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: Perth and Kinross Food Bank, Scotland

Eleanor is Project Coordinator for the Perth and Kinross Food Bank, which operates from a central base in Perth, besides a rural outpost in Blairgowrie, Scotland. Since the Food Bank was set up in 2013, the number of service users has increased by 10% each year. Just before the pandemic, the project fed 120 people every week, with each one referred by an external agency.

“At one point, I was really worried things would spiral out of control and we would have queues of people at our door looking for food” says Eleanor, remembering the situation at the start of the lockdown. A particular challenge was addressing the sudden increase in the number of people with difficulty accessing food when their referral system had broken down. Normally, external agencies and social services would issue paper vouchers to be redeemed at the Food Bank, but many of these had closed their public offices. This meant there was no immediate way to differentiate those in most need.

Nevertheless, the Food Bank had a limit as to who they could realistically support. “We chose to stick to our core charitable principle of feeding those who fundamentally cannot afford enough food, rather than those whose main problem was physical access” Eleanor says. “If we had tried to feed everyone who needed food, we would simply have run out of stock”. One of the bases for this decision was the number of community initiatives that had “sprung up overnight” with volunteer-led groups offering services such as shopping deliveries, emergency transport and food parcels. According to Eleanor, the Council took the lead in coordinating these and incorporating the Food Bank as part of a wider local service provision. “What’s made the difference for us is that the Council have collated all the information about the available help in our area into a single website, with a central email system and telephone helpline. Their staff are very well briefed about where people can find the right support for them. It’s given us a cushion, because instead of us taking all the calls, the Council filter out those who need emergency food help and refer them to us”. All the referrals are now made remotely via telephone, without paper vouchers.

Without this broad approach, Eleanor knows that they would not have coped with the demand. However, she feels more could have been done to safeguard their access to sourcing appropriate food. “It took a couple of weeks before we could establish a system to bypass the restrictions and bulk buy items from the supermarkets” she says. Since they were not initially prioritised for deliveries and click-and-collect, their stock reserves have become depleted. Meanwhile, the beginning of the lockdown brought a sudden influx of surplus food, not all of which was suitable for their food parcels. Eleanor remembers how “a whole host” of businesses – from local restaurants and coffee shops to theatres and pubs – turned up at their door, desperate to offload their unused stock. “With no fridges of freezers, we couldn’t take most of the fresh food, so I had to put in the time to redirect it elsewhere. It created a lot of extra work for us”.

Now in the second month of lockdown, Eleanor says they are now “just about managing”, helped by a recently arranged bulk donation of food items from Tesco each week. But she would ultimately like to see policy makers devise ‘exit strategies’ so that food banks will no longer be necessary. “What really frustrates me is that food banks have suddenly been classed as an essential service when they are actually charities that operate out of voluntary effort and the generosity of the public” she says. “We have to find a way to give people more money in their pocket so that they have the means to save. Then they won’t have to live on such a knife edge, where the boiler breaking down means they can’t afford to eat. This crisis has caused a whole new sector of society to tip over that edge”.

“I hope if nothing else, this whole situation makes people realise that everyone deserves to have more of a safety net” she concludes.

Tens of thousands of poor households are being denied extra support designed to ease the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, after being hit by the government’s benefit cap

The number of low-income households affected by the cap in London has doubled since the crisis started, according to analysis seen by the Observer. Households already at the cap when the crisis hit have been missing out on £320 a month in additional support. For private renters with children, this is £532 a month. A further 22,000 households are now at the cap and are missing out on an average of £185 a month.

The news has led to criticism that those on the government’s furlough scheme access to far more support than some of those reliant on welfare.

NEW FOOD FOUNDATION DATA: food insecurity and debt are the new reality under lockdown

New data from our fourth YouGov survey since lockdown began has found that food insecurity and debt are the new reality under lockdown, with four million adults borrowing money and ethnic minorities most at risk of food poverty.

Food insecurity affecting nearly five million adults in the UK with no plan for government help

  • Nearly five million adults in the UK (4.9 million1) (9%) are still experiencing food insecurity, despite the fact that supermarket shelves are now better stocked. 1.7 million1  (12%) children live in these households.
  • This is an improvement on the 16% of households who experienced food insecurity when lockdown was first introduced, but levels of food insecurity, over the last four weeks, are still almost 250% higher than pre-Covid-19 levels.3
  • 4 million (8%) households have borrowed money or gone into debt as a result of the crisis
    • One million more people are now borrowing money than at the end of March, one week into lockdown. Food Foundation data published on March 27th showed that 3 million (6%) were already borrowing money or taking out personal loans.
  • 880,0001 (2%) adults are receiving food parcels being delivered by government or charitable services, while 4.4 million1 (8%) are relying on neighbours, family, friends and volunteers for help them get food.
  • Of those self-isolating for 12 weeks, 27% are relying on neighbours, friends and families and volunteers and 7% are receiving government or charity food parcels.

