Vulnerable Groups

Food Insecurity: Who is at risk and what are the solutions?

In 2020, headlines on foodbank Britain and children missing meals propelled food insecurity into the spotlight. But the issue is nothing new – it was highly prevalent before Covid-19 and will continue beyond it.

How does food insecurity happen and what can be done to prevent it? Our tracker will try and find answers to these important questions. We’ll identify barriers to accessing an affordable, nutritious meal and follow the latest developments in the policies designed to help groups most at risk: those on low incomes, the unemployed, people with disabilities, BAME communities and children and families.

We’ll collate the latest evidence and lived experiences to better understand the impact of diet inequalities on people’s lives and find opportunities for better responses and lasting solutions.

View our UK Food Tracker in full

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.

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.