We all get wound up by the stories on the news about all the millions of tonnes of perfectly good food which make their way into bursting at the seams landfill sites. Well of course we do. It would be ridiculous not to. In a hungry world, such waste is blatantly inexcusable. It is inexcusable when there are still countries where famine holds sway. It is inexcusable here at home in our country where over a million people a year need to come to places like First Base for their daily bread.
Iwona's task is to put the right people together. In the blue corner, we have a food company who is dumping edible grub into the skips out back. In the red corner, we have the places where the hungry come to eat. Simple, right?
Well it isn't, actually. Anything but I'm afraid. In fact it is something I think those of us involved in food banks probably need to explain.
Just before Christmas Aldi sent out a Facebook Post inviting the likes of First Base to pitch up on Christmas Eve to collect any fresh stuff they hadn't sold. I reckon this message must have been forwarded on to me by at least fifty people. And of course it was really good of them to think of us. So did we pitch up on Christmas Eve to fill the boot? Actually, no. There would have been no point. By the time we re-opened the doors after the break, all of the food would have been past its sell by date and we would have been loading the van back up and looking for a dump willing to take the waste food.
This, by the way, is harder than you might think. The lads at the dump have been ferociously drilled to keep an eye out for anyone who is not bone fide Joe Public. Time and again I have to argue the toss when trying to get rid of First Base waste. Come on lads, we're a charity. A bloody food bank for Christ's sake. Surely you're not expecting us to pay? But they are expecting exactly that. To be honest, getting rid of waste is a whole lot harder than buying food.
Our problem when it comes to accepting fresh food with a short sell by date is pretty simple. I have no clue whatsoever how many people will come through our doors tomorrow. Our record busy day is fifty people. Our record quiet day is no people. It could be literally anything between. So if we accept fresh food and then have a couple of quiet days, I find myself dodging around town trying to persuade the lads at the dump to cut me a break and let me chuck stuff in the skips.
Then we have a problem which is more particular to First Base. The stretch of Dumfries and Galloway we try to support is basically huge. 3400 square miles to be precise. 3400 miles of drop dead gorgeous postcard country with pockets of poverty where all too many folk lack the means to buy food. If someone in Moffat, which is twenty something miles from Dumfries, receives a referral for one of our food parcels it isn't really worth the paper it is written on. A return bus fare from Moffat to Dumfries is a tenner and if the person had a tenner, well they wouldn't need a food parcel, right?
So over the last three years we have set up a network of over twenty pick up points where people can collect a food parcel. Thanks to the support of the Council, most of these collection points are local libraries. This makes a whole bunch of sense when you think about it. A library is open. It is staffed. The electric bill is being paid. It is known and it is accessible. To add a stock of food parcels to everything else they do adds zero extra cost. You could almost say it is a way to get two and two to make five.
It took a while for people to get their heads around the idea of going to the library for emergency food, but now all of the libraries distribute more parcels with every passing month. The food is in plain boxes and each box has enough to feed one person three meals a day for four days. But here's the thing. We have to be careful not to be taking up too much space so everything has to be seriously space efficient which means lots of dried food in packets - instant custard, instant mash, cup soup, savoury rice, noodles... you get the picture. It basically makes no sense to be carting water around the countryside.
And of course fresh food is completely out of the question. Every item in the box needs to have a long shelf life.
So fresh food would basically be no use at all for 50% of the food parcels we issue. We do have some fresh items available for the people who come to our main base in Dumfries. Every week we receive fifty loaves of bread from Greggs and seventy packets of sliced ham from Brown Brothers in Kelloholm. We also buy in packs of margarine. All three of these items have plenty of shelf life which means nothing ever goes to waste.
So I can understand why Iwona beat a path to our door. Of course she did. Surely an outfit handing out 5000 food parcels a year would be the perfect place to take some of the wasted food everyone is so agitated about.
I took her through all the logistical problems listed above and we had a chew at the fat. What if someone opened up one of the town's many boarded up shops an offered a range of fresh food for anyone to collect? Maybe, but the overheads would be hard to cover. There would have to be at least one member of paid staff. A vehicle. Fuel costs. An electric bill. A water bill. A phone bill. Fridges and freezers and food safety training. No chance of any change out of sixty grand a year.
And then of course there is the stigma thing. Would people be willing to be seen going into such a shop by their gossip loving neighbours? Not a chance. Maybe in a big city, but no chance in the small towns where so many take such delight in the troubles of others. It is the nastiness which is played out every minute of every day at the counters of Post Offices and Spar Shops. All too many of us would rather go hungry than suffer the thought of her from three doors down having a field day telling everyone how she clocked us going into the 'poor' shop.
