Would we have foodbanks in a socially just Scotland?

Would we have foodbanks in a socially just Scotland?
Third Force News, by Peter Kelly & Mary Anne MacLeod

How can we best address the problems of food poverty in Scotland? This is a question that members of the Poverty Alliance’s network have been debating for several years now.


These discussions have been in response to the rapid increase in the use of foodbanks, and have always involved, at every stage, volunteers and activists at foodbanks. All concerned have viewed emergency food aid as a temporary response to what is clearly a crisis situation.


Ensuring that everyone has access to an adequate income is without doubt the most effective way to address food poverty, and a comprehensive and well-resourced social security system is the best way to deliver that.


This is not a goal that we should feel reluctant to advocate, even if the immediate prospect of change seems unlikely. It was in this context that we felt it important to respond to proposals to distribute supermarket waste to foodbanks.


By legislating to compel businesses to act in this way, we would achieve little in the fight against food poverty but would certainly weaken the case for a social security system that combats poverty. We should look to Canada for the evidence of where such well-meaning initiatives can ultimately lead.


It was disappointing then that Martin Sime’s piece in TFN last week sought to misrepresent our opposition to these proposals.


The article suggests that the Poverty Alliance’s opposition to these proposals is an attack on foodbanks and on voluntary responses to poverty. It just takes a quick look at the current work the Poverty Alliance is delivering to see how far this is from the truth.


For example, the Poverty Alliance has conducted research to better understand what emergency food providers actually do.


The research found that, among other things, there are a wide variety of organisations providing emergency food aid, not only groups of unfunded volunteers.


We have also been working with foodbank volunteers and others to ensure that they are able to link their important activity with action to bring about more systemic change that will address food poverty.


It is through speaking with these volunteers that we have heard, time and again, about the frustrations at the failures within the welfare system that result in hunger for many people.


Of course, we can agree that food poverty affects us on an emotional level. The fact that people are being forced to turn to charitable handouts in order to eat in our wealthy country is nothing short of scandalous.


While we should – and do – recognise and value the hard work that is being done to assist people facing food poverty, we need to keep striving for a response to this scandal that is rooted in respect for individual human rights.  


With the Scottish Government launching a new discussion on social justice in Scotland, and the UK Government about to embark on a new round of welfare cuts, now is a good time to be discussing the role of the state in addressing poverty and the limits of charitable activity.


We need to understand the long term consequences of increasingly relying on charity to address poverty. We don’t believe that foodbanks should have a long term future in a socially just Scotland.


Of course, in a socially just Scotland individuals will volunteer to help each other in a variety of ways, but they will do it in a context where their basic human rights, including to an adequate income, are met.

So we should not be so relaxed about supporting foodbanks for “as long as is necessary”, but instead be enthusiastically working to ensure that they, and organisations like the Poverty Alliance, go out of business as soon as possible.