Vulnerable Groups

Who is at risk and how are they being helped?

The government has identified 1.5 million people in the UK who are at very high medical risk of the virus, but millions more will require support: the pandemic is taking hold in a Britain where too many people already struggle to afford enough nutritious food and this is being compounded by difficulties in getting to shops or getting food deliveries. Without the right help to deal with the conditions created by COVID-19, citizens who are economically vulnerable and food insecure may find themselves battling illness, hunger and debt. As a vulnerable group already at greater risk of food insecurity, children and young people could face further barriers to accessing affordable, nutritious food as a result of COVID-19.

We’ll be identifying the vulnerable groups, investigating how their needs are being addressed and finding opportunities to improve the response. In order to understand how COVID-19 is affecting children in the UK, we’ll be following developments in policy designed to protect them, and will create platforms from which young people can tell us about their experience of lockdown, and what they’re eating in quarantine.

Take a look at our breakdown of vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis here, and find out more about the Food Foundation’s work on the Children’s #Right2Food Campaign.

Return to our homepage to view the COVID-19 Tracker in full.

Campaigners urge government to reinstate the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme  

A coalition of civil society groups, including the Food Foundation, has called on the government to provide urgent clarity on the status of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme (SFVS), which has been suspended since schools closed in March 2020.  

With schools and nurseries reopening, the joint letter urges Government to confirm when the scheme will restart, giving the concern that the diets of disadvantaged children have deteriorated during lockdown. A petition by a parent in Bath has also been launched calling to reinstate the scheme. 

Responding to a parliamentary question earlier this month, Vicky Ford, DfE’s Minister for Children, would not confirm if SFVS would be reinstated in the autumn term. 

SFVS is a government programme that entitles every child in England aged four to six to a piece of fruit or vegetable each day at school, benefiting approximately 2.3 million children. The suspension of the scheme in the month of June has meant that children have missed out on roughly 50 million portions of fruit and vegetables. The scheme’s continued suspension until the end of the summer term will see this rise to approximately 80 million. 

Calls for a Children’s Food Commission for as free school meal debacle persists 

Headteachers in England are accusing the government of breaking its promise to reimburse them for food costsand parents have complained that some caterers have been feeding the poorest children with unhealthy food that is not compliant with school food nutritional standards. 

These grievances stack upon previous criticisms of the free school meal voucher system during lockdown, which resulted in delivery delays meaning many vulnerable children went without.   

The debate adds fuel to the Food Foundation’s call for a Children’s Right to Food Commission to act a watchdog for children’s food and hold government to account on standards. Quoted in the Guardian, Executive Director Anna Taylor said; “Since the start of the coronavirus epidemic an extra three million people have signed up for Universal Credit and the number of children eligible for free school meals has grown. So it is all the more important that these programmes deliver bang for bucks and protect children’s health as they grow up. One of the Commission’s first tasks would be to design and test an approach to school food monitoring. 

Government attacked for ignoring expert advice on nutrition in food parcels

A group of leading food policy academics have criticised the government for its “shocking” disregard for basic nutrition of the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic.

A co-signed letter to Defra by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University at the start of the pandemic called for the creation of a  committee on food and nutrition to oversee the contents of food packages sent to 1.5 million shielding people and to the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals (FSM).

In response, Defra said that it was PHE  who “is responsible for the health of the public and the effect of nutrition on our immune system” while PHE replied that the matters raised were “for ministers.”

Many parcels received by those shielding were reported to be high in carbohydrates and low in fresh food or protein, and many did not reflect religious or cultural sensitivities. Issues were also raised on the nutritional quality of parcels provided to children on FSM.

While FSM vouchers are being provided for children over the summer holidays, concern remains on the nutritional value of the food being eaten by the poorest families. “The voucher scheme is a financial solution, not a nutritional solution,” said Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools.

Government accused of insensitivity after sending shielding Muslims pork in food packages

The UK government has been accused of cultural and moral insensitivity for sending pork products to clinically vulnerable Muslim families who have been shielding during the pandemic.

In a letter to the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, the Labour MP Imran Hussain said his vulnerable constituents were having to choose between eating and their religious or ethical belief. He wrote “this is deeply insensitive to our religious communities”.

