Comment: Good people helping others

THE collector guy at my local supermarket was admirably blunt: “It’s a disgrace I have to do this. I blame the government.”
What is particularly inspiring about the food bank movement is the public ask. 
Picture: Neil HannaWhat is particularly inspiring about the food bank movement is the public ask. 
Picture: Neil Hanna
What is particularly inspiring about the food bank movement is the public ask. Picture: Neil Hanna

Sentiments are running high in the increasingly bitter war of words between those who run food banks and the people responsible for dismantling the safety nets of the welfare state.

I asked to spend a day with Trussell Trust volunteers to get an insight into public reactions to food poverty. Where on the spectrum between scroungers and skivers and outrage at hunger in 21st century Scotland do shoppers stand?

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Let’s be clear, I’m at the outrage end. After a lifetime working in the third sector, I’d never expected its fastest growing part to be the provision of food to people who can’t afford to eat. Not on this scale.

But then I hadn’t expected large- scale benefit sanctions, privatised disability reassessments and the bureaucratic shambles of Universal Credit either.

Anger is good therapy but, personally, I want revenge.

What particularly inspires me about the food bank movement is the public ask. Too often, charities get caught up in a cosy consensus within a political and civic bubble. We are grateful just to be there when we really ought to be spending more time trying to win our arguments on the doorstep.

We ought to always be about chall­enging the status quo and changing attitudes – how else do we think that real change will ever happen?

If we want a more equal society and a sustainable economy which serves us all, then electing sympathetic politicians (or even adjusting the powers they can use at different tiers) will never be enough to get the job done. We need to get the public onside.

Back at the door of Tesco, the people who volunteer their time and energy have a simpler objective: to stock the warehouses with enough food to keep up with the growing number of users. By 3pm on Friday more than 60 15-kilo crates have been filled from just one store.

There’s no hostility and an awful lot of goodwill from shoppers. A young lad stops to ask what it’s all about and the next minute he’s signed up to volunteer.

I never thought I’d say this, but Tesco and Tesco Bank deserve a lot of credit for the way they have emb­raced Trussell and Fareshare. Tesco adds up the value of donated items and gives the profit margin in cash to the local food bank. For once this is corporate social responsibility as it should be.

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Trussell itself is a remarkable outfit. Its growth shows no sign of tailing off, not least because the rhetorical and practical assaults from Iain Duncan Smith and his ilk will get sharper as we move towards the next election.

I’ve come across quite a bit of squeamishness about all of this – grumbles about hand-outs rather than hand-ups, worries about humiliation and dependency, and a genuine concern that food banks might actually accelerate the decline of the welfare state. And the role of churches, especially those of an evangelical persuasion, is an issue for some.

My last hour, late on Friday at the church hall distribution point, nailed most of these problems for me. These are good people responding to the needs of fellow human beings with kindness. Some tables are set with bits of cake and ready to offer tea and sympathy to those who turn up with referral letters, mostly from local groups like Women’s Aid and Stepping Stones.

People are quietly shown to a seat for a chat while bags of dry goods are put together. Toilet rolls and toothpaste are added by request and a bus fare home can also be provided, courtesy of the Scottish Welfare Fund. It is all done with great sensitivity, a credit to humanity in what looks like a very cruel world.

“I needed to do something to help,” said a retired professional man who volunteers most Friday afternoons, the busiest time of the week. He was not, he claimed, a political person but described the sanctions regime as “just wrong”. He felt privileged to do his bit, without fanfare or recognition. Spot on. «

• Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations