17th – 18th March 2015
The Fabian Commission visited Glasgow in March to hear about the work being done on food and poverty in the city, as well as from civil society and government on how Scotland as a whole was addressing these challenges.
As well as meeting with civil servants and people living in poverty in Glasgow, the Commission held a public hearing. The witnesses giving evidence at the hearing were Pete Richie (Director, Nourish Scotland), Mary Anne Macleod (Research Officer, Poverty Alliance) and Martin Johnstone (Secretary, Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland).
Pete Ritchie opened the hearing by telling Commissioners that “we can’t simply go down the cheap food road” and ignore the consequences this has in the UK and other countries. The food system is complicated, Ritchie said, and it includes environment, economic and health issues. Simply making food cheaper and cheaper will have damaging consequences for the environment and those working in the food system, especially internationally.
Ritchie said that the current UK approach to food poverty – emergency food provision – is not working. Ritchie asked why we are using “natural disaster style responses” to deal with a problem that is not a natural disaster. Instead, we should recognise it as a “man-made, socially constructed disaster”.
Ritchie told the Commission that though carbohydrate consumption tends be similar across income groups, the wealthier tend to eat “more better food.” He said this has been the case for decades, citing Boyd Orr’s Food, Health Income, published in 1936. But these inequalities can be reversed, he said, “if poor kids eat healthy food, they can be as tall as rich kids”.
The answer to these issues is to have a more joined up approach to dealing with the problem. For Ritchie, the fact that there is not one government department that deals with these issues is hindering our progress. As part of a new, joined up approach, food security should be included in social security, recognising that the “ultimate precarity” is not knowing where the next meal will come from. Giving people a “legal right” to food, as the Scottish government do with shelter for the homeless, will improve outcomes.
Ritchie also thought that we might be able to use the Common Agricultural Policy to think about food policy more widely, rather than just agricultural policy.
Mary Anne Macleod
Mary Anne Macleod gave the Commission a presentation on her recent report on emergency food aid in Scotland, commissioned by the Scottish Government and published by Poverty Alliance.
Macleod said that there was an overwhelming stigma and shame felt by food bank users and users were embarrassed by the experience. There was also a different sense of uneasiness from food bank volunteers – that most volunteers felt that they should not be doing what they were doing and it was part of an uncomfortable relationship. Rather than them having to give people food, others should be making sure these people had the means to be providing for themselves.
Instead, Macleod said that a Community Café model would be more inclusive. This approach feels less like charity and is less degrading for the users.
Macleod advocated an approach to dealing with hunger and food poverty that focused on prevention. Incomes need to be boosted, and there needs to be a strong policy position against the institutionalisation of food banks. Instead, further investment in advice services is needed and the availability of information for those I need needs to be improved.
Martin Johnstone called for a move to a “more sustainable model of food sovereignty.” Welfare cuts have been having a huge impact on the creation of food poverty and food banks are creating a new form of dependency for those using them.
Johnstone said that emergency food provision is more about meeting the needs of “people who have food and want to give food away” rather than the needs of the hungry who need food. We should celebrate those who give food, he said, but we need to change the relationship between charitable giver and receiver. The food bank model strips agency or worth from those from those receiving food aid.
Johnstone felt “deeply uncomfortable” about any food voucher system. Such a system buys in to the false notion that those who need food are “somehow on the scrounge”. He said that the “notion that you need to be referred to emergency food by somebody in power is an affront to human dignity.”
Johnstone praised local food movements, but said that there is a danger that they are becoming the prerogative of the rich and that the poor are excluded. Local food groups need to prioritise how the poor can be involved.