When the Ending the Need for Food Banks steering group was set up in 2021, we knew the tide was turning. Here was a clear aspiration from the Government for Scotland: a country where no one would have to rely on acts of charity in order to feed themselves.
The Government is currently consulting on a plan for how to make this aspiration a reality. There is a lot to be optimistic about in the direction of travel.
It is an Achilles heel of public policy that it often does not try to stop the crises from occurring in the first place. Focus on prevention in the plan is a welcome departure from that. Addressing the causes of food insecurity through fair work, social security, and reduced costs of living can all make a big difference.
Scottish Government’s commitment to fair work is important, but the devolved administration has limited powers over employment law and national minimum wage. When it comes to the social safety net, Scotland already offers stronger protection than other parts of the UK, particularly in relation to children. However, much more could be done to reduce the cost of living.
For this to be successful the Government needs to work with local partners to understand the most effective interventions. For instance, unmanageable transport cost is often listed as one of the top challenges for people living on low incomes. Offering free travel would mean people can better afford to buy food, and can buy it from the shop of their choice (which may be a bus-ride away). Other policies, such as deferring or forgiving debts to local authorities could also make a big difference.
No matter the amount of prevention, some people will still find themselves in difficulty. Here the Scottish Welfare Fund is perhaps the most significant lifeline. It provides non-repayable grants to people in crisis so they can choose how best to meet their own needs. The Fund is arguably our biggest lever in supporting people in financial crisis, and much more needs to be done to promote and improve access to it.
This statutory provision will now be complemented by local cash-first partnerships. These partnerships will include food banks, money advice services, local authority officers (including from the Scottish Welfare Fund) and public health teams. Their aim will be to consider and deliver best responses to make sure people have access to money, reducing their need to access food aid. These partnerships will be in a unique position to learn about barriers on the ground. Yet, to deliver on the national aspiration to end the need for food banks, it’s essential they are also networked together. Maintaining connections across the country would give them considerable potential to learn from their experiences more effectively and – crucially – replicate best practice models.
Where we are headed
There are two specific provisions in the plan that paint a picture of a different Scotland.
Firstly, the Government will explore the Minimum Income Guarantee and Universal Basic Services. Those two measures combined speak to the key value of universalism, and would strengthen our social contract. They would go a long way to ensuring we live in a country where everyone can enjoy a minimum standard of living and financial security.
Secondly, the plan commits to supporting the two main food aid networks in their exit strategies. Right now, charitable food provision exists because it is needed. If Scotland is to have no more food banks, the staff and volunteers that work there need to have confidence that people in their communities are able to consistently afford the food they need.
That Scotland would be well underway to becoming a leader in protecting our right to food, and becoming a Good Food Nation.