MORE than a decade ago, Peter Fowler’s church opened a centre in Glasgow where people struggling with problems such as benefit delays could pick up basic provisions for meals.

It is still in existence today as one of thousands of food banks across the UK.

Fowler said: “I really didn’t want to be doing this for 12 years. We were trying to be part of the solution to the crisis.

“But I think we have become a sticking plaster to an ongoing crisis.”

Demand has never been higher for the 2500 food banks in existence across the UK, which includes more than 200 in Scotland.

The Trussell Trust, which operates the biggest network, published shocking figures last week showing almost three million food parcels were given out across the UK last year – the most food parcels ever distributed in that time.

And it is since the Tories came to power at Westminster that the number of parcels being given out has soared.

In 2010, the number of emergency food parcels distributed by the network was just over 40,000 across the UK.

It is not the cost of living crisis and Covid pandemic that have been the key drivers for the demand, The Trussell Trust said – but they have exposed “a weakened social security system that is unable to protect people from the most severe forms of hardship”.

Fowler, who is compassion pastor at Glasgow’s West End Vineyard Church, said they were now seeing people returning who had not been in two or three years to the church’s food bank, which is part of the Independent Food Aid Network UK.

“I saw someone last week, he has been a couple of times to the food bank and he is now £4000 in debt for his energy supply,” he said.

“I know we have one particular lady who is working full-time but she is struggling just at the end of the month, so she comes to get some food parcels from us.”

He added: “A lot of our people are self-referred and I would say chronic poor rather than crisis – they are not necessarily people in crisis, although their lives are in crisis.

“It is like permanent crisis, it is chronic poverty for whatever reason.

“We are the backstop for them and I think since we opened in 2011, food banks have become very much part of the scenery.”

Even before Covid and the cost of living crisis hit, there were concerns about the scale of reliance on food banks in the UK.

In 2019, a letter was signed by 58 activists, academics and food writers to “deeply oppose the further institutionalisation of charitable food banks in the UK”.

“Over the last 35 years, the normalisation of food banking in the US and Canada has failed to solve entrenched food insecurity,” it warned.

The letter went on: “Charitable food aid is a sticking plaster on a gaping wound of systemic inequality in our societies.”

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Polly Jones (above), head of Scotland at The Trussell Trust, said food banks were established in the US and Canada around 20 years before the UK.

“That’s where we most look internationally – we look with horror, to be honest, and think, ‘we don’t want to get ourselves there’,” she said.

“If you look back over the last five years, it is a 50% increase in parcels – so there has been a steady increase over this last period.

“If you ask children at school these days, they all know what a food bank is, they have heard of them – but if you went back a generation, people would have been saying: ‘What is a food bank?’ “We can see a really strong correlation between changes in the UK social security, particularly the introduction of Universal Credit, and decisions around 2015 to reduce the amount of money on Universal Credit.

“There is a correlation between that and designs of the Universal Credit system in particular, the wait of at least five weeks that everyone has to go through, the sanctions – and when those things are applied, they were particular drivers of sending people to food banks.

“We know the main reason people come to a food bank is not really to do with food and it is definitely not because people can’t cook – it’s wholly about not having enough money from work or from social security.”

Jones agreed the rise of food banks across the UK was down to the failure of the state.

She said: “Across the UK, we have about 30,000 people volunteering in food banks. In Scotland, we are distributing food parcels from 138 different centres in nearly every local authority in Scotland.

“There are at least as many independent food banks as there are in The Trussell Trust network, so the provision of charitable food aid is enormous.

“We can collect donations and we can put parcels together, but networks of food banks can’t build a social security system or provide a proper safety net, and if the problem is money and income, that’s the job of government at all levels.”

The Trussell Trust has launched a campaign together with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calling for landmark change to Universal Credit, which would mean benefit payments cannot fall below a minimum level required to cover food, utilities and other essential bills.

An analysis carried out by the charities found the standard weekly allowance for Universal Credit now falls £35 short of the cost of common essentials – even without it being affected by deductions for reasons such as sanctions or debt repayments.

Jones said: “That is some really clear action for the UK Government and we think if that was brought in, nine million families across the UK would benefit from that and we would see a massive reduction in the number of people coming to food banks.

“It comes with a price tag – we think if you were going to deliver something of that scale, that was £120 a week for an adult, that would cost about £22 billion.

“But at the moment, the brunt of that is borne by people with the least – it is them that are having to find that money by going without things they need.”

Jones said every single food bank was aiming to be in the position where it did not need to exist – but that was “not going to happen overnight”.

“It is not acceptable that anybody needs to turn to a charity to feed themselves or their families,” she said.

“But it is not going to be an easy road and we know it requires more income into social security, more and effective routes to get advice that helps you get that income and it requires secure and decent work.

“None of those things are easy and none of them are cheap, but it is all the job of government to stimulate that work and put those resources in.

“We know it is possible – the question is whether governments at all levels are prepared to do the work.”

She added: “We don’t want to get to the point where we are just like ‘oh there are more stats’ and not be shocked.

“We have to be outraged that this is what we have let it get to.”