A Menu for Change has produced a report which contains heart-breaking stories of poverty
A major new report on the causes of food insecurity in Scotland has found that inadequate and insecure incomes are key triggers in causing people to turn to emergency food aid.
A Menu for Change’s report Found Wanting is the result of sustained engagement with people facing food insecurity in Scotland and is the first research of its kind. It identifies key failings in the system, with opportunities to prevent food insecurity being missed.
The report reveals the deep physical, psychological and social impacts on individuals and families of food insecurity and, critically, identifies the various shocks to people’s income which can cause them to become unable to afford food, as well as other essentials.
A Menu for Change – an innovative partnership between the Poverty Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Oxfam Scotland and Nourish – says the findings can help ensure better support to help stop people from reaching crisis.
While the researchers found that people who are food insecure find great support from informal networks, as well as from housing, education and health providers, they are keen to emphasise the need for system change so that people benefit from early intervention and therefore do not reach crisis point.
The report highlights the importance of a wide range of services in preventing food insecurity and is released ahead of a major meeting of stakeholders in Glasgow today (Wednesday), where it will be presented to the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell MSP.
John Dickie, A Menu for Change board member, said: “The deeply personal stories captured in this report are as a heart-breaking as they are avoidable and bring into sharp focus how we must do so much more to protect people from the income crises which fuel food insecurity and hunger.
“The social security system is failing even as a safety net to support people who experience a shock to their income, meaning that insecure employment or changes to personal circumstances, like a bereavement, too often push people into needing emergency food aid.
“Low wages, combined with zero hours contracts and long delays in accessing key benefits, are tightening the grip of poverty and stopping people from building up their resilience to day-to-day shocks.
“The mental and physical tolls of going hungry are often extreme, and further dent people’s resilience to the challenges of inadequate and insecure incomes. “
The report makes a number of recommendations for the UK and Scottish Governments, local authorities, public bodies and employers, including: restoring the value of key benefits and then uprating them in line with inflation, removing the five-week wait for Universal Credit (UC), and abolishing both the benefit cap and two-child limit.
It also wants to see the National Living Wage increased to the Real Living Wage, better support for people who develop mental and physical ill-health to remain in work, as well as a ban on exploitative zero-hours contracts, and compliance with agreed minimum standards of employment amongst employers and recruitment agencies.
Emergency help from the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) provided valued cash support to just over half the interviewees when facing income crisis, but the report also highlights the need for additional investment and learning from best practice to strengthen the Fund as an effective safety net.
Overall, the report emphasises the need to improve incomes to stop people from reaching the crisis point where the need to turn to emergency support.
Insecurity is fuelling poverty
Researchers tracked individuals from Dundee, East Ayrshire and Fife, the three local authorities where the project runs, over the course of a year. Participants stressed the importance of being treated with dignity. The findings show that delays in receiving UC payments, insecure income from zero-hours contracts and shift work, combined with personal crisis, like bereavements, all caused participants to turn to foodbanks.
• One woman, a lone parent with two disabled sons, told how she lost her Personal Independence Payment, her son’s Disability Living Allowance was downgraded, and her Carer’s Allowance withdrawn. Her son then attempted suicide, before her PIP was reinstated and she received a higher rate of DLA. She told researchers: ‘I’ve felt suicidal more times than I’ve had hot dinners and that’s no joke’.
• Another woman described going seven weeks without receiving shifts via her zero hours contract cleaning job, then left her job and faced a seven week wait for her UC payment. She fell into rent arrears and, despite securing a 16 hour a week job at a petrol station, had to take out a UC loan to pay for new glasses to do her job, and was forced to use taxis to get home from late shifts, which meant she could not afford to eat.
• A man who lives alone with his 18-year-old son said he felt ‘punished’ for being in temporary employment. He described being pushed from a six-month job to a two-week job and a three-month job, during which period he got a UC cheque for one pence, and went on to face a nine-week wait for a UC payment, and relied on a SWF award. He said: “I just wish I could get
a full-time job, you know, where it was permanent rather than temp. It’s all just temporary jobs at the moment so it’s not my fault that this happened. It’s contract ending. I’ve no’ been sacked, I’ve no’ walked oot the job or anything… but I’m being punished.”
