Mapping Organisations Responding to Food Insecurity in Scotland

Research commissioned by the Scottish Government to provide a snapshot of where and how organisations are responding to food insecurity in Scotland.

Background and aims

Household food insecurity in Scotland

A widely-accepted definition of food insecurity is "the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so"[3]. Household food insecurity ranges from worrying about running out of food to actually running out of food and experiencing hunger due to lack of money or other resources. Recent longitudinal research published by A Menu for Change shows that food insecurity has considerable impacts, including on the physical, psychological and social wellbeing of individuals and their families[4].

In 2016, the Scottish Government committed to monitoring household food insecurity following recommendations from an Independent Working Group on Food Poverty[5]. The working group was established in response to food bank data showing a rise in the number of food parcels distributed. Measurement of food insecurity provides valuable data for reporting on Scotland's National Outcomes, including outcomes on poverty and human rights. The National Performance Framework has been aligned with Scotland's commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 2 – "Zero Hunger".

The Scottish Government has been measuring the prevalence of household food insecurity for the past two years. Three priority questions from the UN Food Insecurity Experience Scale were included for the first time in the 2017 Scottish Health Survey[6]. These three questions were included in the 2018 Scottish Health Survey[7], and will be continued into the 2019 survey. Thereafter, food insecurity will be measured in the UK-wide Family Resources Survey with the first data published in 2021.

The most recent Scottish Health Survey data – published in September 2019 – showed that 9% of adults in Scotland worried about running out of food in the previous 12 months due to lack of money and other resources. Furthermore, 6% of adults said that they had eaten less than they should and 3% said that they had run out of food due to lack of money or other resources. These figures are consistent with the first year of national food insecurity data collected in the 2017 Scottish Health Survey in which 8% of adults reported that they worried about running out of food, 7% said they ate less and 4% actually ran out of food due to lack of money or other resources.

The Scottish Health Survey data also shows that food insecurity is more prevalent among certain groups in 2017 and 2018[8]:

  • Adults with lower household incomes: Just over a quarter (27%) of adults with equivalised household incomes in the lowest quintile (£0-£14,300) reported that they worried about running out of food compared with 1% of adults with incomes in the highest quintile (£49,400 or more).
  • Single parents: A quarter of single parents (25%) reported that they worried they would run out of food.
  • Single adults under 65 living alone: Just over a fifth of single adults aged under 65 who were living alone (21%) reported that they worried about running out of food.
  • Disabled adults: Just under a fifth of adults with a limiting longstanding illness (18%) reported worrying about running out of food compared with 9% of people with non-limiting longstanding illness and 5% of people with no longstanding illness.
  • Adults living in the most deprived areas: Just under a sixth of adultsliving in the most deprived areas (16%) reported they worried about running out of food compared with 4% of adults living in the least deprived areas.
  • Younger adults: Food insecurity was more prevalent among younger people, with 14% of adults aged 25-34 and 11% of adults aged 16-24 and 35-44 reporting that they worried about running out of food.

Combined analysis of data from the 2017 and 2018 Scottish Health Surveys also examined links between food insecurity and diet and mental wellbeing[9]. This showed that adults who said that, at some point in the previous 12 months, they had worried that they would run out of food because of a lack of money or other resources had considerably lower mental wellbeing than other adults. The findings were similar for the other two measures of food insecurity. There was also an association between fruit and vegetable consumption and experience of food insecurity; the proportion of adults eating no fruit and vegetables on a given day was higher among adults who reported worrying about running out of food than the rest of the adult population (17% compared with 9%). Findings were similar for the other two measures of food insecurity, in which 18% of adults who said they ate less than they should and 22% of adults who said that they ran out of food consumed no fruit or vegetables on a given day.

The data on household food insecurity obtained in the Scottish Health Survey informs progress towards the food insecurity indicator in the National Performance Framework, which is in line with Goal 2 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provide an international framework to work towards ending poverty and promoting a more equitable world by 2030. Each goal consists of a number of targets. Target 2.1 of the SDGs is: "By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round."

Organisations responding to food insecurity in Scotland

A range of organisations are known to be responding to food insecurity across the UK through the provision of free or subsidised food, including food banks, community groups and faith organisations.