Tins of sausages and beans, and lentil and bacon soup were among the items sent to Muslim families in food boxes delivered to people who can’t leave their home due to underlying health conditions, including those from Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities, many of whom only eat meat prepared in accordance with their religions.

More than three million food boxes, or 290,000 a week, had been delivered under its contract with the wholesalers Brakes and Bidfood since the end of March, says the government figures.

Word from the Front Line – Food Works, Sheffield 

When the UK went into lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, one social enterprise in Sheffield rapidly adapted their operation to meet the new challenges in making healthy food accessible to all.  

The social enterprise Food Works was founded in 2015 with a central mission of reducing food waste in Sheffield. Each year, they rescue between four and five hundred tonnes of surplus food and, through a small team of staff and an army of volunteers, make this food available in their market, box scheme and schools programme. They also cook professional-standard meals which are served back to the city via community cafés and an events catering service. Although reducing waste is their fundamental aim, fairness is also an important value to Food Works, which means their work has a major social impact. CEO Rene Meijer explains: “Although Sheffield has many affluent regions, there are also incredibly deprived areas, sometimes within walking distance. Whilst the wealthier areas are well served by artisan food outlets, others are ‘food deserts’ in comparison, with hardly any shops, making it difficult for people to access affordable, healthy food.” Food Works run a market, where members of the public can fill boxes with surplus food items, then pay what they are able to. “It’s a way of addressing food waste as part of a broader approach that looks at all the broken aspects of the current food system” Rene says. 

When the UK lockdown was imposed, however, the Food Works team decided that their activities would have to adjust to meet the immediate needs of city residents. “We literally sat down that night and made a decision about how we could best help all the people who would suddenly have difficulty accessing food, both for financial reasons and because of self-isolation” Rene says. Since their catering service and community cafés had to close, they channelled their capacity into a new meal delivery service, targeting those unable to shop for themselves and busy key workers with no time to cook. Using a simple online form, anyone can sign up for a week’s worth of healthy, nutritious meals for a suggested donation of £9.95 (although this is waived for anyone struggling financially). Keeping their professional ethos, Food Works cater for vegetarian, vegan and halal diets and all major allergens, even though this makes things “massively more complicated” as Rene says. So far, they have supplied over 5,000 meals, delivered directly to people’s doors.  

By introducing rapid changes, Food Works were also able to keep their market open. Instead of customers browsing and choosing items, the boxes are now pre-packaged in advance with a selection of products. “This means that all people need to do is come in, pick up their box, make a donation then leave” says Rene. The market has also extended their opening hours significantly to minimise queuing. Although customer numbers vary over the weeks, footfall has been on average 50% higher than pre-lockdown levels, showing the increased demand for affordable food.  

Through these two outlets, Food Works Sheffield is still achieving its fundamental aim of reducing food waste in Sheffield. Since they collect surplus food from wholesalers and large retailers, the closure of the hospitality industry has not affected their supplies. Instead, they have redistributed food from new sources, particularly when businesses were forced to close for the lockdown; both the city’s local universities, for instance, invited Food Works to empty the storerooms for their canteens. “We are able to use just about everything” Rene says. “Any food items that need a bit more preparation and aren’t suitable for the market, our chefs know how to use them for the delivered meals”. Nevertheless, they have had to compromise on some of their environmental principles: in particular, Rene feels uncomfortable about having to use plastic containers for the delivered meals. “At the moment, it is the only way we can deliver these meals safely and at an affordable price” he says. “We have to ensure the model can continue for another year if necessary, rather than being a short-term project that was enabled by a one-off donation”. 

Food Works have also had to rely on the local community to a much greater extent than ever before. Formerly, they were a self-sustaining enterprise who fully self-funded their social activities from public contributions. “To respond to the need created by coronavirus, we decided to temporarily embrace more external grants and funding” says Rene. This included a crowdfunding initiative, setting up an online donations page on their website and applying to charitable and government-issued coronavirus response grants. “People have responded more than we would ever have imagined” says Rene. “It’s enabled us to purchase PPE supplies and provide free meals for those that need them”. When their kitchen became unavailable due to a building closure, they put out a call on social media for help. Endeavour, a local charity that works with disadvantaged young people, responded by offering to loan their teaching kitchen. “It’s an ideal set up because it has lots of well-spaced out individual food preparation stations thus complying with social distancing policy”, Rene says. 

