Joe writes about food poverty following the successful Irvine Sports Club Fun Day in aid of North Ayrshire Foodbank.
Despite living in one of the richest countries in the world, food poverty across the UK continues to rise. A toxic combination of austerity, welfare reform and the cost of living far outstripping wages has meant that too many families simply can't put food on the table.
The blame lies with politicians, particularly our Tory Government who are driving through the policies that are fuelling the problem, and so far it has been left to volunteers to support those affected.
Since the North Ayrshire Foodbank launched in December 2012 it has provided 5902 food parcels to 10,736 people, 3328 of which have been for children. Last year the number increased by 57% on the previous year showing that the problem continues to rise. Even the Foodbank would acknowledge that these figures include people who have received multiple food parcels, with the Foodbank operating a three vouchers per year limit, but whatever way you look at them these statistics are appalling in 21st century Scotland.
The Foodbank runs on donations and it's through local people's generosity that they have been able to support so many people in need. On Saturday I was pleased to support the Fun Day held at Irvine Sports Club and help raise funds for North Ayrshire Foodbank. The day was a huge success with early estimates suggesting that around £1250 was raised for the Foodbank. A big thank you is due to the organisers of the Fun Day and all who supported it.
Whilst we should be proud that there are people in our community who are offering their time and money to help put food on people's tables in their hour of need, there is also a need to analyse the root causes of the increase in food poverty and to develop a strategy for a more long term solution.
The Foodbank record the reasons why people receive vouchers and a quick glance at the figures show that there is clear link between Foodbank use and benefit changes. The most common cause is the imposition of benefit sanctions which leave claimants with no income.
Under the Tories the DWP have set targets for the number of benefit sanctions that job centre advisors should hand out, a policy clearly designed to increase benefit sanctions and one which is clearly working; the number of benefit sanctions handed out at Irvine Jobcentre between 2013 and 2014 was 1627 and new analysis from Scottish Labour has found that over 200 sanctions are handed out each day in Scotland. If we are to reduce the need for Foodbanks then we need to start with benefit sanctions, that's why I support Labour's call for a comprehensive review of the sanction regime.
Foodbanks across the country also record an increase in referrals during school holidays when the additional cost of feeding children throughout the holiday period tips many low income families into crisis. Research has long shown that a free school lunch is too often the only meal of the day for children living in poverty. With a third of children in North Ayrshire living in poverty the holiday period has long been a concern. North Ayrshire Council now offers a free meal during school holidays to all pupils who receive free school meals, a pro-active approach that has cross party support. However, I believe the model of delivery could be improved.
During the first four weeks of the school summer holidays, the Council have served 5610 school meals, which is making a huge difference to those children receiving them. However, the number of children participating remains low given the scale of deprivation in our area. In my opinion that's because the meals are being delivered in our schools.
In Kilwinning the school meals are being offered at Pennyburn Primary School. Across the road the Council, as a pilot, have been offering free meals to children who are taking part in PRYDES summer activity programme. Early analysis shows that up to three times as many children are receiving a free meal through PRYDE than at the school. Similarly, the Make a Meal Of It programme, run by North Ayrshire Foodbank, is supporting more children than the Councils scheme in the areas it operates.
I believe if we are to maximise the number of children who receive meals during school holidays then we should deliver the service out with the school estate through community groups like PRYDE, after all what child wants to spend their summer holidays in school?
Finally, the Scottish Government should consider following France's example and legislate to ban supermarket food waste in order to tackle food poverty.
Recently the French National Assembly unanimously voted to force supermarkets to donate unsold food to charities. Local supermarkets support North Ayrshire Foodbank by allowing them to do collections in store but donating their unsold food could make a huge difference to efforts to reduce food poverty. I have written to all the supermarkets who operate in the local area urging them to consider doing so voluntarily but I will also be lobbying the Scottish Government for them to make it mandatory across the country.