. We know that important powers remain with Westminster but we need to not use that as an excuse, instead we must use the powers that we do have to make the difference that we can.
The courage to top up Child Benefit would be a great starting point as increasing Child Benefit by £5 a week would lift 30,000 children out of poverty. What a statement of ambition that would indicate. You cannot narrow the education attainment gap simply by investing more in schools, you need to invest more in children.
Food poverty is also about justice. The right to food must be just that – a right – and not primarily a charitable response. It is for this reason that we have also asked the Scottish Government to consider how the right to food can be enshrined in Scots Law.
In the long run, we need to create more sustainable solutions. At the moment, emergency food provision is largely transactional, it is about one person giving to another person. At best that happens in a positive environment but it is still not good enough. People leave foodbanks with food to eat but often without the people to share it with and the community that can solve problems together. Food can, and should, be community building.
There are already really good examples in Scotland of services that are more than foodbanks. In the community where I live, for example, I am aware of the Govanhill Canteen, Bridging the Gap’s Come Dine with Us and community meals in the local Sikh Gurdwara. We need more of these.
Hopefully, the Scottish Government’s Fair Food Fund will seek to promote this shift as it promotes the growing, cooking and sharing of food as well as its distribution. This is important for the present but it will become increasingly be important in the future as we enter a phase where climate change will demand that more of our food is grown locally.
I don’t know what Scotland will look like in 2021 but I really believe that, with shared energy, we can be living in a country where we have together made food poverty history.
Martin is the decretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church & Society Council and chair of the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty