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Spare a thought for those who rely on food banks

Amid the heat and haste of preparing for the annual Christmas feast, it's worth stopping for a moment to think of the increasing number of people who will literally be going cold turkey this year.

I mean the thousands who are forced to rely on food banks to supply their dinner on December 25. Unable to afford to heat their homes, never mind turn on the oven, they cannot allow themselves to look at the seasonal advertisements and TV commercials for luxury festive items. Instead - if they're lucky - they'll be opening a tin of cooked ham and having it with bread and butter and/or a packet of crisps, followed by biscuits or cake or an apple. That's a rare luxury; hunger is haunting people like the ghost of Christmas past.

This bleak picture could be taken straight from the downside of Victorian society so often cosily portrayed on Christmas cards. In fact, it's December 2013 and the first phase of the Coalition Government's Welfare Reform Act is kicking in. More people are going hungry because their benefits have been cut or postponed. Energy prices are rocketing; salaries have been frozen for years.

According to the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity which runs the majority of the UK's food banks, five times more Scots are turning to food banks for emergency aid than last year. Between April and September, 23,073 people were referred by social services and other agencies such as Citizens Advice to the Trussell Trust for three days' worth of food, and increasing numbers of them were in work. That compares with 4021 people in the same months of 2012. There are now 33 food banks in Scotland and another 11 are under way. Last week I heard about one young man in the Falkirk area who had consumed nothing but water for six days until he received his food parcel.

Scanning the "food bank map of Scotland" (I kid you not) makes for depressing reading and sounds like some kind of wartime roll-call. At the moment there are two in Aberdeen, four in Edinburgh and seven in Glasgow; one each in Ardrossan; Barrhead; Blantyre; Darvel; Dundee; Falkirk; Forfar; Fort William; Greenock; Inverness; Kirkintilloch; Kirriemuir; Larkhall; Orkney; Paisley; Perth; Prestwick; Stornoway; Tranent and Whitburn.

New food banks will open soon across the country from Aberdeen to Moray to Thurso and Wigtownshire.

Their creation will rankle with those who think that since the Government created this problem it should fix it, but more than 90% of the 3.5 million tonnes of food donated so far this year is from members of the public through churches, schools and supermarket appeals. This food is collected, sorted and distributed by food banks, and I'm told the most generous donors are those who live in the poorest areas.

Falkirk Food Bank is the only one to deliver to people in need; a return bus fare from Bo'ness, say, costs £8. The bank was last week awarded £73,209 from the Big Lottery's Hardship Fund to develop and extend its food parcel service. Project manager Alf Collington, a retired businessman, told me he could never have foreseen the level of demand. He was shocked to find people so close to his home living in "dire, dire circumstances", people who would have nothing to eat without food parcels, and adds that his "client base" has shifted from single people to families. In the 12 months since opening, he has gone from delivering 80 food parcels a month to more than 300 a month, or 10 a day over the four days the bank is open.

The kind of food being donated tends to be non-perishable items such as tinned fruit and vegetables, corned beef, boiled ham, tuna, pasta, cereal, UHT milk, tea and long-life juice. Collington and his team work with a nutritionist to advise them how to provide balanced meals, and says they can even meet the specific demands from those who have to avoid certain food groups such as gluten and dairy. They also provide halal meats and even cater for those who "can't eat anything with tomato sauce in it". A local supermarket gave him 50 bags of dog food: pets are the unseen victims of food poverty.

"Treat" items - butter, cheese, fresh fruit, veg packs for making soup - can be added to the donated goods through an arrangement with three local branches of Tesco whereby the supermarket donates an additional 30% of the weight of food collected by the public. The local Sainsbury's runs food bank collection trolleys for public donations; Asda donated 1800 punnets of strawberries when in season and the local estate gave 20 pheasants (Collington used these as barter with other producers); the local butcher donates his extra sausages. As the food bank is not allowed to accept bashed food tins, he gives them to a lady who makes soup out of them which can then be distributed.

This heartening evidence of the milk of human kindness is tempered only by the fear that, come the inevitable compassion fatigue, supplies will dry up just as the Welfare Reform Act really gets into its stride. Bon appetit.

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Food and drink

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