A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and ADHD. Nutritional psychiatry is a growing discipline that focuses on the use of food and supplements to provide these essential nutrients as part of an integrated or alternative treatment for mental health disorders.
But nutritional approaches for these debilitating conditions are not widely accepted by mainstream medicine. Treatment options tend to be limited to official National Institute for Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines which recommend talking therapies and antidepressants.
Use of antidepressants
Antidepressant use has more than doubled in recent years. In England 64.7m prescriptions were issued for antidepressants in 2016 at a cost of £266.6m. This is an increase of 3.7m on the number of items prescribed in 2015 and more than double than the 31m issued in 2006.
A recent Oxford University study found that antidepressants were more effective in treating depression than placebo. The study was led by Dr Andrea Cipriani who claimed that depression is under treated. Cipriani maintains that antidepressants are effective and a further 1m prescriptions should be issued to people in the UK.
This approach suggests that poor mental health caused by social conditions is viewed as easily treated by simply dispensing drugs. But antidepressants are shunned by people whom they could help because of the social stigma associated with mental ill-health which leads to discrimination and exclusion.
More worrying is the increase in the use of antidepressants by children and young people. In Scotland, 5,572 children under 18 were prescribed antidepressants for anxiety and depression in 2016. This figure has more than doubled since 2009/2010.
But according to British psychopharmacologist Professor David Healy, 29 clinical trials of antidepressant use in young people found no benefits at all. These trials revealed that instead of relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression, antidepressants caused children and young people to feel suicidal.
Healy also challenges their safety and effectiveness in adults. He believes that antidepressants are over-prescribed and that there is little evidence that they are safe for long-term use. Antidepressants are said to create dependency, have unpleasant side effects and cannot be relied upon to always relieve symptoms.
Nutrition and poor mental health
In developed countries such as the UK we eat a greater variety of foodstuffs than ever before – but it doesn’t follow that we are well nourished. In fact, many people do not eat enough nutrients that are essential for good brain health, opting for a diet of heavily processed food containing artificial additives and sugar.
The link between poor mental health and nutritional deficiencies has long been recognised by nutritionists working in the complementary health sector. However, psychiatrists are only now becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of using nutritional approaches to mental health, calling for their peers to support and research this new field of treatment.
It is now known that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain which ultimately causes our brain cells to die. This inflammatory response starts in our gut and is associated with a lack of nutrients from our food such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins and minerals that are all essential for the optimum functioning of our bodies.
Recent research has shown that food supplements such as zinc, magnesium, omega 3, and vitamins B and D3 can help improve people’s mood, relieve anxiety and depression and improve the mental capacity of people with Alzheimer’s.
Magnesium is one of most important minerals for optimal health, yet many people are lacking in it. One study found that a daily magnesium citrate supplement led to a significant improvement in depression and anxiety, regardless of age, gender or severity of depression. Improvement did not continue when the supplement was stopped.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutrient that is critical for the development and function of the central nervous system – and a lack has been associated with low mood, cognitive decline and poor comprehension.
These over-the-counter” supplements are widely available in supermarkets, chemists and online health food stores, although the cost and quality may vary. For people who have not responded to prescription drugs or who cannot tolerate the side effects, nutritional intervention can offer hope for the future.
There is currently much debate over the effectiveness of antidepressants. The use of food supplements offer an alternative approach that has the potential to make a significant difference to the mental health of all age groups.
The emerging scientific evidence suggests that there should be a bigger role for nutritional psychiatry in mental health within conventional health services. If the burden of mental ill health is to be reduced, GPs and psychiatrists need to be aware of the connection between food, inflammation and mental illness.
Medical education has traditionally excluded nutritional knowledge and its association with disease. This has led to a situation where very few doctors in the UK have a proper understanding of the importance of nutrition. Nutritional interventions are thought to have little evidence to support their use to prevent or maintain well-being and so are left to dietitians, rather than doctors, to advise on.
But as the evidence mounts up, it is time for medical education to take nutrition seriously so that GPs and psychiatrists of the future know as much about its role in good health as they do about anatomy and physiology. The state of our mental health could depend on it.