Should emergency foodbanks receive public funding?

by Elias Blum

In a fairer, more just society, there would be little or no need for foodbanks, because the social security system (coupled with an active policy of full employment, through Keynesian demand management, state investment in industry etc.) would provide everyone with an adequate income to meet their needs.

However, the reality at present is that we are stuck with a neo-liberal economic system that thrives on insecure, low-wage employment, and a begrudging and punitive welfare system that relies on social stigma and a harsh and absurd system of ‘sanctions’. This causes real hardship for those who fall through the ever-widening cracks. Foodbanks play a much-needed role in keeping wolves from doors.

However, foodbanks are instruments of private charity. They exist only where there are volunteers, and resources, to support them. Some are struggling to meet demand. The private charity on which existing foodbanks are dependent goes a long way, but simply not far enough. Some foobanks do receive public funding. It is estimated that local authorities across the UK have spent about 3 million pounds on support to foodbanks over the past two years. However, this support is variable, sporadic, and patchy. I do not have figures for Scotland, but two-thirds of Councils in England & Wales provide no support at all – and they have no legal obligation to do so [source]. Given this reality, it seems obvious that the current surge in poverty demands – in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity – a more extensive and coordinated response, backed by a stronger commitment of public money.

The Scottish Government has already committed to providing free school meals for primary-age children: a step that could help to reduce the instances of child malnutrition. But perhaps it would also be a good idea (if only as an interim measure, pending more systemic reform of the social security system) for the Scottish Government to provide direct financial support for foodbanks. Should there be a Foodbank Access Act that would require local authorities to assess the need for foodbanks and to provide funds to support their establishment or expansion in areas where those needs are not being adequately met?

Alternatively, should the Scottish Government adopt a Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (‘food stamp’) system, whereby local authorities would be obliged to provide families in poverty with vouchers, redeemable in local supermarkets, shops and markets, for the purchase of food and essential toiletries? This would extend the effective purchasing power of our poorest fellow-citizens, such that they don’t have to routinely rely on foodbanks (leaving voluntary foodbanks to deal only with the most pressing emergency cases).

These are questions for discussion. I am aware of cost constraints, especially in light of the Scottish Parliament’s inability to control its own sources of finance. I have no clear answers. I’m just trying to think open-endedly and pragmatically about how the Scottish Government could more effectively work with and alongside the charitable sector to meet immediate needs.