Food & Wellbeing

Food insecurity

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Hunger and the welfare state

By Lisa Scullion, University of Salford & Ben Baumberg Geiger, University of Kent

A major new research report looks at food insecurity among benefits claimants during COVID-19, finding that half of Universal Credit (UC)claimants are insecure, and one-quarter severely food insecure – even before the removal of the £20/week uplift.

This is the conclusion of a new report by Welfare at a (Social) Distance, a major national research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.

Using a large nationally representative survey of benefits claimants in May/June 2021 together with a survey of the general public, the Hunger and the welfare state report shows people claiming UC (which received the £20/week COVID-19 uplift) saw no rise in food insecurity during COVID-19. In contrast, those claiming ESA/JSA (which did not) saw sharply rising insecurity. This suggests the £20/week uplift helped reduce food insecurity.

The new Household Support Fund will not compensate for the end of the UC uplift or benefit announcements made in the Budget. Simple arithmetic means that a £500 million fund can only make up for the loss of £20 a week for around 1.3 million of the nearly 6 million people claiming UC. Even if the fund is targeted perfectly, it cannot cover even the 1.7 million who were severely food insecure and can cover less than half of the 3 million UC claimants who had any food insecurity. Most UC claimants already in food insecurity will therefore lose £20/wk.

Yet the report finds that food insecurity is a broader problem: even with the uplift, 50.0% of UC claimants were food insecure, and 28.8% were severely food insecure. Even among UC claimants receiving the £20/wk uplift and not subject to any policies that raise the risk of food insecurity, we estimate that 29.4% were food insecure, and 16.1% were severely food insecure. A significant fall in food insecurity would require a much broader increase in the level of benefits.

The report also finds that food insecurity is noticeably higher among (i) claimants receiving deductions from their benefits (e.g. due to past advances), or subject to the under-occupancy penalty (‘bedroom tax’) or benefit cap; (ii) the 55.1% of claimants who made debt repayments in the previous month; and (iii) disabled people, particularly those not receiving multiple disability-related benefit payments.

Even ignoring DWP deductions from benefits, more than half of claimants repaid debts in the last month. These claimants are 20 percentage points more likely to be food insecure than other claimants. Inescapable debt payments reduce the amount that people have to live on and need to be taken into account in poverty measures.

If benefits are to provide an adequate income, then the DWP cannot ignore claimant debt. While the Government have taken useful steps towards tackling problem debt by launching the ‘Breathing Space’ scheme, more needs to be done to check for debts among all claimants and then to help them by comprehensively providing orsignposting claimants to debt advice.

 

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Fixing Lunch

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The case for expanding free school meals (FSM)

A new report by CPAG and Covid Realities

Child Poverty Action Group press release for GM Poverty ActionThe Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Covid Realties have released a new report, Fixing Lunch: The case for expanding free school meals. The report brings together findings from CPAG analysis and the Covid Realities research programme to highlight problems with existing FSM provision. It also draws on research carried out as part of CPAG and Children North East’s UK Cost of the School Day project.

Despite a rise in the number of children claiming FSMs between March 2020 and March 2021, there are still one million school-aged children in poverty who miss out on any form of FSM provision because of restrictive eligibility criteria. The proportion of children in poverty not getting free school meals varies a lot across the 4 nations, and is highest in Wales and England (where 42% and 37% of children in poverty miss out on free meals respectively). Rates are much lower in Scotland (17%) and Northern Ireland (22%).

Key recommendations, developed with Covid Realities participants, are:

•   Work towards the long-term goal of universal provision of FSM for all children across the UK.
•   In the short term, increase eligibility to every family on Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits).
•   Eligibility should also be extended to all families with no recourse to public funds.
•   Follow the Scottish Government’s lead, extend free school meals to all primary school children across the UK.
•   Support family finances throughout the year by addressing the inadequacy of the social security system.
•  As a first step, the planned £20 cut to universal credit must be abandoned.Covid Realities logo for GM Poverty Action

 

i3oz9sFixing Lunch
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Food Security Pilot Projects.

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By Sian Mullen, Food Security Programme Coordinator

Alongside the VCSE sector and Local Authority partners, GMPA has started trialling a new approach to supporting
people experiencing food poverty in Tameside and Oldham. The approach centres around three fundamental points:

    1. Whilst emergency food handouts are currently necessary, they do not prevent or reduce food poverty.
    2. The only real way to reduce food poverty is to ensure people have access to a decent and reliable income.
    3. Identifying what kind of advice or support people need to maximise their income or access cash support, and who provides that advice, can be difficult.

