Friday, 18 April 2014

Want to address food poverty? It’s time we involved the true experts.

Food poverty and emergency food provision has hit the headlines again recently, with the Trussel Trust claiming it handed out almost a million food parcels in the past year across the UK. Individuals across society, including charity spokesmen, religious leaders, elected officials, and many in our communities have stated their shock at the presence of food poverty in a country as wealthy as Scotland. There has been much debate as to their causes, with some highlighting the UK Government’s welfare changes, especially the tougher conditions around sanctions. However, without including the experiences of those suffering food poverty, these statistics and accusations merely illuminate part of the issue and do not provide any sustainable long term answers on their own.

The Poverty Truth Commission believes that in order to reduce and eradicate food poverty in Scotland, those with the experience need to be listened to by decision makers. The Commission has developed a working model which seeks to bring these two groups together, based on shared understanding and expertise, in order to make decisions in partnership. The model is based on mutual respect, with the stories of our commissioners at its heart. John’s story is one such example:

Benefits are not adequate to meet basic needs. I am not living on benefits but struggling to survive on them, and with the introduction of the “bedroom tax”, I have less to spend on even the basics like milk and bread, let alone healthy fruit and vegetables.

I am in receipt of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) as I have a chronic illness. I receive a reduction of £6.00 a week on my bedroom tax, but in order to meet the shortfall I often only eat toast 2 days a week. Last week I felt I was being penalised for being poor and disabled when I had to pay £10 for a doctor’s letter. It was money I did not have, so it had to come out of my food budget. Foodbanks were not an option for me, as many can only be accessed through Social Work Services, and if I don’t have money to buy food how would I find the money to travel to them. There is also the stigma attached to them. I would be ashamed if my family found out I was using them. Foodbanks are “modern malnutrition.”

I want to feed my family a healthy diet, but rising food costs prevent me from doing so. I can buy 20 sausage rolls for the price of 1 melon, or 5 packets of biscuits for the price of a loaf of bread. The unseen costs of cooking meals are also a barrier I face. I have a prepayment meter. It costs me £4.00 to cook a chicken in the oven, so instead I opt for unhealthy ready meal chicken dinners, which only cost 12p to cook in a microwave.

Accessibility to food is also a barrier to those on benefits. Small local shops both urban and rural, sell poor quality expensive and short life foodstuffs, yet in order to access large supermarkets with high quality, cheaper products, it often costs 7% of your food budget, so it is not a viable option

Reading through this story, it appears that John has suffered clear injustices and that radical re-thinking of policy and practice is needed. However, his story also captures the complexity of the situation and how at every turn there appears a new barrier for those on low incomes, with connections often missed by decision makers.

The most important detail which emerges, however, is the fact that John, far from being a poor decision maker, is actually demonstrating a tremendous resilience in the face of adversity. A resilience many would struggle to find, if placed in a similarly relentless situation.

In order to move the focus beyond just the creation of food banks to fire fight the rising demand of food poverty, we badly need to recognise this expertise and strength of the individuals involved. This does not mean to merely encourage people to carry on in the face of adversity. Rather, it should be at the centre of a new approach which places those with experience at the heart of the decision making process, working alongside key decision makers.

On June 21, in Glasgow's Woodside Halls, the Poverty Truth Commission will demonstrate the successes of this approach. If you’re interested in new models, founded in common sense and expertise and working together, and which achieve clear success, then come along.

To book your free place at this event click here; call 0141 248 2911; or e-mail                                                                        


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