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.

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.

Word from the front line: Haslemere Food Bank

Interview with: David Rice, manager of the Haslemere Food Bank in Surrey. 

“Despite this being a fairly well-off community, there has always been a steady trickle of people desperate for food support” says David. Throughout 2019, the Food Bank rarely issued more than five emergency food parcels each week, however when the lockdown was imposed this suddenly increased to between 20 and 28 parcels a week. “Most of these were for families, referred to us by school link services” David says. Thankfully, the surrounding community responded in kind with a surge in donations of both money and food items. “Some of our volunteers used social media to put out requests for specific items that we were short of, which helped ensure we didn’t run out of anything” says David. The Food Bank were also able to negotiate with the local Waitrose supermarket to bypass the restrictions on purchasing items when stock allowed this. With the additional funds, the project started supplying items of fresh food in the emergency parcels, besides introducing home deliveries for those unable to leave their homes. “We had a lot of offers of help from new volunteers, but there were only so many we could take on without compromising social distancing, so using that capacity to run deliveries seemed the best thing to do” says David.

As long as their supplies match the demand, David is confident the Food Bank will continue to feed everyone who needs it. But one thing that frustrates him is when this system is questioned by well-meaning yet inexperienced outsiders. “It seems everybody has become an expert now in how to run food banks” he says. “I spend a lot of time dealing with council representatives who seem determined to think we can’t cope. That support should be directed elsewhere, including the Food Banks which had run out of items and needed help”. Nevertheless, David worries that the wider causes behind the increased usage are not being addressed. “When people struggle to get enough food, it is usually a symptom of wider issues” he says. “Before the lockdown, we would sit down with people and chat with them over a cup of tea or coffee. We would find out what long-term support they needed and direct them to the appropriate organisations. That’s not possible now, but the damage this pandemic has caused to people’s jobs and incomes will take a long time to recover from, so more and more people will need that holistic support”.

Interviewed by: Caroline Wood


Record Numbers Use Food Banks in the First Month of Lockdown

Foodbank charities reported that the first full month of coronavirus lockdown was their “busiest ever” showing that the current social security safety net has not protected low-income households from hardship.

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, said it gave out 89% more food parcels in April, compared to the same month last year, while the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan) recorded a 175% increase over the same period. Particularly worrying is evidence that the number of families with children who received food parcels almost doubled in April compared to the same period last year, according to Trussell Trust.

This record for food bank use in April follows a huge surge in food aid reported in March. Campaigners have called on government to provide an emergency cash support scheme to help low-income households in need.

Hopes rise for government U-Turn on support for migrants in the UK 

Boris Johnson has suggested the government may review the rules that prevent thousands of migrants living in the UK from accessing state benefits despite paying taxes in the UK.

The Prime Minister appeared to be caught off-guard at a Liaison Committee Meeting on May 27th when asked by Labour MP Stephen Timms about the long-standing no recourse to public funds (NRPF) status that prevents many migrants from accessing benefits such as employment support allowance, Universal Credit and Free School Meals for children. In response, Johnson replied; “Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here should have support of one kind or another….I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”

Following this, a joint letter from campaigners have urged the Prime Minister to lift NRPF restrictions swiftly and completely.

DfE confirms half-term funding for free school meal vouchers 

The Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed that they will be covering the cost of free school meal (FSM) vouchers for the May half-term

The extension of funding to cover half-term was confirmed by Nick Gibb during an education committee hearing on May 27th and corroborated by Vicky Ford, Minister for Children and Families, in a letter to the education committee, published on May 27th. DfE has also confirmed that schools or local authorities that have incurred costs for the May half-term will be reimbursed through the coronavirus school fund. The confirmation of half-term funding, coming midway through the one-week half-term, has provoked confusion as the government had previously stated that there had been ‘no plans’ to fund FSM vouchers over the holidays (despite having funded them during the Easter holidays).
The late notice means that many schools may not have been able to take advantage of vouchers, which are normally ordered in advance.