With harrowing images of children and families caught up in the war in Ukraine on our screens and newspapers 24/7, it’s only right the nation’s focus – including that of the food and drink industry – has been how to help those caught up in the crisis.
But as the conflict heaps yet more pressure on food and energy prices, we should not forget the plight facing millions of children living in poverty in the UK.
Yesterday food campaigner Jack Monroe gave evidence to MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee, warning of the “never-ending loop of difficulty” facing families struggling to pay for their daily meals, a situation she described as “already untenable”.
Monroe, of course, has been vocal in recent weeks in calling for action from ministers and the UK’s supermarkets to shield the worst-off from the cruel cost of living squeeze.
In February, Asda announced it was almost doubling the number of stores stocking its Smart Price budget range after her intervention and this week owner Mohsin Issa said the range would be extended by a further 100 products.
Supermarkets across the board have been ramping up their efforts to help those struggling since the pandemic began, including taking part in the launch of a taskforce under another celebrity, footballer Marcus Rashford, who has also done so much to highlight the issue of food poverty.
But as MPs sit and listen to evidence and Zoom calls from celebs, the government’s own response to the crisis has sadly been shambolic.
Today, The Grocer revealed how health campaigners had written to health secretary Sajid Javid calling for urgent action to tackle the latest problems affecting its Healthy Start scheme, the Rashford-backed campaign that aims to use supermarkets to ensure free fruit, veg and milk gets to families on the breadline.
But despite all the previous publicity about the scheme – including a December 2020 report by the National Audit Office that found tens of thousands of families had faced long waits for vouchers after the government botched the handling of the contract and excluded several supermarkets from the scheme – once again it is in disarray.
Families claim to have been left humiliated at the tills of major retailers due to breakdowns in a new digital system being introduced to replace the scheme’s paper vouchers.
With just weeks to go before the paper vouchers are phased out altogether, it’s also estimated 350,000 families with babies or small children entitled to the help have not signed up to the card. Many of those who did have been rejected due to a hapless IT system, and subjected to exactly the sort of stigma the digitalisation of the system was supposed to prevent.
Problems with digital rollouts have become par for the course over the pandemic. Time and time again, politicians have over-promised and under-delivered on the ability of modern technology to come to the rescue.
So with home secretary Priti Patel launching a new digital application system for Ukrainian refugees, let us hope for their sakes it proves a lot more successful than the one supposed to help the UK’s own most vulnerable.