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Covid-19 crisis is driving food poverty, says government watchdog

Cut incomes during the pandemic are not just forcing many to skip meals, the Food Standards Agency said, but mean people are facing complex social and emotional challenges without support
Match these numbers to the question: 1) 42 2) 66 3) 817 4) 13 a) In March, how many millions of pounds of the housing budget were MPs told had gone unspent? b) What percentage of all families accepted as homeless in England were found to be headed by single mothers? c) How many UK people held the same wealth as the 3.7bn poorest this year? d) What percentage was the rise in foodbank use announced by the Trussell Trust?

The Covid-19 pandemic has tipped households which were ‘just managing’ to make ends meet into food insecurity, new research has shown.

A report from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that up to one in ten people were forced to use foodbanks in June, a significant increase of around a third on the previous month. Others reported skipping meals entirely, while some families adopted “basic sustenance” diets made up largely of cheap but unhealthy foods.

Younger people, households with children and people with physical or mental health conditions were most likely to have to access food through charities or foodbanks.

Last week the Office for National Statistics reported that UK employment was at an all-time low, reflected in the FSA’s findings – a quarter of the foodbank users surveyed said it was because they had lost their job, with another 20 per cent saying it was because of lowered income while furloughed.

Meanwhile 27 per cent said they couldn’t afford food because of delays or problems with benefit payments.

The pandemic has meant that “established tactics for stretching limited incomes and food budgets failed” with household incomes reduced even further, the report said, with “little left to cut except food itself”.

FSA researchers found that basic costs rising during the crisis, like larger utility bills as a result of spending more time at home and increased costs while children weren’t at school, made it harder for many to afford food.

Those in low-paid work, on zero-hours contracts or in mixed self-employment and salaried work were left financially exposed during the crisis, the report said, putting them more at risk of food poverty.

People without full-time salaries were struggling too, figures showed, including teaching assistants, social care workers and family support staff.

Households reported spending double or triple what they were before the pandemic despite now eating much less. This impact was felt by those who previously relied on meals with others, like a family Sunday roast, or those who were isolating struggling to afford supermarket delivery fees.

And others said that they were forced to rely on others to help with their food shopping but felt too ashamed to make requests about brands or supermarket choices.

It’s quite embarrassing when you go to the supermarket with these vouchers

Financial hardship felt as a result of the pandemic is also driving down the nutritional value of food eaten across the country, the FSA said, with families now forced to rely on tinned or frozen food if not going hungry regularly.

Some respondents showed signs of malnutrition, like regularly feeling fatigued or poorly, while others were putting on weight despite eating much less.

One participant, Abbie, was on a budget of £60 a week for herself and her children before the crisis. She has been on Universal Credit for a year after leaving a violent partner.

“I go to [to the foodbank] to top up because I’m on Universal Credit and it doesn’t stretch,” she said. “Even for someone like me who is quite savvy, like I like to make sauces and stuff from fresh and cook… it’s still a bit hard, the money just doesn’t reach everything.”

She is now struggling to make sure her and her children’s diets are sufficiently nutritious, a particular concern to her as she is breastfeeding.

Abbie has been receiving a £15 voucher every week to cover her son’s lost free school meals.

“It’s quite embarrassing when you go to the supermarket with these vouchers,” she said. “We already know we are poor, we don’t need something to highlight that…”

She has had to rely more on corner shops since lockdown without transport, where it is harder to keep costs down: “I went through my bank statement and I found that I spent a lot in the corner shops.
Because of the budget that I have, it’s like a vicious circle. The budget I have is too low to get everything I need. And then I keep nipping out to buy things at a stupid price.”

However the impacts of the crisis “reached far beyond missed meals”, according to the report, with people experiencing “complex and interlocking” physical, emotional, social and financial challenges.

Women and single parents were being particularly effected by increased caring responsibilities during the pandemic, limiting their opportunity to earn an income while upping their outgoings.

And several respondents said they had recently fled abusive partners and were now raising children by themselves.

People reported being unable to access the support they needed, being unaware of what help was available, or hesitant to ask for support as a result of stigma.

Emily Miles, chief executive at the Food Standards Agency, said: “Our research shows that our food habits changed rapidly in lockdown and that food insecurity has become an issue for many people. These findings have implications for many aspects of Government policy such as food safety, nutrition, welfare, health and education.

“We continue to work with governments, the private sector and civil society in the consumer interest so that we can all have food we can trust.”

A government spokesperson pointed to grants up to £16m for frontline charities and community groups as well as £63m available to local authorities to show their efforts to help people stave of hunger. They also cited the £9.3bn of government money put into the welfare system to support the country’s most vulnerable people.

They said: “The extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic have meant real financial difficulty for many households.”