Food poverty is not the problem and food banks are not the solution!

Food poverty is not the problem and food banks are not the solution!

Scotland has been ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but even in a country full of possibilities, some struggle every day. As concluded in the previous blog “Hunger games: Looking for food in Scotland”, we are currently living in a country where food waste and food poverty exist at the same time – and the government’s reforms and programmes do not seem to help.

In the search for approaches to tackle food poverty in Northeast Scotland, we had the opportunity to interview informants to whom, the problem of food poverty, is not news. On one hand, we spoke to people from Aberdeen City Council, NHS Grampian, CFINE and Social bite. Four organisations in the Grampian area which seek to help – by all means – folks who struggle to have something to eat every day. On the other hand, we went to Seaton and Tillydrone to talk to people who have had to use food banks more than once.

“Food is the only thing you can play with” – a mother of two, currently living in Tillydrone, responded when being asked about her perceptions on food poverty. She mentioned that buying frozen or fast food is not a matter of ignorance but a matter of not being able to afford “healthy food”. Because when it comes to distributing your salary, there are things such as electricity and heating that have to come before food. With welfare reforms, benefits being cut and sanctions, people find themselves looking for a way to get through another day.

Truth is, there are several food banks in the region that will give you food if you need it. But now I ask you – how would you feel about having the need to ask for food? Or going from wondering what you will have for dinner to wondering if you will have dinner today. After interviewing all the key informants, they all agreed that people do not want to be seen asking for help hence if we think that people who attend to food banks are the only ones in need, we are not considering a large proportion of people.

Food is a social marker and the idea that food waste is suitable for a particular category of (poor) people is deeply problematical as it reinforces the idea that those on benefits are somehow less deserving. However, changes to the benefits system are impacting families, many of whom are in work yet do not earn enough to sustain themselves and their families. Many households have been left vulnerable by changes to their benefits, bedroom taxes and the elimination of council tax support. So, we should look forward to change the conditions which make food banks necessary.

Closing the food banks

Food banks should not be given the job of the heavy lifting in the fight against hunger. When talking to the local authorities and food banks’ executive chiefs, they all agreed that their goal is closing all the food banks in the area. 

Therefore, their programmes include approaches to empower the community. Coordination and support for projects are needed to tackle food poverty as all of our key informants agreed that food insecurity is not in the agenda and there are no specific food insecurity interventions. It is clear that looking for food aids is just the tip of the iceberg. But when it comes to approaching people in need, participation is key. You might think that people who live in poverty do not like going through that situation every day and truth is they do not. But what is it stopping them from participating?

The lack of motivation and empowerment play a key role in people’s participation. If people do not feel empower or that they have the power to claim and exercise their rights, they will not be able to make informed choices to lead a life they want.

One approach that the NHS and Aberdeen City Council have come up with is the Sustainable Food City Approach which will contribute positively to social outcomes by helping to tackle inequalities through addressing food insecurity. This project aims to develop local food supply, minimise waste and help contribute to the development of the local food economy. This includes the development of cooking skills and promotion of healthy eating to also tackle food waste. Additionally, the Participatory Budgeting programme, a new intervention from the local authority, will give people in Grampian a direct say in “how and where public funds can be used to address locally identified requirements by providing the opportunity to identify preferences and allocate spend within defined parameters”.

These approaches have the potential to tackle food poverty in one of the richest countries in the world, but if people in need are not reached, nothing will change. Our interviewers mention that they are using social media and online resources to reach every person living in Grampian, but when going to Seaton, we found many people who do not have the possibility of getting online.

There are still many missing voices not being heard – homeless, immigrants, refugees, children and families. No one should have to fight as hard to survive as so many in this country currently do. The country as a whole should really come together and help those in need, so that in the future, those in need are able to sustain themselves.

This piece is drawn from the research study presented in the publication: D’Ambruoso L, Abbott P, Douglas F, McPherson E, Okpo E (2017) Case Study: Empowerment approaches to food poverty in NE Scotland in the Shaping Health programme on Learning from international experience on approaches to community power, participation and decision-making in health, University of Aberdeen, TARSC. Available at: