I don’t think anyone would argue that our increasing reliance on food banks in this country is a good thing. But to talk in negative terms about food banks in general and the service they offer would, I suspect, be a far less popular viewpoint.
One of the council’s roles is to support those North Lanarkshire residents who are most in need which clearly includes someone who can’t afford to pay for their next meal. So any argument from us that isn’t obviously in favour of foodbanks might appear rather incongruous and before you’ve heard us out, just plain wrong. However the media aren’t letting up and some really good progress, which could lead to a whole lot more great progress, is being overshadowed because of this. The time has come to say our piece.
There have been endless headlines over the last few years talking of the dramatic increase in foodbanks across the country and of the number of people whose hunger and poverty have driven them to seek out the food parcels that these charities provide. New foodbanks have opened across many towns in Scotland as people struggle to cope with welfare cuts and a general climate of austerity. And donation points have become a regular feature in most supermarkets.
But do we really need all these foodbanks? Or rather, shouldn’t we be seeking to NOT need them rather than accepting them as a necessary growth sector?
Our argument would be that whilst foodbanks will probably always have a place in society as they have done in one form or another throughout history, they should remain small local charities that deal with the exceptional situations, not national organisations opening branches across the country and creating a new social norm. We need to be looking at the reasons why someone can’t afford to put food on the table and trying to put these right.
Unfortunately tackling the issues isn’t nearly as easy as handing out a food parcel. I’m not for a second suggesting we should withhold food from people who are hungry and desperate. What I am trying to do is present the views of colleagues who work so hard to provide practical support and empower residents to be in a better position to help themselves.
The problem is that our welfare system is complicated, under resourced and almost certainly flawed. But at least we do at this stage still have one and whilst it’s there we must make full use of it. If we start to rely on temporary fixes, which bypass the system and depend on goodwill, the system will break down and then we’ll really be in trouble.
Back in 2014 when it was apparent that there had been a huge increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks for help, we set about looking at what we could do to improve the situation. The council got together with the NHS, local advice centres, food bank charities and any other agencies with an interest in addressing the issue locally. Unsurprisingly we all agreed that it was important to establish and tackle the route of the problem, as well as offering a food parcel to alleviate the immediate crisis.
This agreement led to us setting up a system of referrals where all the local agencies (or at least most of them – Rome wasn’t built in a day!) work together to ensure that every avenue has been explored to tackle the longer terms problems and give at least some power back to the individual. I could go into a long explanation of how our system works but I’m not sure this is the place – though if anyone is interested in knowing the details of our Food Referral Pathway, just ask as we have loads of information about it. The important thing to know is that the number of people being sent to food banks in North Lanarkshire has, since we adopted this approach, reduced by 24%. This completely bucks the national trend and is surely a very good news story. And our hope and increasing belief is that this trend will continue.
So I suppose what we’re saying is, let’s not always look for the instant short-term fix. Food banks have a very important place in society as an absolute last resort. But if we can all work together to give people the help they need to understand and use the system as it’s meant to be used, then food banks shouldn’t need to be a growth area and surely that’s something we should all be striving for?