SCOTLAND's biggest food bank has run out of food as the number of poverty-stricken Scots turning to food banks for help reaches its hightest level ever.
The number of families asking food banks for help in January alone was equal to half the number turning up to food banks in the whole of 2013.
The Trussell Trust, which operates the largest network of food banks in the UK, helped more than 7700 people in Scotland in January.
During 2012-13, a total of 14,318 people were helped by the trust's food banks. It now has 42 in Scotland.
The scale of the poverty crisis led to Scotland biggest food bank closing its doors last week after running out of supplies.
Glasgow City Mission, which normally gives out food parcels to more than 100 people a week, had to turn families away after running low on supplies after high demand.
It will reopen tomorrow after issuing an appeal for help. Schoolchildren in Glasgow have been collecting food to give to the charity to help beat the shortages.
The figures come at a time when the UK Government is under increasing pressure over the impact of its welfare reforms on the poor.
Last week, 27 Church of England bishops attacked delays and punitive sanctions against benefits claimants for creating a "national crisis", while the newly appointed Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, labelled the reforms a disgrace for leaving people in "destitution".
Now the Church of Scotland has entered the debate. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Lorna Hood, told the Sunday Herald: "Only very recently I made a visit to a food bank in Falkirk organised by 10 local churches. I felt proud of their work but angry that it was needed.
"I have no ready answer to an increasing spiral of the benefits bill and it is easy to criticise any proposal from any Government in power. But when you are faced with overwhelming need and hungry children, then surely we have to conclude, 'This is not right,' and try to do whatever we can to alleviate the problem."
Scottish Welfare Minister Margaret Burgess said rising demand for food banks was another reason for Scotland to be independent: "We would have full control of the welfare system. Only then would Scotland have the powers needed to guarantee that our most vulnerable families and groups are protected."
Ewan Gurr, Scotland development officer for the Trussell Trust, said January had been its busiest ever month. It was predicted in December that the trust would have helped 55,000 people by the end of this financial year. He said that figure had already been exceeded, with 55,232 people using a food bank to date.
"If we are providing food to around 7000 people per month, obviously we could be looking at a far bigger number by April," Gurr said.
"You meet the people and you hear their stories and you think this is just fundamentally wrong. It shouldn't be happening."
According to Trussell Trust statistics, 25% of those who used a food bank in Scotland in January cited benefit delays as the reason for referral, while 22% were struggling with a low income. Benefit changes such as sanctions, where money is stopped for failing to stick to the rules, accounted for 17% of referrals. Gurr said Trussell Trust food came from collections in supermarkets and churches, and from individuals. It rejected from the start taking Government funding.
He said: "We have to be absolutely aware that if we are not careful we could just be moulded into the infrastructure of the welfare state and that is just not our intention.
"For us, by working with churches and ultimately with communities, we create sustainable food banks that are not Government or state-reliant.
"It is a crucial thing to avoid ever being assimilated with the welfare state. That is not an acceptable policy shift that we want to see."
There are at least 50 food banks in Scotland. As well as the 42 run by the Trussell Trust, the Salvation Army has seven food banks north of the Border, and many more individual services are being run by church groups and others.
A spokesman for the Salvation Army reported a rise in demand and said it were concerned with the impact of food-bank use on people's health and wellbeing.
"Some people have told us how degrading it is to ask for such help and others say they feel 'stressed' and 'helpless'," he added.
New services are being set up to meet the growing demand. Bob Holman, co-founder of community charity Fare (Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse), said it was hoping to start a service in the Easterhouse area shortly.
He cited the case of a young man suffering from mental-health problems who has no money for food after his benefits were stopped for six months when he was sacked from a job. He had been assessed as employable despite his psychiatrist saying he was not fit to work.
Holman said: "There was also a man a few weeks ago who walked from Easterhouse to Govan to the food bank there and then walked all the way back again with his food. The need is there."
But he said food banks and other initiatives were not the answer to the poverty people are facing.
"This is the elastoplast we are putting on something which needs a major operation," he said.
Apex Scotland, a charity which works with ex-offenders and young people and adults at risk, officially launched a new food bank backed by the Trussell Trust in Stranraer on Friday.
GARY Small, service development manager for Apex Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway, said it had been operating since around Christmas and had so far given around 100 people food parcel with enough supplies to last three days.
"We engage with the service user, we bring them in, will speak to them and investigate just exactly what is causing the issue," Small said.
"I think the need for food banks is just a sign of the times at the moment. But I don't want to gauge our success on how many parcels we have given out - I would like it to decrease and decrease."
Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, said the increase in people using food banks in developed countries was a "mark of a system responding rapidly to extra need".
But, he added, it showed that in wealthy countries, many people still "live very close to the edge".
He said: "Supermarkets can stock all the food in the world, but food poverty will continue unless the poorest are able to access it … without sacrificing other essentials."
Welfare Minister Burgess added: "The UK is already one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, and the Westminster Government's welfare cuts programme unfairly impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of our society."
However, the UK Government continues to insist there is "no robust evidence" that welfare reforms are linked to increasing food-bank use.
It declined the Sunday Herald's request to interview a minister on the issue.
In a statement it said: "The UK Government has taken action to help families with the cost of living, including freezing fuel duty and increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £10,000 which will save a typical taxpayer over £700 and will benefit 2.2 million people in Scotland, while lifting almost a quarter of a million out of tax altogether.
"In fact, our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with the Universal Credit making three million households better off, with 300,000 in Scotland alone - the majority of these from the bottom two-fifths of the income scale."