Before the Covid-19 crisis
Earlier blogs (14 and 15) refer to the report on extreme poverty in the UK by the UN Special Rapporteur; this, as well as a similar report by Human Rights Watch, appeared in early 2019. Both were excoriating, finding large numbers of people in the UK living in poverty, even destitution, while ten years of austerity had wreaked havoc with the social welfare system. These reports were dismissed, even attacked, by the UK government, but it is important to note that the situation highlighted in them forms the backdrop to the present crisis. Further, the issue of Brexit has not gone away, and, as noted in blog 16, is likely to lead to further difficulties in UK food production: regular migrant workers are unable to get visas hence a lack of labour to pick fruit and vegetable crops, as well as of a potential slow-down in imports if Brexit is finalised at the end of 2020 and customs checks have to be introduced (https://foodresearch.org.uk/food-brexit-briefings/).
Covid-19 and lockdown
The decision by the UK government to enforce a lockdown had a number of significant effects which included:
- Closure of businesses and lays-off of staff, resulting in immediate reductions in income
- An explosion of applications for Universal Credit, with nearly one million people applying by the end of March. Given that under ‘normal’ conditions the wait for any money to come through is 5 weeks, and often longer, it is clear that many of this million will struggle to get on to the system. The CEO of the Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, wrote a heartfelt plea for the waiting time for Universal Credit to be cut (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/13/food-banks-coronavirus-universal-credit
- The closure of schools has meant that children who normally receive free school lunches, even free breakfasts in some cases, no longer get them.
- There was a lot of panic buying in shops, resulting in empty shelves and some rise in prices. Online shopping became increasingly difficult, with few delivery slots available.
What has been done by various sectors to alleviate this situation?
- The government
Has announced a variety of financial schemes to help businesses, the self-employed and others, and the provision of grants of £800 per person. In addition, all families with children on free school meals will receive vouchers of £15 per week in lieu. However, all of these measures will take time to come into effect and meanwhile many people are being ‘furloughed’ at best or losing their jobs entirely.
The government has also set up a scheme of food delivery for those deemed to be particularly vulnerable in health terms, although there has been some criticism of the contents of the parcels which consist largely of ambient foods (https://www.sustainweb.org/news/mar20_food_parcels_delivered_to_clinically_extremely_vulnerable_people/
2. The food industry
This sector has obviously been having a bonanza in sales and has, in some cases, given money or food to the food charity sector: Morrisons £10 million in cash, the Co-op £1.5 million of food to the redistribution charity Fareshare, while Lidl has said it will provide bags of fresh fruit and veg to NHS staff (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/morrisons-gives-food-banks-10m-during-coronavirus-outbreak). The supermarkets have also made some attempt to ensure that older shoppers have a dedicated shopping time and have paid much lip service to prioritising deliveries to older customers; even so, as I fall into that category myself, I am well aware from personal experience and that of my peers that finding a slot is still often difficult. Most supermarkets now practice some form of rationing for their customers with caps on numbers of items and frequency of on-line deliveries.
3. The food poverty charities.
This sector, particularly food banks, has been hard hit. On the one hand there is greatly increased demand from old and new clients, on the other, many organisations have lost a large proportion of their volunteers, because they are over-70 and/or have ‘underlying conditions.’ Many food banks also do not have enough food because they are getting fewer donations (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/food-banks-coronavirus-uk-latest-a4383936.html) . They have also had to revise their procedures for safety reasons to do with the virus.
Some examples of the effect of the covid-19 crisis on food aid charities
Over the last five years, I have worked intensively with a half dozen food aid organisations in both north London and West Wales. Four of these are food banks, three belonging to the Trussell franchise and one being independent. The remaining two organisations are a Community Centre on a council estate in north London and a CAB (Citizens’ Advice Bureau) in Wales. They are all the subject of a detailed report which is currently in press. Let’s look at how each has coped with the new situation:
The Community Centre has sought to remain open, although many of its activities have been suspended. In the last two years, it signed up with the Felix Project (https://thefelixproject.org), a food redistribution charity, which supplies the Centre regularly and which is currently offering food parcels to local residents who need food help. However, the Centre has not been able to run its regular Holiday Lunch scheme for local children in receipt of free school meals or operate its café offering nutritious but cheap meals.
The north London food bank reports a big loss of volunteers, many of whom were over 70, and is currently seeking additional volunteers for ’warehouse’ jobs (sorting food by date, making up food parcels) as well as drivers for its new delivery scheme. Paradoxically, it has received some large monetary donations but been unable to spend these as it wished, partly because of panic buying by the public and partly because of restrictions on buying in bulk. Nonetheless, it is continuing to operate as a food bank, albeit with revised procedures to ensure social distancing. These include making up (somewhat smaller) food parcels in advance, so there is not even the minimal choice previously offered, while no tea, coffee or biscuits are served.
A Trussell Trust food bank in West Wales which has a number of branches and also ran cafes has suspended the latter and closed one of its branches, but otherwise continues to operate using its usual source of donations (supermarket collections and Tesco/Fareshare Food Cloud with which Trussell has a ‘partnership’). It has produced a leaflet for users explaining why procedures had to change.
Another Trussell Trust franchisee in a poor town in West Wales was struggling last week when I looked at its Facebook page. However, in the interim, I got a report from the manager:
The community has rallied around and we have had a large amount of food donations already this week Our stock is a lot improved and we wait to see what the need will look like over the next week or two as everyone settles into a new way of life. We too have seen a huge number of financial donations come in over the last week or so. Many people who can’t get out have given money instead. Have had a couple of large financial donations from individuals too, four figure sums!!! Quite amazing and humbling too for a little town like ours. We are looking to go to deliveries only shortly for the protection of everyone.
The final food bank, a much larger, independent operation with several branches, has closed two of them and, like the Trussell food banks, makes up parcels in advance with a slightly reduced amount. The manager told me a week ago that they were ‘running dangerously low on supplies’ and noted that, like the London food bank above, it was handicapped by not being able to buy in bulk.
If we thought that the situation with regard to food poverty in the UK was bad before, it is likely to become considerably worse now. As Martin Caraher has recently noted, there is no way for the state to identify people who are suffering from food poverty and goes on to point out:
Our welfare system (Universal Credit) is not set up to deal with food insecurity and the policy has been to refer clients to food banks as opposed to giving them money for food..[while] the amount of money people currently receive for welfare is not sufficient for them to buy a healthy diet even if they could access it (quoted in an email from Food Inequalities Rebellion, 31/03/20).
Some of the more activist food poverty charities have called for greater action. The Church Action on Poverty (www.church-poverty.org.uk) has lent its support to a statement coordinated by Sustain (https://www.church-poverty.org.uk/coronavirusaction/) calling on the government to release more funds to eradicate household food insecurity and ease welfare constraints such as the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, at least for the duration of the crisis. This statement has been signed by 31 representatives of organisations and academics working in the field. The Food Inequalities Rebellion has focused on the food needs of children (https://foodinequalitiesrebellion.wordpress.com).
In the longer term, much needs to change in our welfare and food systems to seek to eliminate food poverty, as many have pointed out, most recently and notably Tim Lang in his book: Our Food Problems and How to Fix them (Penguin 2020). As he notes ‘charity can be good at highlighting need, can meet some of it, but is unable to provide lasting or adequate safety nets’ (p. 328).