Many commentators have rightly observed that the coronavirus pandemic has amplified long-standing socioeconomic and health inequalities, and exposed both the fragility of the UK’s social security system and the growing reliance by so many on charitable food provision. At a time of global crisis, the UK’s fraying safety net has been under scrutiny and subject to urgent—though temporary—changes to slightly strengthen it, as part of efforts to improve the experiences of those relying on out-of-work social security for the first time.
It should not, however, have taken a global pandemic to get us talking about the endemic insecurity and everyday hardship that characterises social security receipt. The shortcomings with provision, which has been hollowed out and residualised by successive governments, have long been clear to all who took more than a passing interest. Just as social security provision deteriorated and weakened so too—and in direct response—charitable food provision increased. As the state withdraws, the charitable sector expands, providing much needed emergency provision in the form of food parcels, community food hubs, and the sharing of excess, “waste” food from retailers.
Through the Covid Realities research programme, we have been working directly with over a hundred parents and carers to document life on a low income during the pandemic. By keeping online diaries, responding to pre-recorded audio questions, and participating in virtual discussion groups, parents are sharing their experiences, and taking part in conversations about what needs to change, and why. Their accounts reveal the shortcomings with the social security system before the pandemic, but also the profound limitations of the government’s economic response to covid-19. Changes like the temporary £20 uplift to Universal Credit, while welcomed by those who receive it (many don’t because of being on legacy benefits or subject to the benefit cap) are often experienced as insufficient to help families with rapidly rising costs related to lockdown. What these diaries also reveal is how the strategies that families have in place to get by on a low-income—shopping regularly to access low-cost items; securing deliveries from cheaper edge-of-town supermarkets; visiting friends and families for meals; and making use of community forms of support—have been made impossible by covid-19. Roisin explains:
“We spend so much more on electricity, food, gas as we are at home most of the time. We used to have lunch or dinner at my mums after I got the children from school. Mum always picked up little things for us when she did her shopping like washing powder or sweets or toys. Now we no longer can visit.”
This leaves families struggling to cope and places increased financial pressures on those who are already navigating the uncertainties created by covid-19. Unsurprisingly, this has negative health impacts for affected families—the aggravation of existing physical and mental health problems, as well as the emergence of new ones.
Families we are working with report feeling let down and neglected by a government that seems disinterested and unaware of the needs of households living in poverty. Against this context, families are often reliant on and immensely grateful for food charity:
“Then came lockdown, trying to find fresh healthy food became not only difficult due to shortages in shops but with even a small reduction in money I was struggling to buy enough food for us to survive on. A local food bank which has been a huge help to us.” (Erik)
Families speak of the gratitude, but also of the pervasive stigma they associate with receiving a food parcel or visiting the local food bank. What the families also tell us, however, is that there are many (arguably inherent) problems with this form of charitable provision; not only is it stigmatising to have to ask for food aid, but the food received is often inadequate to meet people’s needs and, in some cases, inedible. Charitable food aid deprives people of agency and choice; they must take what they are offered and make the best of it, rather than making their own decisions about what they and their family want to eat. Holly experienced guilt and shame when receiving inedible food aid:
“It’s emotionally difficult to think I’ve been reduced to asking for stale and mouldy bread. I feel guilty for needing to access such assistance, I feel guilty for binning some of the produce given (my logic being that food poisoning could weaken my kiddie’s immune systems and make them more at risk of the virus, better to go without bread than to risk getting ill by it). And I feel shame. At that moment, I felt disgusted at myself. What kind of mother does it make me?”
The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has been a leading advocate for dignified, nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate charitable food provision. However, above all, IFAN argues that charitable food can never be a viable replacement for the money to purchase food in “normal” ways—in supermarkets, local grocers, and cafes; a claim which is robustly supported by Covid Realities’ emergent evidence base.
Through local-level partnerships, IFAN is pioneering a “cash first” approach to food poverty, aligned to its broader call for a systemic approach to tackling poverty. The work of IFAN, like the Covid Realities participants, illuminates the reality that emergency food aid cannot and never will be the answer to the underlying problem of rising poverty and everyday hardship for millions of households. Instead, what is needed is a stronger social security system, which invests in adults and their children as part of a preventative strategy to reduce poverty and inequality. Emergency food aid is a sticking plaster for the problem of poverty; we need to refocus the corrective lens away from increasing the number of food banks towards campaigning for a bolder and better social security system.
Please donate generously to The BMJ Appeal 2020-21. Donations can be made here: https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/bmj.
Ruth Patrick, University of York.
Maddy Power, University of York.
Kayleigh Garthwaite, University of Birmingham.
Sydnie Corley, Covid Realities & York Food Justice Alliance.
Geoff Page, University of York.
Competing interests. Maddy Power and Kayleigh Garthwaite are trustees of IFAN. None further declared.
This opinion piece informed by the COVID Realities research project (see www.covidrealities.org). The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org.