When I go online, I notice that Ocado have posted a message across their homepage warning of exceptionally high demand. They have also removed all offers from canned food. Tesco have an unusually high number of products listed as unavailable. Morrisons warn shoppers of allowances per customer of some categories of products. Hand sanitiser and antibacterial soap is widely sold out. Toilet paper is increasingly hard to come by.
In the UK, food insecurity has become a common term. While it is understood at a household level, food security at a national level is not a regular topic of debate. For those who can afford to buy food – even at inflated prices – we spend little time considering an alternative scenario in which we have money to spend, but no food to buy. Periodically, footage of bare shelves in other countries may be broadcast, usually demonstrative of some political crisis, but this seems distant and disconnected to our own daily lives. There was political and media discussion about shortages and supply chain interruption as a result of Brexit, but these are yet to materialise.
For most of us in the UK, Coronavirus has elicited the first genuine concerns about our ability to feed ourselves and our families over the upcoming weeks and, in worst-case scenarios, months. Scenes of bulk buying in supermarkets have been captured on film and, although publicly mocked, have played out similarly online showing that, despite our external calmness, there is an underlying feeling of fear.
The British Retail Consortium has previously provided the Government with detailed information about the impact of a flu pandemic in the UK on the major food retailers. Although the BRC states that they do not anticipate major food shortages in a pandemic, choice is expected to become more limited and there may be limits to individual allocations. They also highlight the risk to staffing stores in the event of school closures. Their aim, they state, will be to get essential items on the shelves in the stores still operational.
It is, of course, those who are already vulnerable, living in food insecurity, who would be most impacted if stores close, prices rise, and shopping moves online. There are varying estimates for the number of people in this category. The Food Standards Agency, publishing the 2018 Food & You Survey, estimate that almost a fifth of the population are living in a position of food insecurity.
In response to the threat of widespread school closures, focus has turned to the one million children who rely on free school meals during the school day. The Guardian published a piece last week about the community organisations intending to become emergency food distributors in this outcome, acting as collection points for hot meals.
In my capacity as programme manager for London’s largest holiday provision programme, I have been asked about the role of community organisations in supporting children living in food insecurity. Community leaders with whom I have spoken say that they are intending to follow government advice regarding closure of public spaces meaning that, they too, will close.
If they were confident to remain open, they do not currently have the financial or human resources to provide food at to meet the expected need. Moreover, not every community has an organisation who are in a position to provide emergency food, making food security a postcode lottery. As people working for the NHS have pointed out, Coronavirus will lay bare the past decade of cuts. Youth provision will be no different.
The Government needs to implement a financial benefit system in which children and young people are issued with a payment card or voucher with which they can purchase food. This echoes the asks contained in a letter prepared by Sustain and the Independent Food Aid Network which is being sent to relevant Ministers today.
Once such a scheme is designed, it should remain in place as the response to school holiday food insecurity long beyond the Coronavirus pandemic as the most dignified and reliable way to ensure that every child has nutritious food every day. Holiday provision is a vital youth service offering many benefits to children and families, but as it stands it is an inadequate response to nationwide food insecurity in children.
Over the coming weeks, it is likely that families across the socio-economic spectrum will feel anxious about being able to buy food. I suggest we use this shared experience to learn empathy for those families who live in this state of perpetual food insecurity every day, and show solidarity.