Martin Sime volunteered at a foodbank for a day and discovered why they are an essential part of Scotland's third sector
The collector guy at my local supermarket was admirably blunt: “it’s a disgrace that I have to do this. I blame the government.” Sentiments are running high in the increasingly bitter war of words between those who run foodbanks and those who are responsible for dismantling the safety nets of the welfare state.
I asked to spend a day with the Trussell Trust volunteers, at least in part because I wanted to get an insight into public reactions to food poverty. Where on the spectrum between scroungers and skivers, and outrage at hunger in 21st century Scotland, do shoppers actually stand?
Let’s be clear, I’m at the outrage end. After a lifetime working in the voluntary sector I’d never expected its fastest growing part to be the provision of food to people who can’t afford to eat. Not on this scale. But then I hadn’t expected large scale benefit sanctions, privatised disability reassessments and the bureaucratic shambles of Universal Credit either. Anger is good therapy, but only up to a point. Personally, I want revenge.
What particularly inspired me about the foodbank movement is the public ask. Too often our sector gets caught up in a cosy consensus within a political and civic bubble. We are grateful just to be there, to be included inside the tent when we really ought to be spending more time trying to win our arguments on the doorstep. Think Clause 28. Voluntary organisations ought to always be about challenging the status quo and changing attitudes - how else do we think that real and sustainable change will ever happen?
This becomes rather important when the right wing finally get their act together in Scotland, as they surely must. If we want a more equal society and a sustainable economy which serves us all, then electing sympathetic politicians (or even adjusting the powers they can use at different tiers) will never be enough to get the job done. We need to get the public onside. The third sector is a vast and diverse network of good people doing positive things which help themselves and each other. Our routes are in mutualism and self-help rather than the contracted delivery of public services.
Foodbank growth shows no sign of tailing off, not least because the rhetorical and practical assaults from Iain Duncan Smith and his ilk will get sharper as we move towards the next election
Back at the door of Tesco, the people who volunteer their time and energy have a simpler objective - to stock the warehouses with enough food to keep meeting the needs of a growing number of users. By 3pm on Friday over 60 15 kilo crates have been filled from just one store. There’s no hostility and an awful lot of good will from shoppers. A young lad stops to ask what it’s all about and the next minute he’s signed up to volunteer. This is life affirming stuff.
I never thought I’d write this but Tesco and Tesco Bank deserve a lot of credit for the way they have embraced Trussell and Fareshare. The loudspeaker reminds shoppers that they are collecting for those in need; the store manager in Leith was exceptionally helpful; the bank staff were out volunteering in Corstorphine. Corporately Tesco add up the value of donated items and give the profit margin in cash to the local foodbank. For once this is corporate social responsibility as it should be.
Trussell itself is a remarkable outfit, getting by on a shoestring until its Big lottery grant finally comes through. Ewan Gurr, its charismatic leader in Scotland, has built a strong network of essentially local and volunteer-led services. Its growth shows no sign of tailing off, not least because the rhetorical and practical assaults from Iain Duncan Smith and his ilk will get sharper as we move towards the next election.
I’ve come across quite a bit of squeamishness about all of this, grumbles about hand-outs rather than hand ups, worries about humiliation and dependency and a genuine concern that foodbanks might actually accelerate the decline of the welfare state. And the role of churches, especially those of an evangelical persuasion is an issue for some.
My last hour, late on Friday at the church hall distribution point nailed most of these problems for me. These are good people responding to the needs of fellow human beings with kindness and no little thought. Some tables are set with bits of cake and ready to offer tea and sympathy to those who turn up with referral letters, mostly from local voluntary groups like Women’s Aid and Stepping Stones. People are quietly shown to a seat and a chat whilst bags of dry goods are put together. Toilet rolls and toothpaste are added by request and a bus fare home can also be provided, courtesy of the Scottish Welfare Fund. It is all done with great sensitivity, a credit to humanity in what looks like a very cruel world.
I needed to do something to help, said a retired professional man who volunteers most Friday afternoons, the busiest time of the week. He was not, he claimed, a political person but described the sanctions regime as “just wrong”. He felt privileged to do his bit, without fanfare or recognition. Spot on.
Some 500 yards from where the food was being donated it was being delivered to people who could not afford to buy it by volunteers driven to intervene by a hostile and uncaring state but happy to help. These new operations will be with us for the foreseeable future so we had all better adjust our sights and expectations. Foodbanks have earned a place at the top table of the voluntary sector. They are a credit to us all.
Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.