A small-scale scoping study of organisations responding to food insecurity in Scotland was commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2013[10]. The aim of that study was to provide an insight into the scope of organisations responding to food insecurity within eight locations: Glasgow City, Dundee City, Inverness, Fort William, Falkirk, Kirriemuir, and Forfar. The study identified 55 organisations providing food across these locations through the provision of food parcels or meals, sometimes alongside other sources of advice and support. However, that study did not systematically map the variety of organisations responding to food insecurity across Scotland, and did not cover all 32 local authorities in Scotland. Furthermore, the number, type and locations of organisations responding to food insecurity are likely to have changed considerably in the six years since the study was conducted in 2013.

The current research aimed to map organisations responding to food insecurity operating across the whole of Scotland and included a wide range of organisations, such as food banks, community-based groups and services, faith organisations and food pantries/social supermarkets.

Prevalence of food banks in Scotland

The exact number of food banks in Scotland are not known. Across Scotland, it is estimated that there are currently around 120 food bank venues that are part of the Trussell Trust network[11] and around 90 independent food banks that are part of the Independent Food Aid Network[12].

The Trussell Trust regularly gathers data from food banks within its network which provides the only annual national data on food bank use. The most recent statistics show that between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, 210,605 three-day emergency food parcels[13] were given to people in crisis in Scotland by Trussell Trust food banks, of which 69,410 went to families with children. This represents a 23% increase from the previous year. Across the whole UK, 1,583,668 parcels were provided during this period, representing a 19% increase from the previous year[14].

The Independent Food Aid Network and A Menu for Change recently published data on the number of three-day food parcels distributed by independent food banks in Scotland between April 2018 and September 2019[15]. The report estimates that 596,472 parcels were distributed in Scotland during this period, representing a 22% increase on the previous 18-month period[16]. The April 2018 to September 2019 figure comprises 278,258 parcels distributed by some of the independently run food banks (91 of the 101 identified), and 318,214 parcels distributed by the 135 Trussell Trust run food bank venues.

It is important to note that data about why people use food banks provides a limited picture of food insecurity and that only a small percentage of people experiencing food insecurity will actually access a food bank[17]. There are practical barriers to accessing food banks, including physical location and access criteria, but also psychological barriers to seeking support such as feelings of shame and not wanting to accept charity[18].

Drivers of food bank use in Scotland

The available evidence suggests that the key issues leading people to seek help with food are "crises" which induce sudden reductions in household income; these include loss of a job or problems with social security payments. These crises appear, in some cases, to build on on-going, underpinning circumstances which mean people struggle to obtain sufficient food[19]. A recent report commissioned by the Trussell Trust showed that 9 in 10 people referred to their food banks were destitute and just over 6 in 10 reported that they had experienced an income drop in the previous three months[20].

Food banks that are part of the Trussell Trust network usually require that a person is referred with a voucher, which can be issued by a number of external community organisations in order to receive food supplies[21]. This enables the Trussell Trust to monitor the main reasons for referrals to food banks within their network. The top three reasons for referral to a food bank in the Trussell Trust network in 2018/19 were "income not covering essential costs" (33%), "benefit delays" (20%), and "benefit changes" (17%)[22].

Recent in-depth analysis of referral agency voucher data showed that in 2018/19 benefit issues were one of the main reasons for referral in nearly half of cases (43%)[23]. People report experiencing issues with a range of benefits, but the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) has been identified as a particular concern and is linked to increased food bank use. Food banks in areas of full UC rollout to single people, couples and families, have seen a 17% average increase in referrals for food, more than double the national average of 7%[24].

The Trussell Trust report that the main causes for referral among people in employment were low wages, insecure work, high living costs and problems accessing working benefits[25]. This is consistent with a report published by Citizens Advice Scotland in 2016 that found that recent changes to the benefits system, benefit rates not keeping pace with inflation, low pay, insecure work, rising costs of living and debt-collection practices are the main causes of acute income crises[26].

Alongside income as a key driver of food bank use, research has shown that while people accessing support from food banks are facing an immediate and acute financial crisis, this was set against a backdrop of complex, difficult lives that made them more vulnerable to life shocks, including experiences of ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities or job loss[27],[28],[29]. Macleod and colleagues' survey of GoWell respondents in deprived areas of Glasgow found a relationship between major life events and food bank use[30]. In particular, their analysis found that having moved house in the past year almost doubled the odds of food bank use and people in insecure, short-term accommodation were vulnerable to life shocks that increase the likelihood of food bank use. Overall, these findings highlight the complexity of the reasons that lead people to need to turn to food banks.