Our response has been to develop and begin embedding a referral tool that enables anyone who refers people to a food bank to first identify income maximisation advice for people. We are also encouraging these agencies to make an active referral to an organisation who can support with this as opposed to signposting e.g. giving someone a phone number to call or a website to visit. The aim is to help tackle the underlying causes of food insecurity, and reduce demand for food banks and clubs.

The tool itself, based on a model developed in Scotland by A Menu for Change begins by identifying underlying issues that people presenting in food insecurity may be experiencing, such as job loss, benefit delays or sanctions, or debt.

The tool then directs referrers to some options that could help with these issues. For example, support to challenge a benefit sanction, budgeting advice, advice to reduce energy costs, or access to discretionary housing payments or the Local Welfare Assistance Scheme. If someone has no recourse to public funds, they may be eligible to get a cash grant to support themselves.

Finally the tool then directs referrers to a local organisation who can support the person with this process. For example, in Tameside, the Welfare Rights Team, Citizens Advice, and the GM Law Centre could all support someone to challenge a benefit decision. Or Infinity Initiatives could enable someone with no recourse to public funds to access a cash grant from the Migrant Destitution Fund.

As well as direct income maximisation support the tool also identifies areas of support that may help someone manages their finances better, for example it guides people to support for addictions, mental health issues, and homelessness.

We know that there are great organisations already working to refer service users on to the best support they can find, and this tool and process aims to embed this on a wider scale. People experiencing food insecurity often turn to places like schools, GPs, places of worship, and small community groups, so we need to ensure that these places, as well as larger VCSE sector organisations or Local Authorities recognise food insecurity as a symptom of poverty and treat it at its root cause. Equally, the tool allows those who may already be doing this kind of work, to more easily identify where to refer someone to, streamlining the process and maximising the chances of people getting the advice and support that they need.

Link to the online tool and Link to Advice Tameside website

Tameside Referral Tool for GM Poverty Action

Every year hundreds of millions of pounds of benefits go unclaimed across the UK, so we want to ensure people are accessing what they can. Other people may just need some help reducing energy costs or budgeting, or an interaction they have with a referrer might be the point when they’re finally able to ask for help with other issues such as mental health, or an addiction. Or there may be schemes that people have been unaware of such as a local welfare assistance scheme. During the consultation process that we carried out to develop the tool in Tameside, we already identified support that other organisations were unaware of.

We are continuing to work to ensure the tool is accessible and helpful for diverse ethnic communities. This includes developing translation documents to go alongside the tool in key languages used across the boroughs, and looking at how we can identify organisations which have language support available for people in need of advice.

Sian Mullen Food Poverty Programme Coordinator for GM Poverty Action

Sian Mullen

The Oldham tool is still being developed but you can download or use an online version of the tool for Tameside here. If you’re an organisation in Tameside who refers people to food banks we really encourage you to use this tool with people before sending them on to the food bank. If you are using the tool we’re really keen to collect any feedback you may have on it so we can adapt it as needed. You can share your feedback with us, or report how you’ve been using it, using the online forms available here.

When we have feedback from the pilot projects, we hope to encourage the development and rollout of similar tools in other boroughs of Greater Manchester – please look out for more information on this later in the year.

The Food Security Programme is a Greater Manchester Poverty Action programme

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Mental Wellbeing

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Greater Manchester Mental Wellbeing conversation findings published

By Charlene Mulhern, Greater Manchester Health & Social Care Partnership

Findings from the Greater Manchester Mental Wellbeing conversation have been published with over 4,000 people emphasising what is important for their mental wellbeing.

The aim is to use this information to understand what matters and to shape future initiatives to improve mental wellbeing, making sure they reflect the needs of local people. Key findings have indicated that:

  • The majority, (97%), of Greater Manchester citizens think that mental wellbeing is important or very important;
  • Whilst significantly more people know what to do if they wanted to improve their mental wellbeing,(58%), there are 42% who are either unsure or who have no idea;
  • Work (and/or college) is the single biggest factor associated with poor mental wellbeing and cited by around 1/3 of all respondents, followed by existing mental health illnesses and / or disabilities;
  • Almost two in three people in Greater Manchester (61%) don’t feel connected to their community or place;
  • An emphasis of green open space, the ambiance of the surroundings, good facilities and events and people behaving in a more supportive ‘community’ way would meet most people’s needs (63%) for a place of positive wellbeing. This reinforces that improving mental wellbeing is as much about shaping places as it is about engaging people
  • The people surveyed highlight that too many people aren’t very happy (5.2/10), don’t find life satisfying (5.1/10) and worthwhile (5.7/10) and have fairly high levels of anxiety (5.6/10)

Responses to questions clearly indicated that there is no one single solution. Improving mental wellbeing across the population will require a whole system approach which involves everyone working together to bring about sustainable long-term system change. A plan to respond to feedback is now underway.

