COVID-19: latest impact on food

Food Foundation Covid-19 analysis 

Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the Food Foundation

In response to pressures created by Covid-19, the government has announced that it will provide free food parcels for the 1.5 million people identified as being vulnerable and needing assistance.

This is a good start, but it won’t be enough. A piece in today’s Guardian highlighted Food Foundation analysis which demonstrates that “millions of people in the UK will need food aid in the coming days… as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to quickly spiral into a crisis of hunger unless the government acts immediately to reinvent the way we feed ourselves. In just a few weeks, the pandemic has exposed the extraordinary fragility of the food system.”

We’ve taken a close look at the numbers of people who are likely to need food aid now and in the coming weeks. In a few days we’ll be publishing new polling data on this too – watch this space.

The current crisis affects:

Food access: how we get our food

  1. Millions of people will be experiencing a drop in income because of illness, new childcare requirements, reduced working hours or losing their jobs. It’s too early to fully understand the impact of the crisis on household income and employment, but food banks are already reporting a surge in demand. Last week, a food bank in Enfield saw their number of visitors increase by 80%, and yesterday we heard that in the past nine days nearly 477,000 new applications for universal credit have been registered.
  2. Many people are also much more limited in how they obtain food. Households and individuals who are self-isolating are not allowed to go out to purchase food (although we don’t know how many currently fall into this category). People who are at elevated risk of the virus (the elderly, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions) who have been asked to follow stringent social distancing may also opt to stay at home entirely due to the risks they face. There is a total of 17.6 million people in this group – have a look at our breakdown here:


*Underlying health risks and <65 years old (numbers instructed to get flu jab on medical grounds)
**Pregnant excluding underlying health conditions
Source: Food and You Wave 4; Scottish Health Survey 2018.


Food availability: the food that is there for us to buy

  • As of March 20th, all restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars have closed. While many of these are shifting to take out or home delivery, it’s important to remember that before the crisis, 30% of our food and drink expenditure took place out of the home, and now this demand has shifted in large part to grocery shopping (mostly from supermarkets).
  • Food availability has also been affected among the pre-existing emergency food provision services – these might be free meals provided as part of community services, community kitchens, cafes (often supplied by FareShare) and food parcels provided by food banks. Some of these services have had to close (due to infection risks), others are facing reductions in their volunteer base, and many are reporting a drop in food donations which is having a material effect on their capacity to operate. Those who supply from supermarkets are no longer able to do so because of volume rationing.
  • Finally, food availability has been affected by a surge in purchasing (so-called panic buying) resulting from fear that supplies will run out. This has left supermarkets with empty shelves and long queues, and alarming images like these only fuel consternation. This problem seems to be hitting key workers hardest – they have small windows in which they can shop, and these often fall at the end of the day when much of the produce has already been snapped up.

The likelihood of rising food prices and supply chain shocks will only compound these problems. We’ll be tracking prices monthly on our website – stay tuned!

A crisis on a crisis

We are watching a crisis unfold in an already critical situation. The pandemic is taking a hold in a Britain where too many people already struggle to afford sufficient, nourishing food. Across the UK, citizens report skipping meals, going without so their children can eat, reducing portion sizes and cutting back on the quality of the food they buy. The household food insecurity issue has been widely documented and measured by civil society and government for some time, and next year the national measure will be reported, giving us an accurate sense of the scale of the problem. Many food insecure households resort to using food banks (an estimated three million food parcels were given out last year by the Trussell Trust and independent food banks), but these only amount to a small proportion of those who struggle to afford and access adequate diets.

Here’s our breakdown of those who experience food insecurity as well as elevated risk of being affected by the virus, and how those groups compare with the rest of the population:

*Underlying health risks and <65 years old (numbers instructed to get flu jab on medical grounds)
**Pregnant excluding underlying health conditions
Source: Food and You Wave 4; Scottish Health Survey 2018.


Dr Rachel Loopstra, Nutrition Lecturer at King’s College London, commented on the figures above: “People with health conditions are already at heightened risk of not being able to afford enough food to eat, and these social distancing measures will create new risks arising from being physically unable to access food. Thus, these numbers are likely a conservative estimate of how many people are going to have difficulty accessing food as a result of these measures. Ensuring physical and financial access to food for everyone through this uncertain time is critical not only for health but also for being able to slow the spread of coronavirus.”

Covid-19 has also struck in the context of dramatic cuts to local authority budgets. Welfare funds (used to help people facing financial emergencies) are no longer mandatory and only a few local authorities operate themMany local authorities refer citizens who are in crisis to food banks. I spoke to one local authority in the last few days who told me they had only just received their public health budget for April 1st onwards, and when it did come in they found it’d been cut.

Social isolation is also a deep-running problem. This matters because it affects the extent to which people are able to ask friends and family for help. A friend of mine doing frontline food provision told me last weekend that a family living in poverty had said to her, “If we self-isolate, we vanish. Nobody will know if we die.” Each of the four UK nations measure this slightly differently but here we pulled together the numbers of people who report being lonely often or all the time amongst those who have elevated risk of being affected by the virus:

*Underlying health risks and <65 years old (numbers instructed to get flu jab on medical grounds)
**Pregnant excluding underlying health conditions
Source: Community Life Survey July 2019, National Survey for Wales, Social isolation and loneliness in Scotland; UK national wellbeing measures, Northern Ireland data


Food aid is necessary when there is a food availability problem as it ensures that those who cannot get food have it provided for them. Some people would be able to pay for food, but are unable to get to it. For people who are self-isolating or staying at home because of health risks, this is the situation when they run out of food stocks, have no one staying in touch to check that they’re ok, or cannot access home delivery online. Some of the people in this group will be able to manage with a food parcel (of ingredients), others will need prepared meals.

In Britain today, however, we use food aid to help people who have too little money and a food access problem. We also use food aid to deliver social goals – providing social support and building community bonds, for example. These food aid providers include food banks, soup kitchens, social supermarkets and community kitchens, and millions of people already depended on these food aid services before Covid-19 complicated the problems. Food insecurity is a marker of severe material deprivation, and people living in food insecurity are often firefighting on a daily basis to keep their homes, pay their bills, put food on the table and protect their children.  These households have often already mobilised all their available coping strategies – their resilience is low. Covid-19 will place burdens on them which are unmanageable – the need to travel further to find food on the shelves, the need to keep going to work even if they’re sick or have children at home, the need to find new employment if they’re made redundant. They’ll need significant financial support or will place an unsustainable new demand on already fragile emergency food services (and other infrastructures) which are not at sufficient scale to cope.

Food aid is hot button topic now – a lot of people are talking about it. And lots of good work is being done. There are the government food parcels for 1.5 million people, and the Department for Education has announced that children who normally get Free School Meals will be given vouchers or meals to collect from school (although the policy needs a great deal of clarification). We have spoken to a number of local authorities who are also working on their own food parcel schemes and helplines, and a new national volunteer base is in development. These are important building blocks. Independent food banks, FareShare and the Trussell Trust are also doing all they can to respond to growing demand despite struggling with food supplies. On the other hand, supermarkets could probably be doing more to support the most vulnerable.

This overall effort risks being poorly coordinated, and current processes are in danger of overlooking those most in need as well as missing opportunities for sharing best practice.

When I was at Save the Children, I spent more than ten years working on humanitarian response around the world. I learned that coordination is the key to an effective response.  At present, the UK’s response to food emergencies created and compounded by Covid-19 is ad hoc and lacking strong enough leadership from government. We must fix this immediately, before the problem gets away from us and we miss the opportunity to protect those most in need of support. We need to get our heads together, now.