Opinion

Could food banks be relegated to the history books?

Scotland is taking steps to remove the need for food banks. But will it work?

trussell trust food banks

A food bank and warehouse in operation, Leeds. Volunteer working to sort and prepare food parcels for distribution, inside the warehouse. Image: Trussell Trust

The Scottish government has finally published its much-anticipated ‘cash-first’ plan to end the need for food banks in Scotland. More accurately, it’s a plan “towards” ending the need for food banks. But it’s progress. History has been made. No other government, UK or worldwide, has been so bold as to champion the concept of a society free of the food bank curse.

Taking a cash-first approach to food insecurity is straightforward. Ultimately, it means that nobody’s income, whether through work or social security payments, would be too low. Everyone would be able to afford adequate and nutritious food. It would also mean that if a person can’t afford food in a crisis, they would still have access to emergency, local cash support.

The Scottish Government plans to spend £1.8 million supporting eight partnerships strengthening local cash-first responses to food insecurity. The actions also include a food insecurity pilot led by Citizens Advice Scotland, alongside nine local bureaux, enabling people struggling to afford food to access shopping cards or cash payments. 

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A much-needed £11.7 million will be invested in welfare, debt, and income maximisation advice alongside further funding to help people access advice in GP surgeries and other settings. It is indeed possible to build a strategy around increasing people’s incomes so the need for charitable food aid can be reduced. The Scottish Government’s commitment to a cash-first approach to food insecurity is laudable.

The Scottish government is also supporting the Independent Food Aid Network to expand the reach of our ‘Worrying About Money?’ referral leaflets now available across Scotland. And people with ‘no recourse to public funds’ will continue to be supported with cash payments through the British Red Cross Scottish Crisis Fund. 

Involving people with lived experience through the Dignity Peer Network and promoting cash-first practice with funders is invaluable. Millions will also be spent on social security payments and discretionary housing payments this financial year as well as in council tax reduction schemes – these measures will positively impact people’s incomes.

However, since the draft plan was first published in October 2021, poverty in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, has deteriorated. Food bank use and severe food insecurity is, yet again, reaching record levels. Just as the Scottish draft plan was published in the autumn of 2021, universal credit payments were cut and the cost of living crisis pushed more people into financial hardship and desperation.

The goal posts have shifted. Cash-First: Towards Ending the Need for Food Banks is certainly ground-breaking material but there’s no doubt that further concrete cash-first actions are urgently needed if poverty is to be significantly reduced.

Given the positive impact of the recent increase to the Scottish child payment, the Scottish government could raise this further – to £40 a week – which would make a substantial difference to families. 



The Scottish Welfare Fund has the potential to significantly impact household budgets, but the Scottish Government has only promised to maintain investment instead of injecting additional funding into it.

It also plans to deliver an action plan to make improvements based on a recent independent review of the fund. That review told us what we knew already from the A Menu for Change project in 2019. The Scottish Welfare Fund must be well-funded, properly promoted and adequately administered in every local authority in Scotland.

It’s vital that the conflation of the food poverty and food waste problems ends at the first mention of a cash-first approach. Redistributing surplus food cannot ever provide an effective solution to people’s lack of income.

It’s also critical to extend the ambition beyond ending the need for food banks to ending the need for charitable food aid. Food banks represent a fraction of community-driven charitable food provision set up over the last decade to support people struggling to afford food. The aim is clearly not to end the need for food banks while other gap-filling charitable food support measures proliferate.

The Scottish Government has undoubtedly been bold and inspiring in laying out its cash first vision. Chris Stephens MP aims to replicate the plan via his Food Poverty Strategy Bill. Campaigners in the USA and Canada are watching Scotland’s next moves to eradicate the need for food banks with keen interest. But if this vision is to become a reality, their list of actions must not only be delivered, but urgently expanded alongside dramatic policy changes from the UK Government.

Charitable food aid teams across Scotland are more determined than ever to see an end for the need for their services. And I’m reminded of the words of Danielle at the new First Minister Humza Yousaf’s recent anti-poverty summit in Edinburgh. 

Representing the Poverty and Inequality Commission, she urged a room full of potential changemakers to “be brave” – to do what was needed to tackle poverty. 

Ending the need for food banks and other forms of charitable food aid requires bravery indeed. But it also needs further large-scale investment, and a much longer list of income-focused actions to build a cash-first future in Scotland where no one needs to turn to food aid provider to get by.

Sabine Goodwin is the Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) and represents IFAN in the Steering Group on Ending the Need for Food Banks. IFAN is funded by the Scottish Government to work with local partners on ‘Worrying About Money? cash first referral leaflets in local authorities across Scotland. IFAN is also supporting Citizens Advice Scotland’s Food Insecurity Pilot. Sabine recently wrote this piece alongside Polly Jones of Trussell Trust Scotland following the joint IFAN/Trussell Trust Cash First Future conference in Glasgow in March 2023. IFAN’s response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on is draft plan to end the need for food banks is here.

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