Food is not the problem…

Martin Johnstonebut it is part of the solution, says Martin Johnstone, Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council.

The right to food is amongst the most basic of all our human rights. It is a matter of justice and not charity. And so when hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children, have to rely on food parcels in one of the richest countries in the world, we have a fundamental problem. It is not just a crisis. It is a systems failure.

Although the number of people in Scotland (and other parts of the UK) having to use food banks continues to spiral out of control, it is vital that we recognise that the problem isn’t about a shortage of food. Indeed, with an estimated 400,000 tons of high-quality food not even making it on to our supermarket shelves every year, the problem is blatantly not about a food shortage.

The great majority of food banks, and other emergency food providers, are doing an amazing job. However, we need to face up to the fact that they are often left dealing with the symptoms, when we should be addressing the causes. And the cause is fundamentally an issue of money – or rather, the lack of it.

Since October 2015, I have been chairing an independent Food Poverty Working Group which will report and make recommendations to the Scottish Government in early 2016. Whilst we will make suggestions on how our emergency food systems can be improved – and calling for investment in alternative models to food banks – our primary focus will be on how our social security system must be improved.

Delays in benefit payments, sanctions imposed by the Department of Work & Pensions, and people not being able to access the resources that they are entitled to (through, for example, emergency hardship grants and the Scottish Welfare Fund) remain three of the main reasons why people are going hungry. That needs sorted.

Dealing with the failings in the system, however, is not enough. Social security – and I am using that phrase deliberately – has been falling in real terms and will continue to do so over coming years, particularly as Universal Credit is introduced. The Scottish Government now has the power to top up benefits and to raise taxes. It needs to use these powers, particularly to ensure that children and families are getting what they require to flourish.

Community is a core part of what helps us to flourish. So alongside changes in the social security system, we need to be supporting ways of working which encourage and foster community building. Food is often a vital ingredient for nurturing community.

Food banks are often based on a profoundly unequal model of transaction: “I give and you take”. They reinforce inequality rather than tackle it. We need, instead, a communitarian approach, one based on the principle of “We share”.

There are already good examples of that model out there, such as the Big Lunch in the Gorbals where people come together every week to grow, cook, share and distribute food. We need many more of them. As they grow, we might just have a systems response to food poverty and not just an emergency response.

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