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Tackling food poverty across the country

Source: PSE June/July 15

Hannah Laurison, campaign coordinator at Sustainable Food Cities, discusses the aims of the ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ campaign and how local and central government can help tackle food poverty across the country.

In response to recent Trussell Trust figures showing that more than one million people – including almost 400,000 children – turned to food banks in the past year, the Sustainable Food Cities Network has launched the ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ campaign. The campaign calls for action to reduce benefit delays, review how benefit sanctions are being implemented, and eliminate unnecessary hardship, hunger and distress. 

It is also calling on more people to sign the ‘Food Poverty Declaration’, inspired by a joint statement on food poverty from the leaders of Glasgow City Council and the City of Edinburgh Council, to put pressure on government to take action. 

Hannah Laurison, campaign coordinator at Sustainable Food Cities, told PSE: “The primary aim of the campaign is to engage local and national government in finding solutions to tackle the ‘root causes’ of food poverty. 

“We are focusing on the role of local and national government because we can see that charities are not an adequate solution to the complex causes of food poverty. And the trends currently in the UK are worrying.”

Sustainable Food Cities believes we are only just starting to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of food bank use. 

National issue 

PSE was told that the food bank situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better, with projected benefit cuts looking “very troubling”. 

“Food bank use is clearly an acute crisis situation. Several researchers and advocacy organisations have looked at this situation. The Trussell Trust data shows very clearly that a significant number of food bank users – more than half – are coming because of problems with benefits,” said Laurison. 

“We have a government programme intended to provide and to meet the needs of people in poverty, but it isn’t functioning properly. And that is one of the key asks we have of national government: we strongly believe problems in the benefits system need to be addressed, such as long waits for benefits to be paid and sanctions applied. 

“The benefits system should function as it is intended to, and should not inadvertently plunge people into a crisis situation where their only solution or way out is to turn to charities. That should really be a last resort for people.” 

Frontline struggles 

Laurison told us that local government is being forced to cope without a lot of help or preparation. Councils are trying to get ahead of this crashing wave and deluge of people facing food poverty, but many are “staggering” under the demand. 

“We are seeing local government funding food banks. There is a real cost being borne by local government, coming at a time when their budgets are stretched already,” she said. 

One way local authorities can make a difference is by strengthening links between food banks and advice service providers. 

“That is absolutely critical, because we need to make sure food bank users are aware of all of the support, such as crisis payments, to which they are entitled,” said Laurison. “That sounds relatively straightforward, but in practice it can be very challenging to implement. It is an ever-changing landscape and the need is so great.” 

A secondary goal for local government is to look at the ‘safety net’ it administers and ensure it is functioning properly and reaching all of those eligible. 

Sustainable Food Cities wants to see a greater uptake of Healthy Start vouchers and new incentives for buying fruit and vegetables; significant steps to provide free meals 365 days a year for children in poverty; and new community catering services for vulnerable older people with limited mobility.

Laurison (pictured, top right) said these are extremely important areas that provide valuable support to many people. “Those two things: better coordination between the advice service providers and food banks, while looking at the safety net, and ensuring that is working well, are two very important roles for local government and could make a very big difference.”

School meals 

Overwhelming response 

Since launching the Beyond the Food Bank campaign in April, Laurison said the positive response from cities across the country has been “overwhelming”. 

“This is such a priority for many local authorities,” she said. “We are currently asking the cities in our network to sign the ‘Food Poverty Declaration’, which was modelled after a declaration jointly signed by the council leaders of Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

“The national declaration has been signed by nearly 30 cities, calling on the new government to take action on the ‘root causes’ of food poverty. In the course of that I’ve had conversations with dozens of cities and we’re seeing, right across the board, organisations taking a look at the issues and identifying what they can do.” 

Some cities have been setting up multi-sector partnerships to tackle food poverty, and already have them in place. “The responsibility for food and poverty sits across so many different organisations and areas across local government,” said Laurison. “Working together becomes very important.” 

A prime example of this work includes a Lottery-funded partnership between Midlothian Council, MFIN (Midlothian Financial Inclusion Network) and Changeworks. The Midlothian Area Resource Coordination for Hardship (MARCH) project aims to coordinate and improve resources available for financial hardship in Midlothian and improve outcomes for people experiencing hardship and those affected by welfare reform. 

In other areas, organisations are building on schemes already underway. “But across the board, we are hearing a very positive response because this is the reality facing local authorities,” said Laurison. “There are very few places where this isn’t a serious burden on them.” 

As well as leading the Beyond the Food Bank campaign, Sustainable Food Cities has also made an assessment tool that cities can use to guide them through tackling food poverty, including key prompts, questions and best practice guidance.

To take this work forward at a local level, Laurison is calling on all members of the Sustainable Food Cities Network to establish a multi-sector partnership that is resourced to lead “a strategic approach to assessing and tackling the full range of issues that contribute to food poverty in their city”. 

But she did add that the campaign will support any city, whether they are a member of the network or not, that is interested in tackling food poverty across the country.

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