But what if such a place sold food a heavily discounted prices? That would mean everyone in the community would use it and the stigma would be duly erased, surely? Maybe. Personally I don't see things working out all that well. The more savvy members of the community with cars would land up at opening time to get the pick of the litter whilst those without resources would be left to pick away at the left overs. And slowly but surely the new shop would eat away at the bottom line of the local shop where people go to top up the gas and electric and to buy all kinds of stuff not available in the community shop. Net result? The local shop closes and the community has yet another boarded up window.
Community kitchens where everyone can sit down together for a nice hot meal? Maybe, but the stigma still gets in the way.
For half an hour or so I felt guilty about being such a negative old sod, but Iwona's enthusiasm remained heroically undented. Where there's a will, there's a way, right?
And then all of a sudden, there it was. The two plus two makes five thing.
The opportunity? - lots of good grub is being chucked away and food businesses are having to pay for the privilege of chucking it.
The problem? - Cost and stigma.
So what have we got here? We've got food which needs the right home and we need to find a way of getting the food to people who need it without it costing anything. Is there a similar deal to be found to the First Base/library thing?
Well maybe there is, and it could possibly go something like this.
Up here in Scotland we do criminal justice and prisons much better than south of the Border. The reason for this is actually straight forward. Thankfully our Government in Edinburgh tends to develop policy on the back of evidence rather than pandering to the nastiness and prejudice of the Daily Mail. Almost all of our jails remain publically owned and therefore they have not descended
into the kinds of chaotic, privatised hell we see in England. More to the point, we have woken up to the fact that sending people to jail should be a last resort to be used only for hard core criminals.
Sheriffs have been issued with crystal clear instructions. If the crime ain't worth at least a year served in jail, then find another punishment - usually community service. This has the benefit of being a whole hell of a lot cheaper and it actually tends to work. If you lock someone up, you make them all but unemployable and things get worse. Community service gives them a chance to turn over a new leaf and to turn things around.
So we now have loads more people serving out their community payback hours. In fact there are so many, the guys in charge are struggling to find them things to do. They turn up in the morning to a place where there is a supervisor and a van. Then they head out to pay back the community for whatever they have done.
Think about it. A supervisor who is already being paid. A van which is already dieseled up and paid for. So the van could maybe head out on a milk run around food companies with waste food. Extra cost? Zero.
Then what? Well the Council has thousands of elderly citizens who it gives care to. It's free up here by the way. Another thing we do differently to England. But there are many, many old people to care for and less and less money to pay for the care. All too often the daily support visit is a hurried twenty minute affair. Which means we have thousands of our elderly living lives of aching loneliness and isolation.
Well maybe we could give them another point of human contact. A daily visit from the lads and lasses on the van. It would be a chance for them to get out of the house to pick out some items. And to have a chat. And to have the items carried in and put away. And is there anything else you need doing, missus? Coal in? Bin liner out? Any maybe in the fullness of time, cakes might be baked and tea brewed. A truly profitable human transaction where both sides benefit equally. The isolated, lonely pensioner gets some company and the sound of human voices. And the lads and lasses on the van? They get some self respect. Some self regard. They get to feel like worthwhile human beings who are actually treated as such rather than being written off as the Daily Mail's favourite scumbags.
Would it lead to more people using community service to turn their lives around? I reckon it would. After working in First Base for all these years, it is impossible to underestimate what treating people with respect can achieve.
Iwona liked the idea and I promised to pitch it to Rob Davidson, the deputy leader of the Council. So I called him up and duly pushed at an open door with well oiled hinges. I knew Rob would like it. When two and two makes five, what is there not to like? The only time it is deemed preferable to choose the two and two makes one option is when you are reduced to doing the bidding of the Daily Mail and all who sail in it. Thankfully Rob isn't a Daily Mail kind of guy. He is the kind of guy who would avoid its poison at all costs.
Of course he liked it. So I passed his details on to Iwona and bowed out.
Will it happen? I certainly hope so. It is the kind of thing that can happen up here where new ideas do not have to slavishly pander to the dripping poison of the tabloid press. It is the kind of thing which makes me see just how much better things will be for all of us once we finally cut through the Westminster plasticuffs.
For me this is what an Independent Scotland will be all about. It has nothing to do with blood and soil. Instead it all about becoming more and more Scandinavian.
A place where two and two can become five.