CHARITIES that run food banks have told MSPs about a “terrifying” increase in the number of Scots seeking emergency food relief in the past year.
MSPs at Holyrood also heard that some people are having to make a choice over whether to “eat or heat”, choosing whether to go without electricity or food.
A charity worker said food banks were sometimes forced to hand out cold meals to families who are unable to afford to use their cookers, as she claimed benefit sanctions imposed on claimants were having the “biggest” impact on the crisis.
Jo Roberts, development lead at Community Food Moray, made the claim at Holyrood’s welfare reform committee, where charities involved in supplying food aid to impoverished families talked about their work.
The Trussell Trust has reported that its food banks helped more than 56,000 people between April last year and February. The total for the previous 12 months was 14,318 – including about 4,000 children.
Ewan Gurr, Scotland development officer of the Trussell Trust, insisted that the sharp rise in the use of food banks is “inextricably linked” to the UK government’s controversial welfare and benefit reforms. He said: “That is an exponential rise in the demand for emergency food relief. It is indisputable that people are under more pressure than they ever have been. We are not seeing benefits keep pace with the rise in living costs.”
Mr Gurr went on to talk about what he said was a growing crisis in food bank use since UK government benefit changes came into force in April 2013.
Ms Roberts told MSPs that Community Food Moray saw around 13 cases each month before April 2013.
She claimed that after the introduction of welfare reforms, this number grew to 59.
“The main issue people are presenting with is welfare and benefit problems. The biggest reason is welfare sanctions,” Ms Roberts said.
“On our referral forms we ask what cooking facilities people have. We have a number coming through where, yes, they have all the cooking facilities, but they can’t use them because they can’t afford to put the electricity in the meter.”
Denis Curran, chairman of Loaves and Fishes, a Glasgow-based charity which provides food parcels, said people were “walking three or four miles with children” to food banks.
Mr Curran also highlighted misconceptions about why people are using food banks, as he said there “seems to be a fallacy out there that it is misused, and that it’s greed”.
He said: “It is easier to say they are thieves, liars, cheats and lay-abouts, that they misuse the benefits system. People come to us and they are terrified.
“Powers that be – it is time you woke up to reality. We don’t need meetings to decide if benefit cuts have got something to do with a rise in food banks.”
Labour MSP Michael McMahon, Holyrood’s welfare reform committee chairman, said that Scots in low-paid jobs were also forced to rely on food banks due to their low incomes.
He said: “It’s not just about unemployed people and those who can’t access an income. It’s also about those who are in employment and on low incomes.”
However, a spokesman from the Department for Work and Pensions dismissed claims the rise in food bank use was linked to benefit changes.
He said: “The benefits system supports millions who are on low incomes or unemployed and there is no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks.”