Access to the detailed report can be found here

 

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The Good Food Bag Update

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By Jenni Pocsai, Operations Manager, The Good Food Bag

Jenni Pocsai, Good Food Bag for GM Poverty Action

Jenni Pocsai

The Good Food Bag is a meal kit service funded by Irwell Valley Homes and One Manchester. The Good Food Bag provides low cost, healthy meal kits to organisations, as well as selling directly to customers in areas of food insecurity. They have initially started in Sale West, in Trafford. The idea is simple; for just £7 people get a bag with ingredients and a simple step by step recipe card to cook a nutritious meal to feed a family of four. Not a family of four? No problem – the meals are just as tasty the next day, so enjoying a left-over lunch, or super speedy supper another day in the week takes care of any leftovers!

Since starting in Trafford in October, the Good Food Bag has partnered with Healthy Me, Healthy Communities to provide the meal kits to those accessing their community grocers.  This is bringing a new group of budget food finders to the doors of the grocers in Hulme and Gorton.  The same idea will be launching in January with The Good Food Bag available at Lucy’s Pantry, run by Emmaus in Salford.

The idea is a simple one, make more options for good value food available to people where they already are. We want to help those who are inexperienced cooks to make their food budgets go further. By learning new recipes and how to put foods together, the offerings from community grocers and other schemes will make more sense and be more cost-effective long term.

Sasha Deepwell, Chief Exec of Irwell Valley explains “It’s more than just providing a food parcel, it’s offering choice, it’s developing skills and inspiring confidence, it’s affordable and it’s feeding families right now. We have a few budget friendly food offerings in Manchester, but none are like The Good Food Bag. It’s part of a new trend towards purchased food, planning ahead for if surpluses run out, and providing a more sustainable solution to help people out of food insecurity.’’

Registered housing providers have certainly played their part in the pandemic, supporting communities who have been hit hard by lockdown and the subsequent recession. But this problem is not going away anytime soon, and the key will be to invest in long terms solutions and try to find a way forward with purchased, rather than donated food – but still provide low cost, high quality food to families on their doorsteps.

Nicole Kershaw, Chief Exec at One Manchester said, “The Good Food Bag is a great way to help those families hardest hit by the pandemic. It’s not a handout, it’s a helping hand when people need it most.  With The Good Food Bag, I know we can make a difference to people’s lives.” In a time where making a difference counts more than ever, find out how you can get involved here.

 

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Poverty as a Health Issue

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By Simon Watts, Public Health Registrar on placement with GMPA

Poverty can cause ill health, but ill health can lead to poverty. We are seeing this more visibly with Covid-19, but this was apparent before the pandemic. As apublic health professional, I am passionate about preventing ill health. This short piece argues that poverty is one of the root causes of ill health and that these two large areas of public policy should not be considered in isolation.

Poverty can cause ill health in several ways. Through my recent research into local welfare assistance I have heard stories of residents living in cold, carpet-less, houses and not being able to afford to eat or pay their bills. These stories have clear links to poor physical and mental health and show the importance of strong welfare support in preventing ill health. Good housing, education and fairly paid jobs are also some of the things that will reduce poverty and protect people’s health longer term. These societal factors have a direct impact on health, but often aren’t talked about in the context of health. Improving health is about the NHS, right? Partly, but the NHS treating illness is only part of the picture. And, treating ill health is usually more expensive than preventing ill health in the first place.

Investing in poverty to improve health

Those on the lowest incomes are more likely to be in poor health and more likely to access emergency healthcare services. This is extremely distressing for the residents it impacts and their families, but it also puts pressure on local health budgets. This has been the case for a long time, but more could be done to change it. Investing what little funds there are available locally to reduce poverty could improve resident’s health and save CCGs and local authorities money in the longer term.

Similarly, we invest in a range of public health advice about how to lead a healthy lifestyle; what to eat, the need to take the right amount of exercise. However, we know that some groups are less able to act on this advice, particularly those on lower incomes who might face additional pressures and stress, so the health gap between low and high income groups widens further (Naidoo & Wills, 2016). Why is that? If your material, basic needs aren’t being fulfilled, why would a balanced diet, or taking regular exercise even be on your mind? Health is not a choice when you are struggling to make your rent or feed your family. Trying to tackle important lifestyle issues without tackling poverty will fail and will leave some lower income groups behind.

If we don’t tackle poverty as one of the underlying causes of poor health, we will continue to pour money into health treatment services without addressing one of the key root causes of that ill health.

