MICHAEL RUSSELL looks at the Eilean Siar food bank, which is gearing up for a busy start to 2014
The figures speak for themselves. They’re a damning indictment of Britain in 2014.
Over the last three years, the Trussell Trust’s 260 UK food banks have seen the number of people they feed rise from 61,000 to 346,000. These are individuals who actually walk into a food bank and ask for help. Many more who find themselves in need will struggle on, without resorting to charity for help.
“They are usually nervous and embarrassed when they first come in,” said Gavin Lawson, a volunteer at the Eilean Siar food bank in Stornoway’s Point Street. “There is a sense in the islands of self-sufficiency and that people should be able to cope. But many aren’t coping.”
Run by volunteers of the New Wine Church, the Eilean Siar food bank was set up by the Trussell Trust — a Christian charity. Increasingly, emergency aid is being provided by religious organisations who see it as their duty to look after the vulnerable. They are also among the most vocal critics of deepening poverty levels, and the reasons for that.
While food banks are viewed as mainly a fixture of an inner city environment, their presence in the Highlands and Islands is fast becoming a sign that hidden rural poverty is now out in the open. Benefit cuts, fuel poverty, and cost-of-living increases affect people in Stornoway or Staffin just as much as in Brixton or Brighton — perhaps more so, given our lower average wages and higher levels of fuel poverty.
Indeed, in the Western Isles, Mr Lawson — who as well as volunteering in the food bank works for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar — said the latest figures indicated that around two-thirds of islanders were now living in fuel poverty. This presents an “eat or heat” dilemma for many and creates an additional need for food banks.
“One young man came to us who was using a single candle in his bedroom for heating because he couldn’t afford to buy any electricity,” added Mr Lawson. “That’s a Dickensian level of poverty. I’m not saying that happens every day but it makes you wonder how many other people are in the same boat.”
IN A TYPICAL WEEK, the Eilean Siar food bank, which opened in September 2013, gives emergency food packages to 30 people, and distributes further aid in the Southern Isles or rural Lewis and Harris through the public agencies and Grillburger — a frozen food company based in Stornoway that supplies schools and hospitals.
The packages contain cereals, soup, beans, potatoes, meat, fish, rice, pasta, tinned fruit and vegetables, all combined on the advice of Trussell Trust nutritionists. Boxes are made up for single people, single parents, couples and families. A box for a single person comes in at between 8.75 kilos and 10 kilos, while for a family with three children the weight can go up to 30 kilos, including additional treats such as steamed pudding and jam if they are available. Such help is invaluable at this time of year as familes over-extend themselves to pay for Christmas. But there is a limit on the number of times people can use the service.
“We say that we will help someone three times over a three-month period,” said Mr Lawson. “Most situations that might arise can be resolved within that time.” However, there is a degree of flexibility that depends, in the main, on the supporting information supplied by the public agencies.
“There might be a temptation for some people who have poor lifestyle choices to supplement those by coming here, but we are not here to reinforce those poor lifestyle choices — we are here to help people in crisis,” commented Mr Lawson.
In Stornoway, with two large supermarkets, the Co-op and Tesco, it is the latter that is proving to be especially helpful — not that the Co-op isn’t, they just haven’t been approached yet. There’s no need. It’s all to do with stock levels and use by dates.
“We got nearly five tonnes of food in Tesco,” said Mr Lawson. This involved shoppers buying items for the food bank, and then hauliers DR Macleod picking it up, often a tonne at a time. Tesco have matched the generosity of shoppers with cash support. Local businesses tend not be involved because the food packages contained tinned and dried goods, not fresh stuff.
“It wouldn’t really be fair to ask, say, Stag Bakeries for 40 loaves and then not be able to use them,” added Mr Lawson. “We will approach the Co-op once we have used what we have in stock.”
BEFORE the Eilean Siar food bank opened, volunteers ran a delivery service for the council and the Ctizens Advice Bureau which supplied packages for 300 people up to September of last year.
In the Southern Isles, the food bank will provide boxes for the agencies to deliver, but are on the hunt for a distribution centre that people can go to. Office space is at a premium on Barra, so that may take some time.
Food banks in the Highlands and Islands operate using a referral system — basically a voucher form provided by one of the public agencies.
“We get CAB referrals for those on low income. But the real reason for low income when a woman comes in might be, for instance, because her partner dips into her purse,” said Mr Lawson. “About 15 per cent of the referrals are for benefit delays, people who have been sanctioned by the Benefits Agency and who get no money at all. Also about 15 per cent of referrals because people are homeless.”
Nationally, that figure runs at about five per cent. Does this suggest that homelessness is a much bigger problem in the islands? Perhaps not.
“We have such a high figure because of the quality of the people working in the Hebridean Housing Partnership — they really care about the people on their books, and they are not just left in homeless accommodation.”
Some can be sanctioned in this way for three months, others for six. When they are, they turn to the food bank for help. If they don’t have a voucher, they will be sent to the public agency that best suits their needs before being allowed to pick up a pack of food.
“We had one person who came in and we sent them to the Citizens Advice Bureau and they came back two hours later delighted because, as well as the referral form, they found out that there were various financial things the CAB could do for them,” said Mr Lawson.
Recent changes to the benefit system have certainly impacted on the number of people who use the food bank, he added. Local councillor Angus McCormack agreed.
“The Trussell Trust is in no doubt that the benefit changes have led to an increase in demand for food parcels,” he said. “This is evidenced locally. And it is not just people who are out of work who suffer. It is now increasingly the case that people in work are relying on food parcels too. It really is a national disgrace.”
Regarding the iniquitous bedroom tax, there is one piece of good news.
“As things stand, if a tenant of the Hebridean Housing Partnership is deemed to have an ‘extra’ room then they are obliged to pay bedroom tax,” said Mr McCormack. “DWP financial help is available, administered by the comhairle. Tenants who wish to avail themselves of this help must apply to seek the tenancy of a smaller house. Generally speaking this is a formality in the Western Isles as there are no smaller houses available. But tenants whose family home is deemed too big may not wish to apply for a smaller home. This condition — the need to apply for a smaller house — is in the hands of the comhairle to remove. Such a move will be considered by the comhairle in looking at its budget over the next two months. The evidence about there being no homes into which people might move is being used as a strong bargaining tool with David Mundell, Tory Minister, who is considering an exemption, for island authorities, from the bedroom tax.”
Is there link between benefit reforms and rising food poverty?
In February of last year the UK Government’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a report on food poverty. It was delivered to Defra in June and has still not been published. This prompted an all-party group of 37 MPs to press Defra to lay a copy before parliament. Speculation has mounted that the report is being suppressed because it shows a clear link between benefit reforms and food bank use.