The government urgently needs a national plan in place for dealing with food insecurity being driven by the crisis. It recently announced £16m for food charities but our data shows the level of need far out strips the capacity of frontline charities.

Ethnic minority and disabled households are most at risk for food insecurity

  • Compared to the average, households which face at least 1.5 times greater than average levels of food insecurity are:
    • Households with a BAME adult compared to respondent of white ethnicity
    • Households with a disabled adult
    • Households with children dependent on free school meals
    • Households where adults are self-isolating

2.6 million1 food insecure people still aren’t getting the help they need, don’t know where to turn and feel ashamed

  • Of those who were experiencing food insecurity, more than half (54%) or 2.6 million, have not received any offers of help (via leaflets, social media, phone, friends or family). 800,000 (16%) tried to get help but were unsuccessful. 1.1 million1 (24%) who required assistance did find help.
  • 5 million (52%) have not tried to get help, either because they did not know who to ask, they didn’t want to ask, or because they felt ashamed of asking for support
  • Of those facing food insecurity, 930,000 (19%) said their local council was helping people struggling to access enough good food to eat.

View our data visualisations of the findings here.

Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the Food Foundation, said: “It’s clear that the efforts of government, local authorities and front-line charities are making a difference but the scale of the response falls far short of the need which people are experiencing. Many are suffering in silence and behind closed doors.  Food insecurity is a measure of severe material deprivation and eating a decent diet is critical for protecting the nation’s long-term health.  It’s high time we had a national plan for tackling this problem and immediately providing the lifeline assistance which people desperately need.”

  1. Calculations made by the Food Foundation using mid-year population estimates.
  2. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 4,352 households. Fieldwork, unless otherwise stated, was undertaken between 14-17 May2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults 18+.
  3. Comparable adult food insecurity levels were 3.8% in the Food and You survey, 2018.

No free school meals during summer holidays, says Northern Irish minister

The Department of Education (DE) in Northern Ireland has announced it cannot afford to continue making payments to families eligible for free school meals over the summer holidays.

While schools are closed, the families of almost 97,000 children entitled to free school meals in Northern Ireland are receiving payments of £27 every fortnight per child in Northern Ireland. The scheme was introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 26th at an initial cost of £19m.

While free school meal payments to about 55,000 families of eligible children continued throughout the Easter school holiday, when asked whether payments would continue during the summer holidays, Education Minister Peter Weir, said; “There simply isn’t the money available.”

Word from the frontline: Lambeth Food Partnership

“In a crisis situation, there isn’t time to work out a perfect system – you have to launch into action straight away.”

Written by Caroline Wood, in conjunction with Lambeth Food Partnership

When Britain went into lockdown, councils faced the daunting challenge of providing for a whole new cohort of people who now had difficulty accessing food – including newly furloughed workers, those with pre-existing medical conditions and elderly people without friends or families nearby. But difficult circumstances present opportunities for innovation. For Lambeth Council, it was clear that they did not have the resources or experience to build a food distribution service from scratch, so they called in the experts. The result – the Lambeth Emergency Food Distribution Service – is a testimony to the effectiveness of pairing council funds with community-led initiatives that work on the front line.

“The Council showed unusual foresight in deciding not to try and take ownership of the project themselves. Instead, their priority was to get things done” says Sue Sheehan, Director of Healthy Living Platform, a charity which works to make it easier for communities to lead healthier lives. Healthy Living Platform is part of the Lambeth Food Partnership, which was approached to run the service. With the situation so urgent, the council set up a simple self-referral telephone system which bypassed the need for referrals and vouchers. Anyone who rang the helpline received a parcel the next day, delivered by bicycle courier to ensure that even those unable to leave their home were provided for. “The Council adopted a very broad definition of vulnerability to make sure that everyone who needed help could get it” Sue says. “Besides promoting the helpline across their channels, the Council were also proactive in ringing people who had been advised to self-isolate.” Throughout the full lockdown, the service delivered between 300-400 of these parcels each day. But the speed of delivery did not compromise on the nutritional value: as well as tinned and dried foods, the parcels also contained fresh fruit and vegetables, besides dairy products. “Some Councils would be reluctant to deal with fresh food, but from the start Lambeth Council shared our vision to provide really healthy food” says Janet Baker, who is working for the service as part of a secondment from the charity The Woodfield Project. “Giving people nutritious food makes them feel more secure and cared for. If you don’t look after people healthily, it is virtually not worth doing.” Thanks to a partnership between New Covent Garden and Healthy Living Platform, the Council were able to purchase fruit and vegetables at wholesale prices.

