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Why defeating poverty means building the right fire

10 October 2019

In a special blog for Challenge Poverty Week our Food Families Futures project manager Neil Orr says we have a golden opportunity to end families’ food insecurity in Scotland – but it will require innovation, connectivity and the surrendering of power

In an old community hall in the East of Scotland, David, who is an adult with additional support needs, has wrapped his arms around Alison. Alison has devoted her adult life to creating a safe place for families. He holds her head tight to his chest and through his arms I can only see parts of her face.

Alison’s mouth shows a huge smile and her eyes are bright with love and laughter.

“I might be here for a while,” she says.

Meanwhile, in a small primary school in the west of Scotland, children with additional support needs are planting seedlings and are completely absorbed in the task. Their parents are inside the school learning how to use massage as a relaxation technique. One boy though is alone, cycling a trike around the playground. He is completely removed, but this is his focused task.

Until the food arrives.

At this moment the trike is abandoned and he rushes to be involved. His job now is setting the tables and serving the food and he has the biggest smile. He talks excitedly as he helps and directs the work. He is a happy boy and his mum is delighted.

Scotland is a small and vibrant country. Across the land there are brave, resourceful and selfless people building relationships, building trust, building upon community strengths and creating safe havens for our most vulnerable people.

Without these sparks of life and activity, there would be nothing to build upon and if we don’t find and nurture these small flames, we will lose them.

My dad taught me how to build a fire, anywhere. He was a very resourceful man and I was very lucky, through accident of birth, to have him around.

“Find the smallest bits of dry stuff, leaves, grass, twigs,” he would say.

“Seek them out and keep them dry until you have enough to light. But don’t light them until you’ve collected enough bigger bits ready to put on when the fire is lit. Without that preparation the flame will be short-lived. Only after all this will you be ready to place larger bits of wood on the fire, then, with care, it will burn all night.”

The lesson in life for me was, if you rush your fire and throw large things on top of small things, you will snuff it out. Building solid foundations on what you already have is essential.

“Since our early ventures into tackling food insecurity in 2015, more than 90% of local authorities now fund some action to address the issue during holiday periods. This is a massive step forward.”

Food Families Futures is one project within Children in Scotland. It exists to address food insecurity but also to help establish family support around that. It began in 2015 and I have been trusted with the project since last year. Prior to that I was working with communities in the East end of Glasgow.

I have been lucky enough to travel throughout Scotland, meeting some amazing people, many of whom are trapped and isolated by poverty. In many cases, the answer to the challenges caused by poverty are known by and acted upon by those same people. Where possible I have been lucky enough to enable Scottish Government funding to reach some of those groups.

Since our early ventures into tackling food insecurity in 2015, more than 90% of local authorities now fund some action to address the issue during holiday periods. This is a massive step forward in a short space of time. Great credit must be given to those who have found the resources to make this happen.

But, and there is a but, sometimes we are throwing large logs on tiny fires.

The major challenge that we face in addressing issues of poverty is getting the balance and focus of investment right. The political pressure is to resource established service providers. It is they then who hold the power of decision-making and investment.

The opportunity is to recognise and resource those who take the essential community actions that fall outside the responsibility of the big providers. It is with them that the long-term solutions lie, and upon them that the fragile responsibility of challenging poverty in the longer term sits.

Shifting power is difficult. Giving up power and money is grindingly and reluctantly slow, but absolutely essential.

We have a moment and an opportunity to get something very important exactly right.

We have an opportunity to take an overview of all that is happening across our small nation to tackle food insecurity. In doing so we will identify many ways to tackle poverty and resist those actions that create the environment that makes the wider attack on families acceptable.

If we take the time to identify good practice, recognise innovative problem solving, value selfless commitment and strong community foundational work, we will have the opportunity to properly resource that.

As a small nation it should be easy to establish a connectivity and conversation that can share all of this. Then we will have the opportunity to help many more people escape the completely unnecessary circumstances that poverty inflicts.

There are many brave and unique actions already being taken by the people and communities across Scotland. This includes those who are privileged enough to be in a position to govern, both locally and nationally.

There are changes in our approach to education, to health, to welfare and also childcare.

These seem to me like the early actions of carefully building a really good fire that might burn for a while.

Our actions on food insecurity can be a part of that if we act now.

About the author

Neil Orr is the project manager for Children in Scotland’s Food, Families, Futures project

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