We’re not ‘all in this together’: COVID-19 exposes stark realities of food insecurity

Rebecca O’Connell and Julia Brannen (both UCL Institute of Education) explain how the COVID-19 pandemic reveals and exacerbates existing food inequalities.


While slogans of solidarity – “We’re all in this together” – plaster social media, millions of households with children are experiencing coronavirus lockdowns further plagued by food insecurity. The global pandemic is both revealing and accentuating existing social and health inequalities when it comes to food access.

In the UK, food supply is threatened by reliance and restrictions on imports and the movement of labour. Amid panic-buying, stocks of surplus food in food banks are running perilously low. Meanwhile, the sale of ‘basic’ cooking ingredients has surged, with YouTube cook-along and Zoom dinner parties a new middle-class norm.

A&BCUPBOARD
The kitchen cupboard of a lone mother with two teenage children living in a British coastal town, the day before she received her Jobseekers Allowance. She typically has between £20-£70 per week to spend on food.*

More than 5 million people living in households with children have gone without enough to eat since the lockdown began — one consequence of school closures and the sudden absence of school meals.  This has dire consequences for the lives of children in low-income families now and their health and opportunities in the future.

While these disparities are exacerbated by the COVID-19 emergency, low-income families across Europe are no stranger to food shortages, as we found in researching families and food in hard times. Our study of food poverty among low-income families in the UK, Portugal and Norway, funded by the European Research Council in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008, forces us to consider what the future holds for these families in the emerging social order.

Using a mix of methods, including qualitative research, with 133 low-income families living in or near the capital cities of the three countries, we examined parents’ and children’s experiences of food poverty within the material realities of households, localities and nation states. In the UK and Portugal, poverty and food poverty were the result of inadequate incomes from paid work and social security benefits, compounded by so-called austerity measures that hit the poorest families hardest. Whilst Norway was less affected by the recession and benefits are generous compared with the other two countries, entitlement is firmly tied to labour market participation and a high skills economy. This leaves migrants whose skills are poorly matched to the labour market at much greater risk of poverty than other groups.

Picture 4
The bread and fruit baskets of a Somalian migrant couple with four children in Oslo, Norway. The father’s back problem means he can no longer work for the postal service; this month an administrative problem meant the benefit payment was late.

Comparing families’ food expenditure to budget standards, we found that almost all low-income families were spending less on food than is customary for the average family of a similar type and size.  Mothers, who were in almost all cases the ‘food managers’, fed their families on highly constrained budgets. Some went to food banks but all shopped around in different supermarkets and locations in search of bargains. Because most relied on public transport, this was an expensive as well as time-consuming strategy. Many lacked the money to bulk buy and so lived hand to mouth. Freezers were an important and often cheap way of managing food resources. In Norway, most migrant families reported a monthly trip to Sweden to access affordable food. Many mothers cooked from basic ingredients and bulked out meals with cheap carbohydrate foods, and some lacked access to basic cooking facilities, like working ovens or electricity.

Mothers everywhere sought to protect their children from the worst direct effects of food poverty by cutting back on their own food intake, and were often reluctant to admit their children were going without adequate food. Still, children in about 1/3 of the families mentioned going without enough to eat at times. A majority reported fruit or vegetable consumption below the national average. For their part, children moderated their needs and contributed in indirect and direct ways, helping parents hunt for bargains and cook. But they also mentioned having difficulty concentrating at school, feeling excluded from social activities and different from their peers.

Particularly in the highly unequal and consumerised UK, children mentioned feeling embarrassed by low income and frustrated about the injustices of social inequality.

Picture 3
The refrigerator contents of a family of five in Lisbon, the day after the mother went food shopping. Both parents lost well paid jobs during the financial crisis of 2008, and have since been unemployed.

In all three countries, maintaining dignity and avoiding shame stopped mothers seeking help when needed. In Norway, seeking discretionary support from the state at the level of the municipality was a norm for low-income families, although it typically involved a lot of red tape. In Portugal, families relied a great deal on family and friends, both routinely and in crises. In term time their children participated in a three-course school lunch that was in almost all cases subsidised by the state, a provision that mitigated some of the food shortages at home.

In the UK, families more often turned to and were referred to formal support such as debt counsellors, and to friends. Unlike in Portugal, many children did not qualify for free school meals (FSMs), which are means-tested and exclude most parents in low-paid work. Even if they were eligible, some children said the allowance did not stretch to a decent meal. Furthermore, children whose parents’ migration status meant they had No Recourse to Public Funds were not entitled to FSMs and went hungry during the school day, unless schools met the cost from their discretionary funds. School holidays when there were no school lunches were times of additional cost, food shortages and worry among families in the UK and Portugal. School closures during the COVID-19 crisis are similarly contributing to rising food poverty.

As the UK government’s response to COVID-19 has made clear, austerity is a political choice. The economy has to be organised differently. For too long, policy has ceded to the interests of corporations under the guise of protecting the freedom of the consumer.

There is a sense that we are at a crossroads, and the direction of policy travel has never been more important. In tackling this issue, we recommend three immediate steps for governments to consider:

  1. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) includes the Right to Food: ‘when every man, woman or child, alone or in community with others have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement’. While the UK, Portugal and Norway have ratified the Covenant, they need to demonstrate how their national laws respect, reflect and enforce its obligations.
  2. Governments should use budget standards research to ensure both wages and benefits enable families to afford diets that meet their needs for health and social participation.
  3. Universal healthy school meals should be provided for all children in compulsory education.

Entrusting food security to the market, as successive governments have done, leaves food to be distributed according to means and not needs, whilst expecting inadequately resourced schools to address poverty. The bottom line: inadequate income leads to children going hungry, and the pandemic makes it ever more clear why change is needed now.


Dr Rebecca O’Connell is Reader in the Sociology of Food and Families at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education.

Prof. Julia Brannen is Emerita Professor at the same unit.

* Photos in the text: Families and Food in Hard Times (foodinhardtimes.org). ERC grant agreement n°337977. 

All names are changed to protect the anonymity of the research participants.


Feature Image: April 2020 in London. Credit Natakim / Shutterstock.com


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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