Food poverty fighters prepare for holiday hunger if coronavirus shuts schools

Foodbanks and charities are facing a battle for donations and volunteers if the coronavirus crisis deepens in the UK and increases demand for their services – it's a sign of "how fragile the whole system is" says one campaigner

Foodbanks and food poverty charities are stepping up preparations to ensure vulnerable families stay fed in the event that coronavirus triggers a school shutdown.

Closing schools – a step that the Italian Government took before announcing a full national shutdown yesterday – would put low-income families under the same strain that they face outside term time when parents have to cover the cost of extra meals to feed their children.

Last year The Big Issue spent months investigating holiday hunger, putting the spotlight on the issue and the work that charities and campaigners do to fill the gap.

As the coronavirus continues to spread in the UK, it remains a possibility that schools could close, forcing parents to dip into their pockets at short notice.

For foodbanks to be reporting that they’ve run out of pasta is quite something

Big Issue Changemaker Sabine Goodwin, who coordinates the Independent Food Aid Network, said that foodbanks are already struggling to keep pace with panic buying of staples like pasta hitting their supply chain.

She said: “People are not going to be thinking about giving donations to foodbanks, and a lot of foodbanks buy basic supplies and have funding to do that. For foodbanks to be reporting that they’ve run out of pasta is quite something.

“A lot of them are thinking about rationing for their parcels already. They can’t give out as generously as they would normally if they’re anticipating a drop in donations.

“The whole system is so fragile, who’s responsible for letting people who might need a foodbank know what’s going to happen? The bottom line is the people shouldn’t be living on such low incomes and relying on a broken benefits system in the first place.”

John McCorry, the chief executive of the UK’s busiest foodbank Newcastle West End, also told The Big Issue that dwindling donations is a concern.

The foodbank is supported by another Big Issue Issue Changemaker, NUFC Fans’ Foodbank, who collect food from Newcastle United supporters on matchdays. While sporting events in the UK are still largely unaffected – unlike football games in Europe – playing Premier League matches behind closed doors would see donations take a hit. The clash between Manchester City and Arsenal has become the first match to be called off because of the virus.

“We are heavily reliant on donations from the general public so if there is a bit of panic out there and it is creating shortages of food it suggests that people will be thinking of their own situation first and others separately and that might impact on donations we receive,” said McCorry. “And food supplies might reach a low level and we are starting to think about how to manage that and source that food.”

The Newcastle West End Foodbank has already made changes to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Stepping up hygiene measures means that clients are no longer able to pick their food by hand with staff and volunteers selecting it with gloves instead.

McCorry insists there are a number of contingencies in place to prepare for stricter government guidance to tackle coronavirus, including potentially scrapping the hot meals served on site to limit the time that people spend at the foodbank.

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But so far, foodbank users have remained stoic. “Our experience today and yesterday is that people are being very pragmatic about the situation,” he added.

That was a view shared in Huddersfield where Welcome Centre Foodbank chief executive Ellie Coteau is also stepping up preparations. She said: “I think in some ways that people who are accessing the foodbank and struggling to afford food might not have the coronavirus as the uppermost thought in their mind. So we’ve not heard too many concerns from the people that we support as yet. But as an organisation we will be keeping an eye on the situation as it develops.”

The foodbank’s holiday hunger programme relies on schools referring pupils and their families to them before the end of term – something that would not be possible in the wake of an immediate school shutdown, says Coteau.

The priority is to ensure that families are aware of how to access the foodbank.

Coteau said: “We are very aware that families who struggle with school holidays will struggle with unplanned closures because school holidays are coming up and you can plan and prepare as much as you’re able to but school closures would be an unexpected thing that families on tight budgets would not be able to prepare for. So our priority would be making sure that the foodbank is open and we have good stock levels.”

Keeping foodbanks open is also on the agenda for Fareshare, whose 22 regional warehouses get food to over 11,000 frontline charities in the UK.

The charity’s CEO Lindsay Boswell has highlighted the difficulty of sourcing people to volunteer to ensure that foodbanks don’t close their doors at a time when they may be needed the most.

He said: “We anticipate that proposed measures to contain the spread of the virus, for example, schools closures, could place an additional pressure on the voluntary sector. As we increase our efforts to put food on the plates of the most vulnerable, including children and families, the recruitment of more volunteers who can sort and deliver food to charities and community groups in their local area will be vital.”

And other charities are waiting in the wings to join forces to ensure no one goes hungry while Britain rides out the coronavirus.

We anticipate that proposed measures to contain the spread of the virus, for example, schools closures, could place an additional pressure on the voluntary sector

Radhika Iyer, Akshaya Patra Foundation UK’s associate director of Marketing and partnerships, told The Big Issue that the charity is prepared to provide the healthy, fresh vegetarian meals that they normally deliver even in the wake of a school shutdown.

She said: “We are in standby mode and because we work with fresh food we have menus in place with things that we will be able to serve should the situation arise.

“If it is a case of staying at home, we won’t have the wherewithal to go door-to-door so we would be partner with charities such as Feeding Britain and others to allow them to serve more food and have fresh supplies. The idea is to feed, so whoever’s name it goes under, we are happy to help.”

At the moment, the whole country is playing the waiting game while the battle to contain coronavirus rages on.

It is still unclear how the UK will be affected, but with shutdowns a possibility, consider the needs of families who use foodbanks when you’re out shopping in the supermarket.

And also, throughout the uncertainty of the coming weeks, keep supporting hard-working Big Issue vendors who rely on selling the magazine to make a living.