Beyond ‘vouchers versus hampers’

Beyond 'vouchers versus hampers'

By Charlotte Gallagher Squires and Dr Anna Isaacs

21st January 2021
"School Meals Servery" by Cheshire East Council is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

A ‘Food in Lockdown’ study shows how the pandemic highlights problems for low-income families that need a systemic response, not a sticking plaster

Our research with low income families living in Bradford, Shepway (in Kent) and the London Borough of Brent  highlights the challenges parents face in supporting their children’s nutritional health and well-being during the pandemic. Beyond missing out on free school meals, growing evidence suggests that we need to think more holistically about the multiple and intersecting pressures parents on a low-income are currently facing.

There was outrage when, after the announcement of the third national lockdown and school closures across the UK, a Twitter user posted a photo of the ‘food hamper’ she had been provided in lieu of the free school meals her child would ordinarily receive. This prompted dozens more parents to share photos featuring foods of extremely poor quality and nowhere close to the £30 value they were supposed to represent (two weeks’ worth of lunches). The hours and days since have seen a reckoning about the role of the private sector in welfare provision, an apology from the catering company Chartwells, and a welcome return to providing parents with a £15 supermarket voucher per week per child.

Critics argue we need to go much further, however. In the short term many advocate a ‘Cash First’ approach parents direct cash transfers rather than ring-fenced vouchers. In the longer term we must envisage a welfare system in which the provision of emergency aid is not necessary.

Parents are spending more money feeding their children since the start of the pandemic

Our findings contribute to evidence that living through this pandemic is more expensive both for parents and for those living on a lower income, with low-income parents experiencing a double burden.

A Resolution Foundation report found that across all income brackets, households with dependent children are spending more than usual during the pandemic. Indeed, many of our parents spoke about the increased cost of food, bills and expenses associated with having children at home.

However, for those on higher incomes these costs were often offset by a reduction in spending on things like commuting or eating out, meaning that these families were still able to afford the food they wanted. This is in line with Resolution Foundation findings that higher-income households were saving money overall due to reductions in what has been called ‘social expenditures’, whilst lower income households were taking on debts and dipping into savingsto cope with rising expenditure.

Strategies that people on a low income often employ to manage limited budgets have been hampered by the pandemic. An October 2020 Institute for Fiscal Studies report helped us make sense of our finding that increases in food prices were largely being reported by parents living on a lower income, whilst most participants on a higher income did not report perceived increases in the price of food since March. Their report found that a 2.5% increase in the price of groceries in the first month of lockdown was largely accounted for by a reduction in promotions. Indeed, many of the lower-income families we spoke to reported that the promotions they usually use to maximise their food budgets were less prevalent, further driving up their expenditure on food.

Furthermore, the pandemic has required us to adjust the way we move around and shop to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission. These adjustments, such as shopping less frequently and ordering online, often come with higher costs. Similar to other reports, many of our participants were opting to use more expensive ‘corner shop’ type food stores due to their proximity and smaller size being associated with lower transmission risk. Additionally, the savings made from shopping at multiple stores to get the best deals from each were often no longer justifiable when weighed against anxieties about Covid-19 infection.

This points to a food environment that is increasingly unaffordable. Indeed, it wasn’t just families eligible for free school meals that were struggling to purchase foods required to support their children’s health, but also those whose incomes fell above this threshold.

Food and eating are a source of comfort, connection, entertainment and learning

Beyond the challenge of providing lunches to children whilst schools are shut, it is important that we put this in the context of reduced opportunities for social interaction, play and educational opportunities for children, alongside associated mental health impacts. Many parents we spoke to were seriously concerned about their children’s development and wellbeing. For some, cooking, baking and eating as a family became a valued time to escape stress, bond as a family and teach their children new skills. However, managing the pressure of keeping children entertained, fed and happy was a huge struggle for parents, particularly those who were also balancing this with work.

More than just money makes a meal

Having children at home for that extra meal per day doesn’t just incur more financial costs, it also requires time, thought and energy spent procuring, planning and preparing meals. Even when parents have put the time into buying and preparing a nutritious lunch, many parents we spoke to talked about the struggle of catering to children’s preferences and ensuring a level of variety in the food provided. This was a particular struggle for working parents, some of whom had reduced their hours, left work or were working late at night to manage childcare and work responsibilities. For some facing financial and/or childcare constraints, meal provision meant simply making sure their children had something to fill them up regardless of nutritional content. Many parents spoke of the relief of their children returning to school in September, knowing that their child would receive a warm lunch that they were not responsible for. The debate around the contents of Chartwells’ food hampers, or even hamper versus cash first approaches, is a distraction from the fact that children and parents in low-income families need far more than emergency sticking plasters.

The stories we have heard from across the country indicate that many families on a low income are already struggling to keep afloat through this pandemic. Maintaining the £20 a week, £1,000 a year, Universal Credit uplift beyond April is the bare minimum government can do to stop an already dire situation becoming worse. If we are to really support families through this pandemic, we must also go much further. Our findings point to a need address two separate issues:

  1. The need to work towards a welfare system that provides enough so that people have capacity to cope with external shocks, such as a pandemic, thus removing the need for emergency food aid.
  2. The need to think about children’s nutrition, across the income spectrum, not just as a parental responsibility but a societal one, where neither the energy nor cost of feeding children is borne solely by parents. Universal free school meals, or communal schemes for providing nutritious food should be considered.

The Food in Lockdown Study is a longitudinal qualitative research project being conducted by researchers from the Centre for Food Policy for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Obesity Policy Research Unit. The study is supported by the UK Department of Health and Social Care in order to inform their ongoing obesity prevention strategy. These reflections are based on interviews conducted between October 2020 and January 2021 and will be formally published later this year. Find out more at: https://blogs.city.ac.uk/covid19foodstudy/

Dr Anna Isaacs is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy. She is currently working on a series of projects for the NIHR-funded Obesity Policy Research Unit, exploring how food policies can better support positive nutritional outcomes, particularly in areas of deprivation.

Charlotte Gallagher Squires is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Food Policy. She is currently working on a study for the NIHR-funded Obesity Policy Research Unit, exploring how COVID-19 has changed families’ relationships with food and the food environment.

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