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Edinburgh Community Food’s Cash First Journey: Developing and Launching the Cash First Toolkit

In this blog post, Chris Mantle tells us about Edinburgh Community Food (ECF)’s cash first journey.

“One of the biggest challenges facing people in poverty is the stigma. Granting an individual the right to use cash or vouchers puts the individual in charge of what they spend the money on. But this is also about trust, about being treated with dignity: giving options and being treated as a person fully capable of making decisions about their own life and not being viewed or treated as lesser.” (Caroline, Lived Experience, End Poverty Edinburgh)

In recent years, we at ECF have undergone a transformative journey, necessitated by the ever-changing and ever-growing intersectional needs identified across the communities we support. The COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of New Scots fleeing conflict, and the subsequent economic hardships, have altered the landscape – and people’s experiences within it – beyond recognition, throwing burgeoning hardship and poverty into sharp relief. As our teams engaged with increasing numbers of people facing acute financial crisis, we sought to equip ourselves with knowledge, basic skills and confidence to best support them. This included developing our own understanding of Cash First, an approach providing direct financial support or access to money as a dignified alternative to food bank referrals, contributing towards the national driver of making food banks the last port of call.

Our journey has led to the co-design, co-development and implementation of the Cash First Toolkit, a resource designed to support Community Food distributors to provide immediate financial assistance, pathways to money and support to those in need, ensuring dignity, choice and flexibility.

The Beginnings: Responding to Crisis

At the onset of the pandemic, the world witnessed a surge in intersectional needs and crises, with communities facing unprecedented hardships. ECF quickly pivoted to react to these changing circumstances, to diversify and broaden our support, focusing on both acute and longer term relief, including:

  • Development of targeted and tailored online community engagement initiatives
  • Targeted COVID-19 and Ukraine crises responses
  • Increased provision of food and non-food items: sanitary products, pet food, toiletries, and essential equipment
  • Expansion of our “Pay it Forward” (PiF) initiative
  • Enhanced signposting and linking with income maximisation and other partner services​​​​

Our emergent Cash First Approaches

The Take 5 Access program supported Edinburgh’s Community Café Network, providing healthier food options for social and home consumption, alongside resources and skills for staff, volunteers and customers. It additionally focussed on connecting communities to and through the network and implemented, in partnership with Community Help & Advice Initiative (CHAI) and Granton Information Centre, “Ask and Act” income maximisation supported-signposting points​​.

In collaboration with VOCAL, ECF supported 310 carers and their households by providing weekly deliveries of nourishing food, cooking equipment and fuel payments. This partnership highlighted both the importance of holistic support and the impact such support had on those receiving support​​. We have also been able to access further funds to provide a wider array of fuel payments to those we support.

As we at ECF came face-to-face with increasing levels of hardship we identified gaps in our knowledge, skills and confidence. Staff received benefits and income maximisation training from partners such as CHAI and Social Security Scotland. We also fed into the design stage of the IFAN Money Counts training, advocating for the inclusion of inputs around holding empathetic conversations with people accessing food support. Subsequently, our whole team underwent the training to enhance competency.

ECF did not seek to be the ‘experts in the room’: we wished simply to enhance the above knowledge, skills and confidence in our interactions with those we support, to make sure they had access to appropriate and effective support.

The Development of the Cash First Toolkit

In 2023, we and our partners in the Community Food National Reference Group received funding from the Scottish Government to strengthen the use of Cash First responses to financial hardship within the community food sector. Reflecting on our own journey and our increasing competency, we wished to share our learning, challenges and solutions with partner Community Food distributors, many of whom related a similar lack of confidence.

We launched the Cash First Toolkit journey at a consultation event in October 2023, benefiting from the experiences and views of our partners – from lived experience to statutory bodies – to identify issues, challenges and barriers. These included issues around time, trust and training, with concerns expressed around additionality and ‘being told what to do’. This enabled us to shape the proposed resource as a guide to best fit need, ensuring its appropriateness, inclusivity, ease of use and impact.

Subsequently, we engaged in a process of co-design and co-development with the input, support and – it is fair to say – enthusiasm of diverse partners, including: Edinburgh Advice Partnership, Edinburgh Council, Edinburgh Food Project, Poverty Alliance, Pilton Community Health Project, CHAI, Social Security Scotland, IFAN and Capital City Partnership. This iterative process was essential in refining the Toolkit to meet the real needs of the community​​​​.

Our Toolkit includes:

  • How to start the conversation – an empathy, strengths based, reflective, solutions-focused conversational framework
  • Respond to immediate need – with cash/vouchers/grants
  • Signposting to the right support
  • Practical steps & evaluation
  • Things to consider e.g.:
    • Is cash appropriate?
    • Do payments affect benefits?
    • How do we audit?
    • What training is there to support us?

Following co-design, we piloted the Toolkit with four community partners, embedding their further feedback, before publishing and sharing across the city. ECF ran sessions to provide partner staff and volunteers with support in how to use the Toolkit. This phase of the project culminated in a significant milestone in our journey, our “Tackling Food Insecurity: A Cash First Approach Journey” event, held in March 2024. This featured speakers from Poverty Alliance, IFAN, ECF and from a community member with lived experience. In addition to celebrating and promoting the project, the event also focused on ‘how to start the conversation’, using a worst-practice role-play video and breakout groups to critique, and then develop and practice their own empathetic conversations.

Outcomes and Future Plans

The Toolkit has been widely promoted via networks, forums and local, regional and national events. It has been shared with partners and statutory organisations both within and out-with Edinburgh and embedded in ECF’s own community development practice, increasing awareness of the Cash First approaches and enhancing understanding among community food practitioners. Training and support sessions have boosted the confidence and skills of staff and volunteers in starting conversations about money and providing appropriate support​​.

Moving forward, the Toolkit will be additionally developed over a further phase to bring in practical usage, considering non-verbal communication (e.g. body language), and a further array of videos to bring it to life. It will be scaled and spread, nationally, becoming an active and dynamic document, freely available, and regularly updated. Additional rounds of monitoring and evaluation will allow for reactive improvements and enhancements.

ECF are now in the preliminary stages of co-designing an aligned dignity toolkit to bring within the resource, in addition to producing toolkits around food hygiene, nutrition and health. This will create a portfolio of resources for Community Food distributors, positioned within a wider network improving community food work, supported by a communications strategy tackling perception, beliefs and behaviours and promoting real systems change. Future events and workshops will continue to promote and refine the Toolkit based on ongoing feedback and evaluation​​​​​​.


Edinburgh Community Food’s journey to the Cash First Toolkit has been a testament to the power of innovation, collaboration and empathy in developing an effective resource for Community Food organisations to address financial hardship. By providing pathways to money and empowering community organisations with the necessary tools and knowledge, this co-designed and co-produced Toolkit has set a new standard for dignified and effective assistance.

For more information and to access the Cash First Toolkit, please visit the Edinburgh Community Food website or contact Christopher Mantle at


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