Strong relationships are the bedrock of any successful food project, Sue says. “You have to partner with those who really know their communities in order to reach the most vulnerable”. She is all too aware that even using a telephone helpline may be difficult for some, due to language barriers or unsettled legal status. “This is why you need networks of partners who can distribute food on a community level” she says. Over the years, she has developed a wealth of contacts, from food suppliers, to community centres and other food-related projects. Consequently, restaurants and other businesses with surplus food already knew they could approach the team with donations. “Surplus food has to be redistributed very quickly to be effective” says Sue. “We were able to accept any donation, because we could redistribute anything we couldn’t use for other projects”.

Nevertheless, this responsive action initially caused some friction with the more methodological approach typical of public services. “At first, the Council wanted a paper trail for everything – often it is simply impossible to trace the end user” says Janet. But overall, she and Sue were impressed by the extent to which they were allowed to “get on with the job”. In the future, Sue would like to see food placed at the heart of local strategies and greater synergy between council services and community-led projects. “We need to stop looking at issues such as housing, education and health in isolation and see them as an integrated strategy where food plays a central part” she says. She points to those working in council services, from headteachers to council estate workers, who are uniquely placed to know who the most vulnerable are. “During the crisis, we heard many stories of schools going to great lengths to make sure their pupils were fed” she says. “For the future, it would be wonderful if we could access under-utilised assets – such as communal kitchens on housing estates – and help more people cook and eat healthier food together”.

As the lockdown eases, Sue hopes the project will continue in one form or another. “From our understanding, the service won’t be shut down quickly as there is a real understanding now that there is a need for healthy and accessible food across the Borough” she says. “I hope there will be a long-term legacy but what that will look like is still up for discussion”.

For more information, contact Sue Sheehan at

Industry urges government to appoint ‘minister for hunger’

The government needs to appoint a minister for hunger after the coronavirus crisis has left millions of vulnerable people struggling to get food, says food industry leader.

The CEO for the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, told the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee inquiry into food supply issues there was a lack of ownership of responsibility in government for dealing with the growing issue of hunger.

“I do think that one of the things this crisis has done is to show the absence of responsibility for hunger. No single department has responsibility, not the committees and local government, not work and pensions, not Defra,” said Wright.

Huge rise in number of people claiming benefits

The number of people claiming unemployment benefit in the UK rose to 2.1 million in April, the first full month of the coronavirus lockdown. The total in April jumped by 856,500 according to new figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). While the benefit claimant count does not reflect everyone who is out of work (because not everyone can claim assistance) it does indicate the trend of soaring unemployment as a consequence of the pandemic.

Call for free school meals during half-term and summer in England

Councillors call for government to extend free school meals during half-term and summer in England.

More than a thousand councillors across England have written to the government calling for free school meals (FSM) to be provided over the half-term and summer holidays. This comes after the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed they did not intend to extend funding during the future holiday period.
The national scheme, introduced by the government to supply parents with children eligible for FSM with a £15-per-week voucher since schools closed in March, was extended to Easter holidays at the last minute. Councillors now warn that these disadvantaged families face “holiday hunger” without this provision as the Covid-19 crisis continues.

The councillors’ ask echoes the many campaign groups, including the Food Foundation, who have been putting pressure on the government to extend the free meal provision over the holidays [link to the Sustain letter we published]. This would match the Welsh Government which has already committed to cover May half term and the six-week summer holiday.

Ordinarily FSM are only provided during term time, but the government made an exception last month because of the unprecedented levels of disruption and economic uncertainty facing schools and parents.

Almost 2,000 families in Northern Ireland entitled to free school meals are not receiving the money because they do not have a bank account

Almost 2,000 families entitled to free school meals in Northern Ireland are not receiving money because they do not have a bank account.

During school closures, the Department of Education is paying £2.50 per day per child to families who are struggling financially. But 1,812 families across Northern Ireland are reported to be missing out because they only have a Post Office account (currently ineligible for the payment scheme).

In England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, different systems operate to provide families with free school meal provisions during school closure.

While direct payments operate for the families of Northern Ireland’s 97,000 children who would usually benefit from a free school meal, in England a voucher system have been issued – a system which has not but not been without its own problems.