The number of people who have to use food banks is truly shameful. It paints a bleak picture of a Dickensian society. There is something very wrong when so many people are unable to meet the most basic need of putting food on the table for themselves and their children.
But, shocking though these figures are, we believe they show only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are even more families who are struggling in this kind of crisis poverty.
Scottish CAB advisers have referred nearly 1000 people to food banks since April.
But we also see many other clients who are on the verge of needing a food bank. And we know that there are others who are suffering quietly at home, going without food because they don’t want to face asking for help. Some are taking out loans to pay for their food – and so stacking up debts they know they won’t be able to repay.
The reason for the rise in food bank cases is that household incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living. Half of those who use food banks are actually working, but their wages are too low to sustain them. The other half are people on benefits, whose low incomes have been squeezed even further by harsh policies like the bedroom tax. And with more welfare cuts on the way, this situation looks set to get even worse.
We have analysed 500 of our recent cases to see what was the main reason for them needing a food bank. Seventy-three per cent of these were related to the benefit system. This was not just about low levels of payment, but also benefit delays, and people losing their benefit through sanctions.
Food bank charities like the Trussell Trust are doing a great job helping people in need. But food parcels in themselves don’t address the underlying causes of poverty. Governments need to understand the extent of this crisis, and take action to address it. The rise in demand for food banks is a symptom of the hardship that families are facing in today’s economy.
Food parcels should not be seen as a policy response to that issue; rather, policy should be focussed at ensuring that families do not experience these problems at all and are able to put food on the table. That doesn’t seem like much to ask of a civilised society in 2013.
• Moira Tasker is chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh. CAB advice is free, confidential and impartial. There are CAB offices in Edinburgh, Musselburgh, Haddington, Dalkeith, Penicuik and Livingston. Visit www.cas.org.uk or call 0808 600 9060. (Free from landlines and most mobiles).