Ewan Aitken: Back living wage to beat food poverty

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Whoever we are, we need to eat. The need to have access to affordable, nutritious food is shared by everyone, whatever their circumstances. Tragically, more and more people in 21st century Scotland are finding it difficult to feed themselves. It is a situation greatly exacerbated by the callous benefits sanctions programme but the increase in food poverty is not only due to that iniquity. It is a scandal that is in desperate need of serious and long-term solutions that do much more than fiddle with prices or change suppliers.

The scandal of increasing hunger is not because there’s not enough food around, but that enough of the right kind of food isn’t available to everyone at a price they can afford. Somewhat ironically, Cyrenians is able to put food on the plates of 1500 vulnerable people every week because around ten per cent of the food on supermarket shelves is surplus. We are not a food bank. Instead, every week through our Fareshare service, we provide around six tonnes of surplus food to 57 partner organisations who feed vulnerable people along with providing advice and support. We only charge for logistics but that cost is significantly less than the value of the food, so our partners can do much more with the resources they have.

An example would be St Catherine’s Convent which provides free meals for anyone in difficulties or hard times. Led for the last 22 years by Sister Aelred, it is aimed primarily at those who are sleeping rough or in similar hardship. They provide a breakfast and a dinner. Numbers are around 100 at each meal with perhaps 150 unique individuals each day.

The nature of the project and caring nature of the nuns and volunteers mean that St Catherine’s is a safe and relaxing place. Clients can speak openly to the nuns. They are encouraged and pushed by the staff to better things. Food shared is the start of a journey of change.

We’re proud of what we do. But we are not the long-term solution. Food poverty will not be solved by depending on the inefficiencies of supermarkets. Why should those in poverty depend on the scraps of others? We need to reconnect with where our food comes from, grow much more of it locally and support local food initiatives like food co-ops and local buying schemes. We need to support a living wage and a benefits system that helps people to reach a place of independence when they can and pays enough to live healthy lives properly when they can’t.

Until then we’ll keep redistributing the surplus we are given – but keep calling for change so that one day we don’t need to.

Ewan Aitken is chief executive of the Cyrenians (www.cyrenians.org.uk)