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.

Co-op launches gift card scheme for pupils entitled to free school meals

Co-op has announced it is starting a gift card scheme to help schools across the UK provide free meals for eligible pupils.

Since schools closed, the government has been supplying schools with an allowance of £15 a week per pupil to fund free school meals for eligible pupils, redeemable in specified retailers including Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s. The Co-op Group is not one of the retailers participating in the national scheme.

Through the supermarket’s new parallel scheme, families will have access to gift cards to redeem at their local Co-op store. Education secretary Gavin Williamson has confirmed that schools will be fully reimbursed and refunded for purchasing gift cards from their local Co-op store. Schools will be able to order gift cards directly from the convenience retailer for use in 2,600 stores which can then be remotely topped up.

Asda to launch food box scheme for vulnerable customers

Supermarket chain Asda is set to launch what it’s describing as the ‘largest food box range available’ in order to service its vulnerable customers. The supermarket says it plans to produce up to 16 of the boxes a minute when at full capacity, with each box containing 32 different products including rice and pasta, bread and vegetables. The scheme is expected to launch via a new website at the end of the week.

Asda says its aim is to provide cupboard essentials to groups most in need, such as the elderly and/or those self-isolating. It follows similar schemes launched by other retailers including Morrisons, M&S and Aldi.

Campaigners call on government to continue providing food provisions to children during the holidays

More than 20 charities, campaign groups and education unions have called on the Department for Education to continue to provide food holiday provisions for children affected by food insecurity and low or fluctuating household income. 

The joint letter to the Secretary of State Gavin Williamson and Schools Minister Vicky Ford refers to recent figures published by the Food Foundation showing 2 million children have experienced some level of food insecurity of hunger since the UK went into lockdown on March 23rdBefore the crisis, 1.3 million children in England were eligible for benefit-related free school meals.
The letter also points to the Welsh Government’s announcement to commit £33 million of funding to cover holiday provision throughout the summer holidays. In England, the government has so far only committed to a pilot scheme with funding of £9 million for a few selected areas. Organisations argue this does not go far enough and are calling for a national-level funding commitment until the end of August. The ask is for this to apply to all school-age children eligible for benefits-related free school meals, as well as those families currently applying for Universal Credit or other income support programmes, and all children with no recourse to public funds. 


Consumer Groups Call for Better Government Coordination to Prevent the Vulnerable from Going Hungry

The consumer group Which? has called for urgent action from the government to improve coordination with the food industry to help thousands of vulnerable people who are still not accessing the food deliveries they need during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The consumer group said it had been contacted by more than 1,000 people who were either disabled, elderly or had illnesses that put them at high risk of Covid-19 and were having difficulties getting grocery essentials.  

While supermarkets have introduced measures designed to help individuals identified by the government as vulnerable, more than six weeks into lockdown the consumer group is continuing to hear from people who are missing out on provisions. Which? saythat many who have been advised to shield are struggling to book supermarket delivery slots, are unable to find the help they need locally and find themselves forced to risk their health to get supplies. 

Meanwhile the disability charity Scope said almost half of the 600 disabled adults it surveyed had problems getting essential items and that 38% of respondents had been unsuccessful in booking supermarket delivery slots in the past three weeks. 

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection at Which?, said: “Without easily accessible and clearer information for these people, and stronger coordination between the UK’s central and devolved governments, the food industry, local authorities and local charities, there is a risk that many will go hungry during this pandemic.”

What are other countries doing to support their vulnerable citizens during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Have a look at our data visualisation comparison here and follow the narrative below.

Governments around the world have a duty to ensure the right to food for all citizens at all times, but the current crisis makes it an especially pressing requirement. For those that were already struggling with food insecurity, Covid-19 has exacerbated their situation, and many on the borderline have been pushed over the edge.

Whether due to medical or economic vulnerability, governments globally have recognised the need to step up to support their vulnerable citizens so they have sufficient access and means to buy food. This accompanying map* demonstrates examples of food policies and financial policies reportedly implemented in other countries to support children, the unemployed and the medically vulnerable in accessing food directly and indirectly through financial support.

The success and sufficiency of the policies are not evaluated here but rather we have identified policies being commonly employed around the world. An overview of policies from other countries offers a point of comparison for the UK and a chance to learn lessons from global approaches. From the map we can see that a range of different measures have been introduced across countries including food distribution and food stamp programmes, and financial support for unemployed citizens and families, as well as many others.

Universal Payments

The UK Government has increased the value of Universal Credit by £20 per week, but Universal Credit and other existing policies are still not necessarily sufficient, and don’t reach everyone in need. A YouGov survey commissioned by the Food Foundation between 7-9th April 2020 showed that 43% of those who have lost income as a result of Covid-19 don’t believe themselves to be entitled to help. This leaves a huge number (approximately six million people) who may be unable to support themselves.

To try and ensure that everyone who needs it is able to get help, other countries are employing universal payment. For example, Spain is working on rolling out a universal basic income scheme to ensure that all citizens have some form of income without condition or restriction. In countries such as China, Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States, one-off universal payments have been made to all citizens.