Some data is available that shows the demographic risk factors of accessing support from food banks in Scotland. A recent report commissioned by the Trussell Trust highlighted that most of the risk factors for food insecurity are also risk factors for being referred to a food bank. These included those living in low income households, single parents, having two or more children, being a working age adult living alone, living in a rented home (especially social rent), being unemployed and living in a household affected by ill health[31]. In the GoWell survey of people using food banks in Glasgow, the highest rate of food bank use was found among single adults (15%) and single parents with dependent children (9.5%). Being male, younger than 40 and not working all increased the odds of using a food bank[32].

A 2014 study commissioned by Community Food and Health Scotland (an NHS Health Scotland programme), highlights that asylum seekers and people with insecure immigration status are also particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to challenges with accessing benefits, navigating the social security system and destitution and also notes concern for other vulnerable groups such as homeless people, older people, young carers and people living in isolated rural areas[33].

There are also documented links between food bank use and poor health. The Go Well report found 44% of people using food banks in Glasgow had a long-term illness or disability and two thirds reported a mental health problem[34]. A report by Castlemilk Law and Money Advice Centre in 2017 found similar results, identifying that two thirds of food bank users were experiencing a health problem and two thirds had poor mental health[35].

Community food initiatives

Alongside food banks and food parcel providers, many community organisations are known to be responding to food insecurity through a number of activities, including by establishing food pantries, social supermarkets and cooperatives. Some organisations deliver services to support specific groups (schools, recovery cafes, parenting organisations, services for older people, and faith organisations) alongside the provision of free or subsidised food to tackle food insecurity. Relative to food banks, less is currently known about community food initiatives and the people they support.

In 2016, the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty, whose membership included people with lived experience of food insecurity, recognised "the role for a stronger community food sector, which can embed the provision of food aid in a wider range of community activities and services", and recommended transitioning the response to food insecurity from charitable approaches towards rights-based, dignified approaches[36]. Relatedly, the recently published report by A Menu for Change highlighted the complex and differing causes and experiences of food insecurity and stressed the need for timely, holistic and dignified support[37].

The policy context

Tackling household food insecurity is a policy priority in Scotland, and is aligned with the commitment to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Scottish Government is working to tackle the causes of food insecurity by promoting the Living Wage, and embedding a human rights approach to the design and delivery of the new Scottish social security system.

The Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) provides a safety net for vulnerable people on low incomes through Community Care and Crisis Grants. From when the scheme began on 1 April 2013 to June 2019, 347,000 individual households across Scotland have received awards totalling £210 million. A third of Scottish Welfare Fund recipients in 2018/19 were families with children, while just over half were single person households with no children[38].

Funding is also in place to support communities to respond to food insecurity in a way that promotes dignity and helps to move away from emergency food provision as the primary response.

The Scottish Government's Fair Food Fund increased to £3.5 million in 2019/20 from £1.5 million in 2018/19. This fund aims to reduce, and over time remove, the need for food banks and support the community food movement across Scotland.

Through the Fair Food Transformation Fund (FFTF), the Scottish Government have supported a number of food banks that want to evolve their services away from charitable food aid as the only or primary response, towards dignified responses that seek to tackle the causes of food insecurity. An independent review of the FFTF found that most projects were successfully integrating dignified access to food with a wide range of community-based activities[39].

Tackling food insecurity is an integral part of the Scottish Government's Good Food Nation ambition, which includes ensuring that everyone in Scotland has ready access to the healthy food they need. The 2019/20 Programme for Government included a commitment to bringing forward legislation to underpin that ambition.

More broadly, the Scottish Government has established a National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership which will, among other things, develop a statutory human rights framework to progress all internationally recognised human rights.

Research aims

The Scottish Government commissioned this research to provide a snapshot of organisations responding to food insecurity across Scotland. A more thorough understanding of the locations and operations of these organisations will enable the Scottish Government to better engage with and support activity to tackle the causes of food insecurity.

Specifically, the research aimed to:

  • Identify organisations that are responding to food insecurity in Scotland through the provision of free or subsidised food.
  • Gather information directly from organisations about the location, type, frequency and accessibility of their food provision via an online or telephone survey.

This report provides a summary of the survey responses and wider findings.



Back to top