A food parcel scheme aimed at feeding folk who have fallen on hard times has seen a major increase in demand since last year, pointing to growing social and welfare problems in the isles.
Eighty-six bundles of food have been shared around 132 people in need since the beginning of 2012 as part of a year-round initiative by the Salvation Army.
That’s more than three times the 28 boxes given out in the last five months of 2011.
You might expect charitable bundles collected in the isles to be dispatched to far off impoverished third world countries. But the Salvation Army has been distributing food to those in need here for a number of years. It helps people who have been referred from the job centre, CADSS, or other agencies.
However the marked increase in demand has shocked Lerwick’s commanding officer Angela Nunn. She said delays in getting people on benefits are largely behind the hike. Many people now receiving a box, she said, are first time referrals.
“In five months last year from when I started we did 28 food parcels. And in the nine months since then we’ve done 86 … and we are still seeing a lot of first time referrals. It’s not that we are seeing the same people all the time. A lot of that is new referrals.
“Eighty six parcels this year has actually fed about 132 people if you include partners and children.
“One of our most common reasons for giving a parcel is a delay in benefits. That’s very difficult. When somebody signs on for any kind of benefit it’s going to be at least two weeks before they see any money. And what are they meant to do in that time?”
Mrs Nunn said the extra expense of living in the isles was also behind the hike in demand.
“I think people don’t realise just how hard it is to manage on benefits here, really. I know for myself hydro is going up nine per cent in October, but benefits won’t go up by nine per cent.
“It means you are really stretched come the winter months deciding how much of a very small income to spend on food and how much on keeping your house warm and on cooking.
“Shetland is an expensive place to live. We don’t have an Aldi or a Lidl here, those cheap supermarkets. Food is by and large quite expensive, and bus fares are expensive as well.”
She also pointed to a “particular difficulty” for people coming out of prison. Ex-prisoners, she said, are released with £60 in their pockets.
But folk from the isles can spend all of that just on food or a reclining seat on the ferry – and that’s before people who may have suffered drink problems are tempted by the offerings at the bars.
“It’s not the same as getting out of prison in Peterhead and getting the bus home to Dundee or Aberdeen.”
Mrs Nunn said there had to be a genuine need before recipients were handed food parcels. As well as CADSS and Jobcentre Plus, referrals can also come from social services, community mental health or housing departments.
“We’ve borrowed that phrase from the Samaritans and said we are very much a crutch for a crisis, not a walking stick for every day.
“The kind of help we give isn’t so much helping people out as helping people up. We don’t want to just prop people up by feeding them. It has to be a genuine and urgent need at the time.”
She added many of the recipients were genuinely touched when they realised the items had been donated, insisting it showed people in Shetland care deeply about the community they live in.
“People often say to me, ‘did you not get it from the supermarkets?’ But the recipients are always really touched when they realise it’s individuals who have given food because they wanted to help somebody. They think that’s really nice and we are immensely grateful for their donations.
“But that’s a Shetland thing. There’s a huge feeling of community here. When you think of how much is raised for things like the CT scanner at the hospital or Relay for Life, it’s nice that it is the community doing this looking after people – because that’s what Shetland’s about, it’s what people do.”
She said regular donations come on a weekly basis from the Church of Scotland, while St Magnus and St Margarets also supply boxes.
Donations are also being collected from harvest festival services in other kirks.