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Exploring the causes of food poverty in the Doon Valley

Nestled in East Ayrshire, the Doon Valley faces escalating economic challenges, reflected in a surge of food banks and larders. With child poverty at an alarming rate, communities here grapple with job losses, soaring living costs, and limited resources. Local councillors highlight the pressing need for support, as families from all walks of life turn to food aid. Underscoring the urgent call for targeted interventions to alleviate the growing strain on vulnerable residents.

Bellsbank foodbank. Courtesy of the Doon Valley Gazette.
Bellsbank foodbank. Courtesy of the Doon Valley Gazette.

The Doon Valley sits on the rural edge of East Ayrshire, the region with the fourth highest child  poverty rate in Scotland, and with the cost of living skyrocketing, and benefits and wages not going up to match it, more and more people are falling through the cracks.

Over the last two years its communities have witnessed a notable increase in the number of food banks and food larders opening up. This surge, seen across the country, has sparked concerns about the underlying issues affecting our communities and the factors contributing to the growing reliance on food aid.

One of the primary drivers are the economic challenges faced by the deprived rural communities of this area. The recent economic
uncertainties, exacerbated by global events, have resulted in job losses, reduced incomes, and increased living costs and have left many families struggling to make ends meet.

Elaine Stewart, a local councillor for the Doon Valley who has run the community organisation called The Zone for years, says that they have had an active food bank for over a decade. However, in the last couple of years things have escalated to what she feels today is a crisis point.

When asked who uses the food banks now, she said: “Food poverty knows no boundaries and families and individuals from all walks of life are having to use these services. In Dalmellington we do a registration, so we know how many people use the service. In last four months we have put out about 500 food parcels. And there are more users for the food larders; in Patna, they have over 200 registered to use the service weekly, and Rankinston is busy every day too.

“People are genuinely feeling the pinch with such huge increases to the cost of living; rising gas prices, rising electricity prices, rising food prices, and insurance has more less doubled. Any savings made last year with government help have had be spent this year.”

Rural areas often face isolation and limited access to resources, which can intensify the impact of economic hardships. The closure of local
businesses, limited job opportunities, and a lack of essential services contribute to the vulnerability of these communities. With fewer options for employment and support services, residents in the communities of the Doon Valley find themselves disproportionately affected
during challenging times, leading to an increased demand for food assistance.

Global and national disruptions in the supply chain have also played a role in the rise of local food banks. The pandemic and other unforeseen events have caused interruptions in the production and distribution of goods, leading to shortages and increased prices. The already deprived rural coalfield communities find it harder to access affordable and nutritious food, prompting them to seek assistance from local food banks to meet their basic needs.

“With the cost of living skyrocketing, and benefits and wages not going up to match it, more and more people are falling through the cracks.”

Food banks are funded through all kinds of areas, from government pots to donations from organisations, individuals and charities. Food larders usually charge, but the cost is much cheaper than buying food from the shops. The health and wellbeing of rural residents have been further strained by the ongoing health crisis. Individuals dealing with health issues or those caring for vulnerable family members may face additional financial burdens, making it challenging to afford nutritious meals.

As a result, the demand for food assistance has surged, with local food banks becoming a lifeline for those struggling to maintain their health and wellbeing.

“People come to us who have found themselves in hard times for all kinds of reasons,” says Elaine. “The change in the benefits system onto Universal Credit means people often have a period of up to six weeks when they have no money coming in. If we know about this, we can
arrange food for this period. But at the end of the day, all the work we’re doing is just filling a gap that’s getting wider.

“With the cost of living skyrocketing, and benefits and wages not going up to match it, more and more people are falling through the cracks. In the Doon Valley, where many are close to the poverty line already, things are visible more quickly. I think the sudden surge in
food banks and food larders opening up shows just how stretched people are and that the system isn’t meeting people’s needs, particularly the most vulnerable.”

While challenges persist, the strength of the communities of the Doon Valley can be seen in how they have rallied round to
support their most vulnerable residents through the creation of grassroots initiatives. Local organisations, charities, and volunteers have stepped up to address the growing need for food support. The rise of local food banks is not only a reflection of economic hardships but also a testament to the resilience and compassion of communities coming together to support one another during challenging times.

Jennifer Hogg, another Doon Valley councillor, said: “Society is more polarised than it’s ever been; we don’t have a working class anymore –
what was working class is now basically at the poverty line and there is no real middle ground anymore. Those who were
in the middle ground – with mortgages, children, cars, etc – these people are finding themselves on hard times too. But people feel a sense of shame using food banks as they don’t want to be seen asking for help. We need to get over this, as more and more people are finding
themselves struggling – there should be no stigma attached in times of need.

“Change always starts at grassroots level. When there is restriction on what people can do nationally, putting the ‘poor’ peoples’ voice forward may become more difficult. In the Doon Valley, people do support each other; there is a strong sense of identity, of having had to be self-reliant and having built themselves up after the collapse of the mining industry. We’re lucky in this area as our communities tend to pull together in hard times.”

The huge increase in and reliance on food support in our coalfield communities is a multifaceted issue, rooted in economic challenges, isolation, supply chain disruptions, and health concerns. The hope is that while our communities rally round to help each other, the Scottish government is working to understand these factors and respond as this is crucial for developing targeted interventions and policies that can address the unique needs of the rural communities already on the sharp edge of the poverty line.

Throughout June, we are taking part in the ‘No News is Bad News’ campaign – which is founded on the belief that a well-informed community is more able to act together to shape its own future, that local news is fundamental to a healthy democratic society and invaluable in helping to create strong communities.

As part of this campaign, any money we raise for the project during June will be doubled by an Indie News Fund. If our coverage has helped you understand our community a little bit better, please consider supporting our Crowdfunder.