In this blog post, Gordon Thomson, Manager for Lanarkshire Community Food and Health Partnership (LCFHP), tells us how LCFHP got involved in the ‘cash first’ approach in North Lanarkshire several years ago, and how this approach supported people during the pandemic.
LCFHP has run community food activities such as community fruit and veg retail, cooking courses and other training in North Lanarkshire and beyond for over 30 years. In the last five years or so, some of LCFHP’s work had extended to include mitigating food insecurity, such as delivering summer ‘holiday hunger’ programmes for children during the school summer holidays. LCFHP centred these programmes on games and fun activities as well as providing good food.
Tackling food insecurity and poverty using a cash first approach
LCFHP and other organisations, including North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire became concerned about the increase in food insecurity and what they saw as an explosion in the number of emergency food aid organisations being set up to mitigate it. LCFHP and others hoped to tackle the causes of food insecurity and to avoid emergency food aid becoming ‘normalised’.
In 2015, a Tackling Poverty Strategy was developed for North Lanarkshire which included the aim of promoting a cash first response – that is, ensuring people had access to money advice and emergency grants via North Lanarkshire Council’s Financial Inclusion Team and the Social Welfare Fund. (The most recent Tackling Poverty Strategy can be found here.)
A Food Poverty Referral Pathway was also developed to help ensure that people could more easily access these services. The Pathway is a two-way referral process: community organisations such as food banks or LCFHP refer people to the Financial Inclusion Team, who can either help people to access the Scottish Welfare Fund or/and money advice and other services such as housing. The Financial Inclusion Team will, in turn refer people to an emergency food aid service as a last resort response.
Key players within the Food Poverty Referral Pathway are food banks and community organisations such as LCFHP. Welfare Rights Officers/Financial Inclusion team staff can also be placed within food banks and other community organisations to give people more immediate advice.
The Food Poverty Referral Pathway successfully moved people away from using emergency food aid. Over 2016 and 2017 the use of emergency food aid decreased by 22%. Welfare Rights Officers based in food banks also reported that most people they had given advice to had gone on to receive extra benefits or a grant.
In March 2020 when the UK locked down, some food banks in North Lanarkshire closed, yet more people required access to emergency food aid. Within a short space of time, new emergency food aid services or community shopping schemes sprung up and funding became available to support these. The local authority provided a Community Assistance helpline which referred people onto the support they needed during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, LCFHP stopped face-to-face activities and reconfigured its work to increase food aid services. Its work included a food aid delivery service to people who had been referred for this via the Community Assistance helpline, it also providing food aid when other community food aid organisations were closed.
However, LCFHP and others were concerned that some of the successes of the Food Poverty Referral Pathway were getting lost and that emergency food aid services were not being a co-ordinated as well as they could be. People were not always being supported in a consistent way, thus creating dependency on these services and food aid being normalised. Gordon initiated re-starting a food bank forum to try and address these issues. Now, most community initiatives are either using the Food Poverty Referral Pathway to support people or are planning to.
Over recent months, LCFHP has experienced a reduction in the number of people using its own food aid services, particularly by people who have experienced a short term crisis that can be resolved with a cash first response. LCFHP are now mainly providing food aid to people who may be: self-isolating, on zero hour contracts, or who may need more in-depth and longer term support around other issues, such as addiction issues.
In the longer term, Gordon is hopeful that LCFHP can return to previous food activities, such as cooking groups (LCFHP are currently running these online) and other activities that focus on good food and that can help people connect with their communities and improve health. Hopefully also, the Referral Pathway will continue to be supported and is able to address people’s financial or other longer-term issues.