Ian Swanson: Charity begins at home but should it have to?

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FOODBANKS are sprouting all over the place. Edinburgh already has two, with another three due to open soon. And First Minister Alex Salmond, on a visit to the one in Clermiston, pledged to help find premises for a central distribution hub for the city.

Figures show the number of people using foodbanks in Scotland soared by almost 150 per cent last year – from 5726 to 14,318. The situation south of the Border is similar.

But why is this happening? Despite the global economic crisis, the UK is the one of richest countries in the world, yet a growing number of families and individuals – some of them in work – are having to rely on charity food parcels. It doesn’t make sense.

According to the Trussell Trust, which oversees most foodbanks, around 29 per cent of those using foodbanks in Scotland did so because of benefits delays, 18 per cent due to low income and 15 per cent due to benefit changes.,

Ewan Walker, operations manager of the Edinburgh North West foodbank which Mr Salmond visited, says they get most of their food from donations – volunteers set up a stall at a supermarket and give shoppers a list of items, asking them to buy a few extra things as they wheel their trolley round.

He says people’s generosity is amazing. Sometimes, shoppers will bring a full trolley to the stall, take out a few things for themselves and say the rest is for the foodbank.

The food is made up into emergency boxes, based on nutritional advice. Frontline care professionals, such as doctors or social workers, refer people to the foodbank by giving them vouchers to swap for one of the boxes - enough food for three meals a day for three days.

Since it opened in November, the North West foodbank has fed nearly 300 men, women and children. The charity which runs it, the Edinburgh Food Project – part of the Trussell Trust network – is about to open another in the city centre in partnership with churches and another charity. Blythswood Care already operates a foodbank in south-east Edinburgh. And two others are due to open in the north-east and south-west of the city, run by churches and the Salvation Army.

Mr Salmond says it is “outrageous” that in resource-rich Scotland, people should find themselves in such circumstances. “But it’s inspiring to see people rallying to the support their fellow citizens in distress. Scotland is a small country and one of the advantages of that is it is more difficult to pass by on the other side.”

Foodbanks are intended to give short-term help in times of crisis. But with more benefit changes on the way, demand seems certain to carry on increasing.

Mr Salmond points out that people in Scotland have been protected from at least one benefit change. The UK Government devolved responsibility for council tax benefits, then took ten per cent off the budget. But the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have together agreed to cover the £40 million cost.

The Scottish Government is also funding crisis loans and advice centres. Mr Salmond and his colleagues argue that, without independence, they don’t have the power to do much more. The Scottish Government does not have the money to fill the holes in the welfare budget.

But the prospect of more and more people relying on food hand-outs is a cause for shame. It shouldn’t need a change to the constitution to make sure people have enough to eat.