For many, the holidays are a time of celebration, gathering of friends and family, indulging in festive treats and enjoying a rest from work. For far too many, however, they are also a time of worry, stress and anxiety associated with the financial pressures that sit alongside each of these traditions.
It is estimated that today at least 1 in 5 people in Scotland are experiencing food insecurity, which means ‘the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.’  Household food insecurity in Scotland is linked to the rising cost of living, the falling value of wages and social security, job insecurity and cuts and delays to social security and services.
Until not so very long ago, few people had heard of ‘food banks’ but now they’ve become an increasingly common way for community groups to respond to this growing need in Scotland. We’re no longer surprised to see a food collection point in our local supermarket and thousands of people across the board have started volunteering in their local food bank. We recognise the valuable role these staff and volunteers are playing by supporting community members to access food in an emergency. At the same time, we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to a rights-based and food justice approach that focuses on the systemic changes required to ensure everyone can access and enjoy food with dignity, now and in the future.
In 2015 the Scottish Government set up an Independent Working Group on Food Poverty tasked to consider the issues related to food poverty and make recommendations to the Scottish Government on future actions. This diverse group of stakeholders published a report in June 2016 entitled Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland. The Government accepted the majority of the Group’s recommendations and committed to place ‘dignity’ at the heart of the design and delivery of responses to food insecurity in Scotland, recognising that the experience of food insecurity is more than a lack of food or money, it often comes with feeling shame and disempowerment, experiencing social stigma and being isolated.
Nourish recently completed a year-long project exploring how community food providers, including emergency food providers, can put dignity in practice. We partnered with the Poverty Truth Commission and worked closely with people with lived experience of food insecurity as well as a range of community food providers from across Scotland.
Let’s be clear: Communities cannot be held responsible for, or bear the disproportionate burden of, food insecurity in Scotland. We need to make sure everyone earns a real living wage and we need to strengthen our social security system so that it again is the safety net it was originally designed to be. At the same time, community-based initiatives are well placed to make sure people can access good food with dignity in local neighbourhoods.
Whenever we asked people: “What does dignity mean to you?”, the most common response was that it is about feeling, and being treated, like a human being, like everyone else. Being food insecure, and not knowing if you’ll be able to feed yourself or your family one week to the next, is an inherently undignified experience, people said. Being able to afford nutritious food is after all a human right.
Many projects across Scotland are working to provide dignified, long-term and inclusive support in their communities, while tackling social isolation and health inequalities. They are running community meals, food sharing points, volunteer-run fruit and veg barras, food coops, meals on wheels, community growing spaces, et cetera. During the project, we saw first-hand how community food initiatives can be welcoming spaces for all people in the community to access, share and enjoy food – whether they have money in their pockets or not. We were pleased to see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visit Woodlands Community Cafe in Glasgow this week, one of the inspiring, pioneering projects we’ve worked alongside this year.
What does it mean for projects to put dignity front and centre? These are some of the key questions we reflected on when visiting projects:
- To what extent does the project give people control over what, where, when, how and with whom they eat?
- To what extent is the project designed and delivered to be inclusive of diverse members of the community, without stigma?
- How does the project ensure that people feel supported and have a choice of nourishing and fresh food to eat?
- How and at what levels does the project involve people with direct experience of food insecurity in decision-making?
- How does the project provide appropriate and diverse opportunities for people to contribute, whether with time, skills or resources?
However, the first question we always asked ourselves was: “Would I enjoy coming here?!”
If you’re wondering how to support people who are experiencing challenges this holiday, you may want to visit and support one of the community food initiatives committed to dignity in your local area – whether with your time, skills and/or money. At the recent gathering ‘Scotland’s Food in Scotland’s Hands‘, community gardener Tom Kirby from Granton challenged everyone attending to share food more often with people we think are quite different to us -and see what we can build from there.
If you want to do more, this is also a good time to talk to your MSP about food justice issues more broadly in Scotland. The up-coming Good Food Nation Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to take a more joined-up, right-based approach to food policy -facilitating a just transition to a fair, healthy and sustainable food system in Scotland. You can join the campaign for an ambitious Bill run by Nourish Scotland as part of the Scottish Food Coalition.
Drawing together the learning from the Dignity project, at the end of January we’ll also be launching a practical guide -“Dignity in Practice”- for people involved in community food provision with case studies and reflective tools – stay tuned!
 Dowler, E. (2003) ‘Food and Poverty in Britain: Rights and Responsibilities’. in: E Dowler & C Jones Finer (eds) The Welfare of Food: rights and responsibilities in a changing world, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. This corresponds with the definition used by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Independent Short Life Working Group on Food Poverty.