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12 February 2015, 12:23
There is a "real danger'' that food banks could become a "permanent feature'' in Scotland, a new report has warned.
New research by the Poverty Alliance identified 167 different organisations providing emergency food to struggling Scots, adding that many of these organisations also provided other forms of help.
While its services such as soup kitchens for the homeless have been "a long established feature of social support in Scotland'', the report highlighted the rising number of food banks being set up across the country.
"It is the recent growth in food banks and the extension of emergency food aid to a wide range of social security recipients and people in work which is of acute concern,'' it stated.
It claimed there is now a "real danger that emergency food aid provision may become a permanent feature of the welfare landscape in Scotland''.
Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, said: "Few would contend that the growth in food banks and other forms of emergency food aid is an acceptable situation in modern Scotland. It is also clear that it is not possible to simply turn away from those who are in such great need.''
Food banks also provide emotional support to vulnerable people, the report found, while some have specialist advisers on-site, with others referring people on to organisations that can help with financial and welfare issues.
Mr Kelly said the report highlighted the "vital work that volunteers and staff are doing right across Scotland'' at food banks and other emergency food services.
He added: "This extends well beyond the food that people so urgently need to include emotional and practical support to help people move to longer terms solutions.''
But he also stressed the need to "look at how we move beyond crisis responses to poverty that food banks and others represent''.
The report argues that a "preventative approach to food poverty which focuses on decent incomes, access to affordable, nutritious food, and which prioritises the most vulnerable, is required''.
While it said action to increase benefits, end the sanctions regime and tackle the problem of in-work poverty was needed, it added in the short term it is "important to focus on how emergency food aid can be best used to connect clients to more mainstream forms of support''.
It also stressed the need to "build resistance to the further entrenchment'' of food banks and other similar projects as part of the welfare state in Scotland.
It called on the the Scottish Government to "take a strong policy position against the further institutionalisation of emergency food aid within mainstream welfare provision and send clear messages to the UK Government that revision of their current austerity and welfare reform agenda is required in order to reverse this trend''.
Any state investment in emergency food aid must be focused on "ensuring clients do not become dependent on this service, but have improved access to mainstream sources of support'', the report added.
Ministers have also been urged to support the provision of specialist advisers, such as Citizens Advice staff or welfare rights advisers, in emergency food aid services.
Meanwhile, councils have been urged to make sure all organisations providing emergency food aid have information about how the Scottish Welfare Fund, which can make cash awards to those in need, operates in their area.
Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil, who launched the new report on a visit to a food bank in Airdrie, said: "It is unacceptable that so many have had to resort to food banks.
"Emergency food aid is not a sustainable response to the issue of food poverty and its underlying drivers and it cannot become an established feature of the welfare system in Scotland.''
Report author Mary Anne MacLeod stated: "It is crucial to understand that we are not just dealing with a problem simply of food, but of poverty and inequality.
"While committed to helping those in need, food bank staff and volunteers involved in this study felt very strongly that they should not be expected to fill a gap in an eroded safety net.
"It must be acknowledged that the solutions to food poverty do not lie with food bank volunteers, but with a preventative approach focused on decent incomes and equitable access to affordable, nutritious food.''