Many children in the UK qualify for free school meals, around 200,000 in London alone. Last year’s Survey of Londoners reported that 400,000 children experience some form of food insecurity overall, a number that is only set to increase across the UK due to Covid-19. People affected by food insecurity have limited access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods. School closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic has thus increased food insecurity for millions of children who were eligible for free school meals and are now having to go without. For many children, this was their only hot meal of the day. As reported by The Guardian, the government promised many families facing this situation free supermarket vouchers to compensate for their subsequently increased grocery requirements. However due to high demand and delays in the supply system, many families are yet to receive them, showing that not enough is being done to provide a safety net for vulnerable families during these exceptional times. The following post will take a brief look at how food insecurity has affected vulnerable school children, and what the potential impacts of this may be in the long-term.
Changes in the economic landscape and potential consequences
The problem faced by lower-income families of having to spend extra money on groceries has been compounded by a climate where job insecurity is increasing due to an uncertain economic future. Covid-19 has also brought about changes in grocery availability and spending habits; namely an increase in purchase of non-perishable items such as pasta or rice that are highly available and can be stored for long periods. In contrast, during a typical school day, children often consume a more balanced mix of non-perishable and fresh food. Therefore, the sudden lack of availability of healthy, fresh food for children of lower-income families could see a loss in important vitamins and minerals children would normally receive while at school.
Managing food security going forward
Lack of support for food banks and lack of free school meals for eligible children are just a couple of examples of food insecurity brought about by Covid-19. One of the most common instances of mild food insecurity is parents who now have to worry about compensating for the school meals their children will miss out on. Others could be facing moderate food insecurity, wherein children may simply have to miss out on the meals they would have received through school, or even severe food insecurity, wherein people go hungry as food banks run out of contributions. While many people are facing difficult situations, there are many charities and organizations that are working to lessen the burden of food insecurity. Within Scotland, children within the first to third years of primary school are usually eligible for free school meals across the board. Children in this age bracket will not automatically receive free meals during lockdown, but many local Scottish councils are still ensuring those who are in need are receiving free meals. For instance, across Aberdeen, dedicated hubs have been set up across schools and early learning centres that would have otherwise gone unused during social distancing, in order for children to continue to get access to free meals. The UK government is also temporarily widening free school meal eligibility to certain groups with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), for example children of a subset of failed asylum seekers supported under Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. These school meals are often delivered in the form of food parcels to eligible families or are available for collection.
Despite best efforts by the UK government, the sheer number of people requiring help to access free food is proving hard to manage during this pandemic. Issues such as failures in systems to provide sufficient safety nets for those facing food insecurity, in the case of the Government’s supermarket scheme, could act as a catalyst for discussion about whether enough is being done to tackle food insecurity in the UK long-term.
London.gov.uk, 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19): Supporting Foodbanks. [online] London City Hall. Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/coronavirus/volunteer-and-donate/coronavirus-covid-19-supporting-foodbanks> [Accessed 30 April 2020].
UK’s poorest families suffering as free school meal vouchers delayed (The Guardian)
Weale, S. and Murray, J., 2020. UK's Poorest Families Suffering As Free School Meal Vouchers Delayed. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/09/uks-poorest-families-suffering-as-free-school-meal-vouchers-delayed> [Accessed 30 April 2020].
Covid-19. No school meals, millions of kids at risk of food insecurity
Pasquini, E., 2020. COVID-19. No School Meals, Millions Of Kids At Risk Of Food Insecurity | Inter Press Service. [online] Ipsnews.net. Available at: <https://www.ipsnews.net/2020/04/covid-19-no-school-meals-millions-kids-risk-food-insecurity/> [Accessed 30 April 2020].
Coronavirus: Hubs across Aberdeen help children access free school meals
Hall, J., 2020. Coronavirus: Hubs Across Aberdeen Help Children Access Free School Meals - Evening Express. [online] Evening Express. Available at: <https://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/fp/news/local/coronavirus-hubs-across-aberdeen-help-children-access-free-school-meals/> [Accessed 30 April 2020].
GOV.UK, 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19): Free School Meals Guidance For Schools. [online] GOV.UK. Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance-for-schools#existing-school-food-arrangements> [Accessed 14 May 2020].
mygov.scot, 2020. School Meals - Mygov.Scot. [online] Mygov.scot. Available at: <https://www.mygov.scot/school-meals/> [Accessed 14 May 2020].
Images by Artist from Unsplash: Yu Hosoi.