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Going hungry: The choice between food and rent

Susan Cheyne of Instant Neighbour
Susan Cheyne of Instant Neighbour

It was 2am when the phone rang – a hesitant yet increasingly urgent conversation which ended with an emergency referral to a food bank.

The desperation came as no surprise to Councillor Richard Laird, who took the call, and his constituents often reach rock bottom before turning to him for help.

He is well used to hearing shocking stories from parents in Inverness who go without food so their children can eat, and the tourist destination is also home to one of the most poverty stricken areas in Scotland – Merkinch.

But a reliance on food banks is not limited to the disadvantaged minority, and it was revealed earlier this week that 3,000 people are relying on charitable help to feed themselves in the Highlands.

It is a similar tale in Aberdeen where there are more than 20 food banks, and organisations are struggling to cope against rocketing demand.

Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE) sends 800 parcels out every month in comparison to just 50 in 2014, and it expects to have put more than one million meals on the table by the end of next year.

The controversial universal credit scheme, which can see claimants wait six weeks before receiving benefits, low wages and high rents have been blamed, alongside mental illness.

Richard, who is a councillor for Inverness Central, believes society may be facing a depression similar to the 1980s and warned that children are continuing to go hungry.

“People don’t come to me and ask for a food bank donation but a lot of people will admit they can’t afford to feed their family,” he said.

“Nobody is asking for a handout and there is a degree of embarrassment involved.

“More people are aware about food banks now, there is more visibility when food banks previously used to be quite clandestine.

“There is no one factor involved for the surge in people using food banks but what I would say is that universal credit is a big factor.

“That six-week wait leaves people with literally nothing, people are utterly desperate.”

Richard also believes that many people who use food banks can be classed as the working poor.

“Wages are static and if you have children, a high rent, and maybe one of your children has special needs so requires additional funding, there just isn’t enough money to make it through each month,” he said.

“The cost of private rent is incredibly high, people are paying £800 for a small flat.

“When children are in school there is at least one hot meal, groups popped up during the school holidays in Inverness to cover that shortage though and we need universal free school meals.

“There is no safety net in the system anymore and we desperately need to change social security.

“If you go out of work tomorrow your bills will not stop coming.

“Often when people come to me they are at their lowest ebb, they’ve hit rock bottom.

“Come Friday afternoon, many people realise they do not have enough money to make it through the weekend and I think we’re beginning to see a repeat of the 80s.

“It’s the same factors yet again, economic and political uncertainty but we’re 30 years down the line.

“History is repeating itself.”

There are an estimated 18% of children living in poverty in Aberdeen and child poverty is unevenly distributed across the wards.

CFINE runs a food bank from its base in Aberdeen and is continually faced with food shortages.

One volunteer, who asked not to be named, believes that, were it not for CFINE, she would have been left with nothing.

“I remember my interview when I came forward for a food parcel, I can’t explain how difficult it was to ask for help in the first place,” she said.

“It was really emotional, I had no money and there were various other problems going on in my life.

“Although I didn’t beg on the streets, it’s that realisation that hard times can happen to anyone.

“I’m very strong now and in a much happier place, I don’t think about that part of my life but at the same time I’ll never forget it.

“Just a cup of coffee makes such a difference; the food bank was a lifeline for me.”

Instant Neighbour also runs a food bank in St Machar Drive, and has been turning people away in recent months due to dwindling supplies.

Business development manager Susan Cheyne believes the crisis shows no sign of abating, and the charity has seen a 70% increase in people needing food parcels this year.

Come midweek and the shelves are already looking sparse, and the charity can only hand out food parcels once a fortnight.

“A food parcel will only last for three days, it is devastating when we have to turn away hungry people,” she said.

“No-one ever asks for a food parcel unless they actually really need one, because for many it’s embarrassing to admit you need help.

“It takes an awful lot of guts to turn up at the door in the first place, we never ever judge people.

“We don’t work on a referral system, people simply come in and we take a few details.

“We try and build up a rapport with people which can be really important in these situations.

“Every night I go home and appreciate what I have, because anybody could end up in this situation.

“If someone was made redundant, say, nine months ago, they’ve since gone through all their savings.

“It’s a choice between eating and paying the bills, you never know when it will happen to you.”

Susan also feels frustrated at a system which she believes penalises benefit claimants for arriving late for job centre appointments.

“We hear incredibly sad stories every single day, one of the main reasons why demand is so high is because of sanctions,” she said.

“If someone doesn’t turn up at the job centre, their benefits may be cut for three months.

“Appointment letters go unopened if that person cannot read or write and mental health also plays a huge part.

“The biggest group of people who we help are single young men, in the 20-30 age group.

“That was the demographic we started helping when we were founded 32 years ago and it is scary to think not much has changed.

“We are closed over a weekend and I often go home on a Friday night wondering how a person is, I’m a mum myself and it can be very difficult to watch these situations play out.

“We also provide nappies and sanitary wear, some women are having to use toilet paper during their period which is completely humiliating for them.

Instant Neighbour is helped in its work by volunteers, some of whom have received help from the food bank in the past.

“We have three regular retired gentlemen who are volunteers, and there are success stories where we see people get back on their feet,” said Susan.

“Often they will return with a bag of food as a donation, and that’s wonderful to see.

“I can’t see things improving in the short term however, and food banks are just sticking plasters for a major problem in society.”

An increase in those using food banks has even spread to the islands – an Orkney food bank has been running for four years.

Secretary Roda Walker believes the surge in use started last year.

“This year has been no different and we’ve established that there are six main reasons why people come to us,” she said.

“There is low income, benefit delays and sanctions, lack of meals for children during school holidays, homelessness, and debt.

“We are open twice a week for two hours and we are also able to provide emergency food parcels.

“I think we were just as surprised as everyone else when we started to be on par with food banks on the mainland.

“We are incredibly lucky to have a generous community here so we are able to meet the need.

“It’s a mixed blessing though with the need existing in the first place.”