The grocery trade has stepped up impressively to the task of helping provide emergency food aid to hundreds of thousands of people falling into food crisis during Covid-19 lockdown. Multimillion-pounds’ worth of food, financial donations and staff time have either been paid for by government and local authorities for the shielded, or donated to charities, food banks and schools, to feed the homeless, older people stuck at home without support, and families struggling to make ends meet due to job losses.
The need is gigantic, the emergency response eye-watering. Surely the end of lockdown will offer relief? When it comes to food, unfortunately not. Lots of people are running out of money. During lockdown, the biggest food bank network, The Trussell Trust, reports an 81% increase in referral of people experiencing destitution and hunger since the same period last year, with 122% more children. The Food Foundation estimates that 200,000 children have had to skip meals due to family income being too low, and there is a long summer break ahead where many children will experience holiday hunger. As two million people sign on for universal credit, they face a five-week wait and then pitifully low income. There is little prospect that mass food insecurity will abate any time soon.
We must now ask a fundamental question: what’s the food plan? Who should people turn to if they are struggling to put food on the table due to having too little money? Should we expect supermarkets to continue to donate food at gigantic scale to frontline charities already at their wits’ end? Should local authorities buy food in very large amounts and continue food parcel deliveries? Or should the social security safety net be recalculated by government to offer sufficient income to cover the basic costs of living, including food?
I’ve spent the past seven weeks of lockdown liaising in countless Zoom meetings with several government departments, numerous local authorities, food businesses and charitable food aid groups, trying to wrestle a solution to this conundrum.
A low moment came for me on 29 April, when the government at last issued its “guidance for people on accessing food and essential supplies”. Despite persistent advocacy by numerous charity leaders, the government signalled solutions only for those who have enough money to buy food (supermarket delivery slots, volunteer shoppers, etc.).
Financial insecurity as a factor in Covid-19 food vulnerability did not even get a mention, being recognised officially for the first time on 8 May when Defra secretary George Eustice mentioned it in the daily briefing, offering a miserly £16m to buy food for 5,000 frontline charities – about £40 per charity per day for 12 weeks to feed people who are homeless, in rehabilitation programmes, or escapees from domestic violence. Government says that people having no other means of support should contact their local authority. From that point on, it’s a postcode lottery whether people will get a crisis grant, a food parcel, be sent to a charitable food bank, or told that the cupboard is bare.
The light is dawning that someone, somewhere in this system, will have to pay for the food for millions of people on very low income or destitute, probably for a long period. Without a national food plan, it appears that the grocery trade could be expected to feed millions of people for free for many months to come. Sustain is calling instead for an adequate social security safety net that enables people to buy the food they need. This would be better for families, schools, local authorities and food businesses, as part of a Covid-19 food recovery plan that works for everyone. Please join us.