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.

Government Announces Far-Reaching New Obesity Strategy in Response to Covid

The Government has announced a wide-ranging set of measures to combat excess weight and obesity, many of which will help protect children’s diets and improve health of the nation in response to growing evidence of linking excess weight to increased risk from Covid-19.  
 The measures announced are: 
• New laws to ban advertising of food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) before the 9pm TV watershed for the whole of the UK (with further consultation towards a total ban for online adverts). 
• Restrictions on in-store ‘buy one get one free’ offers on HFSS food as well as a stop to checkout/entrance/aisle end promotional display deals. 
• Calories to be displayed on restaurant and takeaway menus to encourage healthier choices when dining out (with a consultation to launch on calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks). 
• A step forward on front-of-pack labelling with a new consultation on the current traffic-light labelling system. 
• A new ‘Better Health’ campaign to encourage better food choices. 
Responding to the Government’s announcement, the Food Foundation’s Executive Director Anna Taylor said; “Today the Government took a bold step towards a better future for our children. This decision puts the UK ahead of the rest of the world in efforts to support our children to eat well. Now, we must make sure these commitments become a reality ASAP.” 

Over half of teachers fear a rise in child hunger on return to school this September

Fifty-seven per cent of teachers anticipate there will be an increase in the number of children arriving at school hungry in September 2020, according to a new survey by the charity Magic Breakfast. In schools with above average levels of disadvantage, this rises to sixty-four per cent of teachers. 
The YouGov poll of 725 primary and secondary school teachers in England and Scotland found that sixty-four per cent of teachers anticipate that hunger will harm efforts to catch children up with learning, rising to 79 per cent in schools with higher levels of disadvantage.  
The findings come amid calls for the Department for Education to sustain free school meal holiday provision long-term and extend the free school breakfasts programme to children at risk of hunger. The Government currently funds a national breakfast programme however it only reaches about 20 per cent of the 1.8 million school-age children at risk of hunger in the UK and is due to end in March 2021.  

Word from the Frontline: Newcastle West End Foodbank

Newcastle West End Foodbank opened in March 2013 to serve one of the most economically deprived areas of the North East. It has since grown to become one of the most used foodbanks in the UK, distributing food parcels to feed 30,000 people each year and operating in three locations. Before the lockdown this was a thriving community hub, offering a social service that went far beyond food parcels. The pandemic forced them to focus on the most essential task of providing emergency food to meet a 202% increase in demand within April 2020. Caroline Wood talks to the volunteers about how the ‘front line’ has changed.

A changed service

Unusually for a foodbank, Newcastle West End ran a café, offering clients hot drinks, cakes and even cooked lunches. “It was a lovely community space, and mums would even bring their children during the holidays”. According to Helen, a volunteer who gave pastoral support, the cafe provided a valuable service by helping clients to form a peer support system, share knowledge and access other services. But the tiny kitchen simply couldn’t adapt to social distancing guidelines, and it has been closed since the lockdown started.

Even though the food bank remains open, the atmosphere is very different as the face-to-face pastoral work has had to stop. Helen, who now manages the queue and distributes hand sanitiser, has found it difficult that clients must wait outside, standing at lines painted 2 metres apart. “Many new users are often ashamed to come to a food bank and waiting outside can make them extremely uncomfortable,” she says. “The smile you give to welcome someone is so important, but now we are all wearing face masks and no one can see them.” Nevertheless, the Food Bank is still reaching out to vulnerable clients, particularly those with poor mental health. “With the majority of our referral agencies home working, it has become more difficult to maintain contact with clients so we started a welfare ring back service to contact anyone who we felt needed a little bit of help or motivation or just a chat” says Carole Rowland, who looks after the welfare of the food bank’s volunteers and clients.

Redeploying resources

Ruth Sheldon was redeployed by the Council to work four days a week for the food bank, helping to coordinate new referrals, volunteer applications and a new home delivery service for those self-isolating at home. “I liaise between the food bank and the Council staff who have been redeployed to make deliveries, including staff from the transport and construction departments” she says. Besides staff, the Council also gave financial support and set up telephone lifeline number for all coronavirus-related issues. “Normally there is only one person in the food bank’s office, so they couldn’t physically manage the amount of phone calls and new referrals” Ruth says.

Despite never having worked for a Food Bank before, Ruth has found her skill set to be invaluable, particularly her experience of community outreach. “For instance, we’ve been working with family hubs and refugee organisations to make sure we reach all vulnerable people” she says. Partnering with others may be crucial to continue delivering food if the drivers are called back to work even as people continue to self-isolate. “Even if we have to stop the delivery service, we won’t leave vulnerable people helpless; it’s likely we will work with social services and other organisations to distribute food parcels” Ruth says.

Volunteer shortages

Away from the front line, the impacts of the pandemic are still felt by volunteers forced to self-isolate due to their age and/or pre-existing medical conditions. “Covid-19 decimated our volunteer force: from a total of 109, we were reduced to 27 due to the need for many to self-isolate due to age and health reasons” says Carole. Volunteer Laurie also had to leave because due to pre-existing medical condition. Fortunately, he has found a novel way to continue to safely support the food bank. “Last year we started a garden to provide food for the kitchen and wellbeing activities for the clients” he says. “So, I’ve been keeping busy by growing seedlings that the other volunteers can plant there”.

More information:

Interview by: Caroline Wood


School Fruit and Veg Scheme to be reinstated in Autumn, government confirms

Public Health Minister Jo Churchill has confirmed that the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme will resume in Autumn when children return to school. The announcement from the Public Health Minister follows months of campaigning from civil society groups including a petition from a passionate parent, Hannah Cameron McKenna. Given that the Covid-19 lockdown has made affordable, healthy diets less accessible for many families, and millions of children have missed out on benefitting from the SFVS during school closure, campaigners are now calling for the Government to expand SFVS so children at both primary and secondary stages can benefit.

England closes to new Free School Meal applicants during the summer

England’s free school meals scheme will close for new claims over summer. Children in England who become newly eligible during the summer holidays for Free School Meals (FSM) will miss out on access to the national voucher scheme, it has been confirmed. Responding to a written question tabled by Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, Children’s Minister Vicky Ford confirmed offices would be closed during the summer. “If families need urgent help, they can contact their local council to find out what services are available in their area,” she said.

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.