Over 100,000 people have signed a petition for the implementation of Universal Basic Income in the UK for all residents to ensure home and food security. The Scottish First Minister has also supported the introduction of a Universal Basic Income in the UK and says the pandemic has “strengthened immeasurably” the case for doing so. 100 UK MPs and Peers have also called for this to be introduced to stave off a deeper economic crisis. This would not only help those who are ineligible for Universal Credit but also support people who are currently waiting the five weeks to receive their Universal Credit payments.

Child poverty

4.2 million children in the UK were living in poverty before Covid-19, and the number is likely to have been exacerbated by the outbreak. The Food Foundation YouGov survey conducted in early April 2020 found that households with children were 50% more likely to be experiencing food insecurity than those without. This data suggests that children are especially vulnerable and their needs are not being fully met. Our new survey published on May 4th explores these issues in more detail.

Free school meals reached less than 50% of children in poverty (in England) before the outbreak, and now we are estimating that 33% of those who were being reached aren’t receiving a free school meal substitute due to implementation issues. The US and Northern Ireland are giving direct payments to families entitled to Free School Meals which avoids these administrative issues.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, there have been calls in the UK for the Child Benefit to be increased, and for the cap to be lifted. Other countries such as Italy and the US have introduced one off payments for all children, and Russia has introduced a one-off payment for children already on benefits. In real terms, Child Benefit in the UK is worth £6-7 less than in 2010, and just £10 more per week could reduce child poverty by five percentage points. It is also important to note that due to the benefit cap, many families aren’t benefitting from the recent increase in Universal Credit payment.

Citizens in different countries will have different needs, but we can learn from overseas policies and practices as to how the UK can most effectively respond to the crisis and follow the best practice examples seen in other countries.

*This information was correct as of April 17th 2020. This is not a comprehensive list of policies but is a snapshot based on available sources. For further details on many of these policies please see the following sources: IMF, OECD.




  • New data from the Food Foundation shows more than five million people living in households with children under 18 have experienced food insecurity after just a month of lockdown.

Have a look at our data visualisations here

  • Dame Emma Thompson, the Children’s Right2Food Campaign Ambassador, calls on government to protect and prioritise children. Read her piece in The Observer here.
  • Parents in the UK have been unable to shield more than two million children from food insecurity.
  • More than 200,000 children have had to skip meals because their family couldn’t access sufficient food during lockdown.
  • A million children have had less nutritious sustenance; eating low-cost, unbalanced meals because their parents have run out of food.
  • 8 million households with children in the UK report a loss of income.
  • Half a million children who normally rely on free school meals have received no substitutes at all since lockdown came into effect.
  • The number of households with children experiencing poverty and isolation-driven food insecurity has doubled since lockdown begun.
  • 17% of parents in NHS worker families have had smaller meals than usual or have had to skip meals, and 9% have not eaten for a whole day due to lack of access to food.
  • The Food Foundation is calling for:
    • The government to stop food insecurity driven by a lack of money by implementing an emergency income support scheme to ensure people can buy the food they need to stay healthy at home
    • The DWP to abolish the five-week wait for Universal Credit, and make child benefit a fortnightly payment (thereby doubling it) as well as removing the benefit cap.

Read about the survey and our policy recommendations in more detail, and take a look at the press release in full.

PARENTS AND CHILDREN TELL THEIR STORIES: listen to families across the UK as they explain what it’s like to struggle with food access during lockdown

We spoke to families from all over the UK about their food experiences during lockdown and the challenges they are facing as the coronavirus pandemic progresses. Listen to their stories below.

Fayeth (Young Food Ambassador) on free school meals

Listen to Fayeth's story

Felix on how COVID-19 impacts his large family

Listen to Felix's story

Tia (Young Food Ambassador) on frozen food and benefit bums

Listen to Tia's story

Shane (Young Food Ambassador) on what food poverty looks like and his fears about life during the corona pandemic

Listen to Shane's story

Plamena on being a young carer

Listen to Plamena's story

Aimee on being a mother when times are really tough

Listen to Aimee's story

UK food banks report a dramatic rise in food bank reliance coronavirus crisis, with families and children urgently in need

The UK’s biggest food bank network, The Trussell Trust, has reported an unprecedented spike in demand on food banks during the first two weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown that began on 23 March. The charity, which represents a network of 1,200 food banks, has reported issuing 50,000 food parcels in just one week, almost double its usual amount.

Worryingly, figures show that the number of households with children that are relying on food banks have increased by 122%, with the distribution of children’s food parcels more than doubling in the last two weeks of March compared with the same time last year.

A similar story has emerged from figures released by the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), which reports food banks recorded a 59% rise in use for emergency food support between February and March – 17 times higher than the same period a year ago.

Food bank charities and campaigners have warned that meeting such soaring levels of demand is unsustainable and are calling for the government to introduce further income support measures such as a boost to benefit payments for families and children and a lift of the benefit cap.

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the government has introduced emergency measures such as the job retention scheme and a £20-a-week increase to universal credit but this food bank data indicates that many individuals and families need additional help to protect their food security.


Sadiq Khan writes to the Department for Work and Pensions to improve financial support  

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has written to the Prime Minister calling on the government to support those with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and those on low incomes. The Mayor urges the Government to remove the NRPF condition and the five-week wait for Universal Credit to help Londoners get the support they need during this unprecedented time.