Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland

Report of the Independent Working Group on food poverty.

This document is part of a collection

2: Understanding food poverty

2.1 What is the Scale and Nature of the Problem?

At present the information regularly published by the Trussell Trust is most commonly cited when discussing food insecurity. In Scotland 14,318 referrals were made for men, women and children in 2012/13, rising to 71,428 in 2013/14 and 117,689 in 2014/15. Most recent figures show that 133,726 referrals were made in 2015/16 - including 43,962 for children - to access a three-day supply of emergency food. [2]

These numbers, however, are likely to significantly underestimate the scale of the problem of food insecurity. While the Trussell Trust is the largest foodbank provider, a substantial proportion of charitable emergency food in Scotland comes from other providers. [3]

We also know that many who struggle to afford food will not, for various reasons, access a foodbank. [4] Indeed international evidence demonstrates the majority of people experiencing food insecurity do not access foodbanks. [5] This is likely to be the case in Scotland too.

In the absence of a systematic measure of food insecurity in Scotland, studies which identify levels of household expenditure on food have been used to suggest how far families may have difficulty affording food.

The 2012 Living Costs and Food Survey identified that households in Scotland living in relative poverty spent 23% of their weekly income on food which, though less in absolute terms, [6] was more than twice the proportion spent by better off households.

Sixteen per cent of the Scottish population are identified as living in relative poverty, and 10% in extreme poverty after housing costs, [7] so we believe that far more people experience food insecurity, including hunger, than the number using foodbanks.

If we are to tackle food insecurity we need to understand the scale of the problem including the numbers of people who are using foodbanks, why they are doing so, and how often. We also need to have a deeper understanding of why people choose not to access emergency food provision or are unable to do so.

Levels of food insecurity in the UK in 2014

A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation ( FAO) of the United Nations [8] for the first time has measured household food insecurity across 140 countries. This used the same set of eight questions to ask people about their ability to get enough food in the past year.

Food insecurity has varying degrees of severity. Early stages involve worry about whether there will be enough food, followed by compromising quality, variety and quantity of food. Going without food and experiencing hunger are the most severe stages.

In the UK, 1,000 people were interviewed by telephone or mobile phone. The data show that 10.1% of people aged 15 or over in the UK were moderately food insecure in 2014. This means they reported experiencing a struggle to get enough food to eat.

Of these people, 4.5% experienced a severe level of food insecurity, typically having gone a whole day without eating at times during the year because they could not afford enough food.

This puts the UK in the bottom half of European nations, though we are one of Europe's richer nations. There are no comparable sources to determine if and how the situation has changed over recent years. The situation in Scotland is likely to be similar to that in the UK as a whole, but the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions.

2.2 The Causes

Research into food insecurity in Scotland and the rest of the UK has consistently linked it to low income, including low-paid, insecure work and inadequate benefit levels. Analysis has also pointed to rising food prices, as well as the high costs of fuel and rent, as factors which impact on households' ability to afford food. [9] The accessibility of shops selling affordable, healthy foods, and the costs of transport to reach them, has also been considered to contribute to the experience of food insecurity. [10]

Recent studies have examined the reasons why increasing numbers of people are turning to foodbanks for help. [11,12] People using foodbanks are invariably facing an acute income crisis.

Evidence consistently points to problems within the social security system, including delays and errors in administration of payments, as well as the imposition of punitive benefit sanctions, as reasons for a sudden disruption to incomes which cause people to have to access a foodbank.

Scotland-specific studies on causes of foodbank use are consistent with these UK-wide findings, and have also highlighted instances of problems with the Scottish Welfare Fund including lack of awareness of the Fund. [13]

2.3 Public Attitudes

Recent research into public opinions around food insecurity in Scotland has shown a clear strength of feeling amongst the population and a mandate for action to tackle it. [14] The research demonstrates widespread acknowledgement of the problem, concern for people struggling to afford food, and belief that foodbanks should not be a feature of modern society. While the research also suggests a strong desire for the UK Government to take action to tackle food insecurity, this is likely to be replicated at Scottish level. This gives the Scottish Government and Parliament a strong mandate for decisive and progressive action.

Respondents also demonstrated an understanding of the structural causes of food insecurity, including: low wages; jobs that don't provide enough working hours; the rising price of food; and levels of unemployment. However, they also perceived 'individual' factors, such as people not prioritising how they spend their money correctly, as contributing to food insecurity. Such 'individual' factors are not consistent with the evidence of the causes of food insecurity.

To support effective measures and interventions to reduce food insecurity in Scotland, it is critical we continue to build the public's understanding of the causes of food insecurity.

2.4 What Do We Mean By the Right to Food?

Whilst there is a great deal that can and must be done in the short term to tackle the symptoms and causes of food insecurity and hunger, we recognise that some of the issues need sustained long term action. This is particularly the case given the broader changes in the food system in the coming decades as a result of climate change and other pressures.