Ultimately, Rene hopes they can reintroduce their full activities as soon as possible, drawing on the wealth of new collaborations and partnerships that the lockdown has brought. He even envisages that they may continue the meal delivery service to increase their reach beyond their static cafés. “I believe that one benefit of this crisis has been that people are more aware of how important it is to take care of each other on a local basis. Instead of waiting for politicians to do something, people are deciding to help their neighbours themselves. Hopefully, in the future we can foster that to achieve our vision of activating people to build a movement in Sheffield around sustainable food”. 

Find out more: 

Interview by: Caroline Wood 

Government makes a U-Turn on providing Free School Meal Vouchers over Summer Holidays

Children eligible for free school meals (FSM) across the UK will continue to receive provision during the six-week summer holidays, government has announced.  

In England, government has announced a £120 million Covid summer school fund to provide vouchers for the 1.3 million children who qualify for FSM. Shortly afterwards, Scotland committed £12.6 million to provide services for its 175,000 eligible pupils. Northern Ireland confirmed it would also follow suit to continue its scheme over summer, although the funding commitment remains unclear. Wales made an early commitment to continuing provision while students are not at school.

Campaigners have welcomed the decision, which was catalysed by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford adding his voice to the call for a government u-turn on holiday provision. In an open letter to MPs, the 22-year-old footballer drew on the Food Foundation’s data to highlight that 200,000 children have had to skip meals during lockdown and shared his own experience of growing up on free school meals and food banks. 

Originally, DfE had said it would not be continuing the national voucher scheme for FSM-eligible children over the summer break, even though the Welsh government had committed early to supporting vulnerable families until September. 

The announcement has been welcomed by families, schools and campaigners. 

Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the Food Foundation, said: “We are thrilled that today the government showed it is listening to the real needs of our most vulnerable children. Children’s access to enough nutritious food has long been a serious problem in the UK, and Covid-19 has made the situation much worse: this is not an issue that will go away without an effective long-term response from government. Free school meals are only available to a fraction of children living in poverty, and if we are to prevent millions of young people suffering in future, we must make every child’s right to food an ongoing priority.”

A government spokesperson has said that the measure was a response to the “unique circumstances of the pandemic” and would not continue beyond the summer.

Scotland’s landmark junk food legislation dropped until after May 2021 amid ‘significant impact’ of Covid on retailers

A new bill to restrict the promotion of unhealthy food and drink products has been “paused” by the Scottish government in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bill, which included measures to ban multi-buy offers and remove unhealthy food displays at checkouts, had been promised by the Scottish government to be brought forward within the next year in a bid to curb Scotland’s obesity epidemic. Almost 30% of adults and 13% of children in Scotland are obese.

However Ministers, now fearing the impact of the Covid pandemic on food and drink industry retailers, say they need to ‘take stock’ of the legislation.

Scotland’s food insecurity crisis, worsened by Covid-19, is set to enter a new phase, says new report  

The food insecurity crisis in Scotland, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown, is far from over, says a report published this week by the Poverty and Inequality Commission. The report calls for renewed action from the Scottish Government to alleviate the next phase of the crisis. 

A survey of front line Scottish community organisations undertaken by Glasgow Caledonian University on behalf of the commission, the Scottish Government’s independent poverty advisers, found that headway has been made in terms of emergency food aid provision since the start of lockdown. However, the report shows that community organisations face increasing demands for food which are expected to rise further. This is attributed to more local vulnerable individuals affected by poverty becoming aware of help available and more people being newly impacted by poverty and food insecurity. 

Read the full report here. 

Professor John McKendrick, of the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Commission, presents data from the report, in the Food Foundation’s latest webinar here 

Campaigners launch legal action against UK Government over Free School meals

Campaigners have threatened to take the UK government to court over its decision not to provide Free School Meal vouchers during the summer holidays.

The national voucher scheme was introduced in March to help low-income families feed their children during school closure with £15 per week for eligible children.

But, while the government has confirmed it will extended other Covid support schemes, such as the furlough scheme which will run until the autumn, the Department for Education has refused to extend Free School Meals over the summer, a decision campaigners including the Food Foundation say puts vulnerable families as real risk of hunger and destitution.