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Our writer Ben talks to the organiser of a food bank in the South West of Glasgow about the cost of living crisis and the ever-changing role of organisations like hers in civil society.

Would a 12-year old growing up today know of a Britain without food banks? It’s unlikely. But what is it that food banks represent: a last resort for those unaccounted for by neoliberal economics? Or a welfare state too stretched to protect the vulnerable? Organiser of the Glasgow South West foodbank, Claire McCunnie, describes them as “still very much a stigmatised area of society”. Claire started out as a volunteer nearly nine years ago for the three Trussell Trust foodbanks in Glasgow’s Southside (Cardonald, Govan and Ibrox), and has since worked her way up to her current role as development manager.

The busiest period for the three Southside food banks so far has been the financial year 2018-19, in which 100,000 meals were given out - the most intense operation in Scotland. Claire remarks that they were stretched to the extent “we nearly closed, and I nearly lost my job, however a grant was received which helped revive us. However, I also acknowledge that that wasn’t a one off and can very much happen again.”

This current cost of living crisis, brought about by rising energy bills and an increase in individual national insurance contributions, has produced anxieties among those running food banks as well as the recipients of their support. Claire remarks: “The increased demand is certainly being felt among volunteers, to the extent that there are talks of opening 5 days a week instead of 3.”

The increased demand is certainly being felt among volunteers, to the extent that there are talks of opening 5 days a week instead of 3.”

The manifestations of fuel poverty are raw. Recently, Claire met one mother who requested kettle bags, as she said: “it’s far cheaper to just feed the kids instant noodles than to heat up something in the oven that’s going to take 30/40 minutes.” While the food bank aims to raise £10,000 for the Fuelbank Foundation, this is hindered because the cost of living crisis is a double-edged sword: as more people are pushed into food poverty, fewer feel able to donate. While there were previously donation pickups from local supermarkets every day, Claire said: “this week we’ve only managed two pickups, and it seems that this will be a trend that continues. Having already had to start using our own money, we fear for how sustainable it will be. I had to pay £11.30 for formula milk for a mother and that only lasts bloody 2 days!”

Indeed, there has been a shift in the ‘type’ of people visiting food banks, deviating from media narratives insisting that most users are those on benefits. Claire notes: “People with houses, cars and stable employment are visiting, and it seems that food banks are becoming a necessary top-up for those who would otherwise experience in-work poverty.” 

“There have been some students coming for help from Cardonald College. We have conversed with the College and while they have helped with funds and bursaries, the students still seem to need more support.” This revelation raises questions over whether the University of Glasgow, and educational institutions more broadly, should be doing more to help students struggling to make ends meet.

"Nobody struggling to make ends meet cares about solar panels..."

Questions over the provision of support, or lack thereof, also apply to governments in Westminster and Holyrood. Claire was unimpressed with the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring statement, noting: “You wouldn’t be able to put in your paper the words I have, it’s classic Tory priorities. It does not help low earners; only their corporate mates. Nobody struggling to make ends meet cares about solar panels.” The Scottish Government have been similarly disappointing: “Nicola Sturgeon's election manifesto stated that her aim was to eliminate foodbank use, but nearly a year on from the 2021 elections we are in a far worse state.” Support from local politicians is varied: “Chris Stephens the local MP is great, he comes by pretty regularly and does the job, however most politicians seem to weaponise food banks as a PR opportunity”, with one former Scottish Labour MSP allocating “one hour to visit, and the only hour they could attend was outwith our opening hours”.

Claire thinks that immediate action must be taken to help food banks, noting: “the Government have set out to reduce child poverty via increased child benefits and tax credits, as well as helping out asylum seekers via £5 per person per day. However, nothing seems to be getting done to help couples or individuals who need to pay rent, gas, food, council tax and electricity on a measly £74 in state benefits. Many feel left behind and ignored by the Scottish Government.”

You can find out more about the Glasgow South West food bank here.


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