We believe that the Scottish Government, with the support of the Scottish Human Rights Commission ( SCHR), should give active consideration to enshrining the right to adequate food in domestic law.

The right to adequate food is set out in Article 11 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights ( ICESCR) to which Scotland, as part of the UK, has been a signatory since 1976.

Several countries have the right to food directly in their constitution, or have given direct effect to ICESCR. Germany has taken a systematic approach towards calculating social security benefits so that they meet the minimum core content required to live a life with dignity. In arriving at the figure, Germany includes the minimum income required to have a nutritious and culturally appropriate diet. [15]

Establishing the right to adequate food in Scots Law will not in itself end food insecurity just as homelessness legislation has not eradicated homelessness. It would mean, however, that the Scottish Government and other public bodies would have a duty to ensure that all individuals have secure access to adequate and affordable food including the means to purchase it.

Also, the Scottish Government would be prepared to be challenged legally on how well it is implementing policies and deploying resources towards this end, within the limits of its existing powers. Underpinning policy with law makes policy more resilient and durable as governments change.

It is our considered view that this proposal is a good fit with the Scottish Government's commitment to broadening and deepening the culture of human rights in Scotland. Tackling food insecurity in Scotland, like tackling homelessness, is a challenge which will outlast several parliaments.

2.5 Next Steps

It is difficult to tackle a problem, or make a credible case for doing so, without understanding its true scale, drivers and impacts. The Scottish Government should therefore commit to improving the knowledge and understanding of food insecurity in Scotland through the development of a robust evidence base.

A robust monitoring system could include: an annual nationwide measure of food insecurity in Scotland, such as the "Canadian Household Food Security Survey"; [16] a bi-annual nationally representative sample of independent foodbank usage; and monitoring of referrals to emergency food aid providers, mapping this data to uptake of the Scottish Welfare Fund to ensure best practice pathways are identified and shared.

This will provide us with a true measure of the number of people in Scotland facing both acute and chronic food insecurity and make it possible to determine the impact of measures taken to reduce these.

We should also gather data from a representative sample of emergency food providers to understand local trends and assess the impact of local interventions.

We should monitor the factors which contribute to food insecurity, including: the price of food and wider essentials; social security changes; and rates of employment and pay.

While it will be a couple of years before we have reliable baseline population data on household food insecurity in Scotland, once this is in place the Scottish Government should set stretching targets for reducing food insecurity and hunger. Ideally, this data would be gathered annually as part of the Scottish Health Survey, allowing robust year on year comparisons. The data should enable estimates of the number of children and the percentage of in-work households affected by food insecurity as well as disaggregating food insecurity by gender, as there is evidence that women, and lone parents in particular, are disproportionately affected.

While some fluctuations in the levels of household food insecurity will clearly be attributable to wider changes in the Scottish economy and external influences such as food price volatility, it should be possible to directly monitor the impact of policy interventions on reducing household food insecurity.

Comparisons between Scotland and other countries are also worth considering although these may prove difficult, depending on the choice of survey instrument. The FAO report [17] uses the Food Insecurity Experience Scale ( FIES) scale. [18] On this measure the UK sits in the bottom half of European Union member states and below countries with significantly lower Gross Domestic Product. Given that the UK (according to the FAO figures) has a level of household food insecurity around twice as high as Germany and the Netherlands and almost three times higher than Sweden, it would be reasonable to set stretching targets for Scotland.

The Scottish Government, and those involved in responding to food insecurity, should learn from international best practice to devise appropriate interventions in Scotland.


3. The Scottish Government should explore how the right to food can be enshrined within Scots Law.

4. The Scottish Government should introduce and fund a robust system to measure food insecurity in Scotland, alongside wider measures of poverty.

5. The Scottish Government, having established reliable population data on household food insecurity, should set stretching targets to reduce it and explore how these could be integrated within the National Performance Framework.

6. The Scottish Government should lead in communicating clearly and consistently the causes of food insecurity as identified by research.


ii. We will continue to challenge the stigma of poverty and raise awareness of the structural causes of food insecurity.

'We were working for an agency and they didn't call us for two weeks. So I had to find another job. I don't know why they just didn't call. We waited, but we needed to work and they [did] not call for us. The agency didn't tell us why.' (Aleksander and Elena)

'Over the last two month I was sanctioned by the DWP. Basically I've had no income, no means of getting food so I've been relying on the foodbank and stuff like that, and see if it wasn't for them, basically I'd have nothing at all.' (David)

Quotes from "Hard Choices: Reducing the need for food banks in Scotland", Child Poverty Action Group, 2015, and "Making the Connections: A study of emergency food aid in Scotland", The Poverty Alliance, 2015


Email: Graeme MacLennan

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