“Will you be needing toiletries with this one dear?” asks a kindly volunteer at a Leith Walk foodbank, as she begins to empty out the contents of a big plastic box into bags.
Embarrassed, I mumble something about not being a client but that I’m interested in volunteering, and then feel ashamed at having been so embarrassed by her question.
I’ve been volunteering with the Citizens Advice Bureau for three years and have assisted scores of people in challenging DWP sanctions. I have issued dozens of food vouchers as a result, but this is the first time I have actually visited a foodbank myself.
In a week where Mhairi Black’s blistering attack on Tory austerity draws 10m views and the only Tory MP in Scotland opens a new foodbank amid protests in Dumfries, foodbanks are once more at the forefront of the public consciousness. I’m here because I want to see what they’re really like, and what I can do to help.
Over a cup of tea, Moira (one of the volunteers) tells me how it all works. Most foodbanks operate as “social franchises” – independent charities supported by the Trussell Trust for their organisation and any logistical support they may need.
The details vary from place to place, but the overall set-up is the same. Doctors, social workers and various charities (like the CAB) give out vouchers allowing the recipient to collect three days’ worth of food.
They were originally designed to be an emergency stopgap, giving people in crisis the chance to feed themselves and their families while they got back on their feet. In reality, they have become completely relied upon by thousands across Scotland, with 117,689 emergency food parcels delivered in the last year alone – a 60% increase on the year before.
People’s reasons for using them are many and varied, but two thirds do so because of benefit sanctions, changes to benefit entitlement or from being in low paid work.
A well-spoken woman across from me (who I assume is a volunteer), tells me that she lost her disability benefit after being declared “fit to work” by an ATOS assessment. She finds it hard to get around and ended up missing a Jobcentre appointment by 15 minutes – her benefits were stopped for four weeks as a result.
Another man tells me that he had just been nominated for employee of the month in the supermarket warehouse where he worked, before he was then told that there were no more hours available for him. He was on a zero hours contract.
Moira shakes her head as she listens – she’s heard many stories like this over years. She tells me that out of all the people she’s helped, only one in a thousand have been “chancers”. I am slightly struck that she volunteers this last piece of information, but not at all surprised.
One of the key reasons behind the Tory’s election victory lay in the fact that they managed so successfully to fashion the “strivers vs. shirkers” narrative, where those at the bottom of society are so debased and dehumanised that we should feel no sympathy for them or their plight.
We are taught to fear and distrust those on benefits, to categorise them into deserving poor and undeserving poor. It was an election strategy that relied on convincing those who don’t have much, to blame those who have less for their problems.
That a foodbank volunteer feels it necessary to stress that the majority of foodbank users really need the food they’ve come to collect, it is clear that this classic divide and rule strategy has achieved its aim.
For those who campaigned for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, this is all too familiar. We look across the border and see a political landscape altogether different from ours, where deeper austerity, rampant neoliberalism, flagrant euroscepticism and never ending attempts to woo the “aspiring classes” seem miles away from the vision of social justice and greater equality that the independence campaign was predicated on.
Labour’s decision not to oppose Tory welfare reform and the fact that leadership candidate Liz Kendall believes that the reason her party lost in May was because they “focussed too much on the poor” betrays a truth long suspected by nationalists – that our society is sick, but ultimately incapable of being cured by an establishment that would rather offer tax breaks to millionaires than ensure that the poor can eat.
Ian Duncan Smith tells us that he “welcomes foodbanks and welcomes the decent people in society trying to help others who have fallen into difficulty”.
I also welcome the thousands of decent people who give their time helping those in need. However, in my naivety, I had always assumed that the reason I pay tax was to ensure that society protected the most vulnerable from hunger, rather than leaving it to the kindness of volunteers.
The afternoon I spent at the foodbank was a busy one, according to Moira. In just two hours on a wet Tuesday, eight people had come for help and left with what they needed to get by for another three days.
Everyone was incredibly friendly and seemed satisfied with their visit, but that was the most distressing thing about my time there.
Persistent and dependable hunger has the most corrosive effect on the body, mind and soul. The ability to satisfy one’s hunger is the most basic human need – seeing people grateful and relieved to pick up a food parcel donated by strangers in one of the richest countries in the world made me feel sickened and ashamed.
Foodbanks have become a lightening rod for independence campaigners, as they are the clearest and most obvious symbol of a British state that is failing in its duty to protect the most vulnerable.
That’s why I applaud Mhairi Black, as well as the protestors in Dumfries, for their efforts in ensuring that a humanitarian crisis witnessed in every town and village in Scotland stays at the top of the political agenda and I encourage others to do the same.