There are positive examples of progress though. Across Greater Manchester there are a range of services which work with residents to help improve their circumstances. One of these services, Focused Care, work with residents to support them with underlying challenges in their lives such as housing issues or benefits; when these issues are resolved residents may then have the space and time to focus on their longer term health.

Similarly, my recent work on local welfare provision in Greater Manchester has identified some local authorities which offer strong support for those in financial crisis, helping people get back on their feet and improving their mental and physical health as a result. But access to that support is variable across the city region.

Local authority leadership and governance around poverty mitigation and reduction is needed to improve living conditions, and ultimately health. There are Greater Manchester authorities which have strong structures in place to help reduce poverty, led by elected members, but in some authorities poverty appears to be less engrained in decision making. It is worth looking to Scotland, where action plans on poverty reduction are a mandatory requirement for each local authority, as well as the need to consider inequalities in every policy decision through the Fairer Scotland Duty.

Targeted health interventions can reduce poverty

Poor health can also cause poverty, through no longer be able to work for example. Ideally more ill health would be prevented in the first place, which would reduce financial hardship but, as discussed, preventing ill health is complex. However, the health system can help prevent more severe illness if practitioners know about warning signs and symptoms early enough and work with individuals to manage them.

An example of innovation in this space is a GP pilot in Greater Manchester, funded through the commissioning improvement budget. The pilot involved contacting residents who hadn’t visited their GP for several years, starting with those who had historic risk factors such as high blood pressure or a history of smoking. If those residents didn’t respond, they were followed up, even if that meant multiple phone calls or a home visit.

Traditionally a patient might not have been followed up if they couldn’t be reached three times. Changing that approach meant GP practices persistently seeking out residents who wouldn’t normally engage, helping them proactively manage their health issues, which if left unmanaged could have resulted in a health crisis.  The pilot was disrupted by COVID-19, but this approach is supported elsewhere and could help reduce severe illness and the associated financial hardship.

Conclusions

Simon Watts for GM Poverty Action

Simon Watts

I am convinced that a strategy of proactively supporting the health of our most vulnerable residents will make a positive impact on their health and wealth, when complemented by a wider ranging, local-authority-led poverty mitigation and reduction strategy that targets the underlying causes of poverty. This should be supported by poverty and health being considered in all policy decisions.

The cost of not addressing poverty could be higher from a health and societal perspective than investing in interventions that can reduce poverty. Using elements of the healthcare budget, such as commissioning improvement funds, to support vulnerable groups and poverty reduction could reduce pressure on the healthcare budget longer term.

 

 

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The National Food Strategy

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The National Food Strategy: What does it do for food poverty?
By Sian Mullen

Part one of the National Food Strategy, an independent review supported by a team of experts across the food system, was published last month. It aims to make, “urgent recommendations to support the country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period”.

Initially, the strategy does a good job of steering the conversation towards the relationship between food and economics. It highlights some of the factors that cause food poverty: sudden unemployment, the housing benefit cap, and delay in receiving universal credit. Equally, it recognises that the lack of a “financial buffer”, experienced by those in low paid jobs, means they are less likely to be able to cope with the shock of a loss of income. Thus, it correctly determines that food poverty is not caused by a lack of food, it is caused by a lack of funds to buy it.

However, the strategy recommendations do not focus on fixing these underlying causes of poverty. Aside from a brief note to continue to measure food poverty (an important factor in ensuring the right work is done in the right place), the focus is directed towards free meals and voucher support. It predominantly focuses on children, presumably based on the slightly misleading assertion that, “new food bank users are overwhelmingly children and young people”. A closer look at the statistics relating to this claim reveal that while 21% of users during COVID-19 were families with dependent children and 5% did not have dependent children, the other 74% of respondents ‘preferred not to answer’. It is questionable to draw any conclusions around the age of users from such statistics. Equally, 22% of new food bank users (over the age of 16), were aged between 16-24; a significant, but not overwhelming proportion of the population.

This is not to detract from the importance of ensuring that children have access to nutritious food. However, this singular emphasis on children runs the risk of a strategic focus that concentrates on food handouts and vouchers as opposed to changes in welfare and employment policies to ensure adults have access to a decent and reliable income in order to feed themselves and their children.

One of the key recommendations is an increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers. Whilst valuing initiatives aimed at ensuring children are nutritionally healthy, there are flaws to this approach. Firstly, if people do not have enough money to provide for their children, then they should receive more money. Cash assistance avoids issues surrounding accessing vouchers, issues around accessing shops where you can spend vouchers, and provides the recipient with dignity and equality when buying products (for an interesting perspective on the relegation of those on benefits to a world outside of money see: Williams (2013)). Critics argue that vouchers are necessary to ensure funds are spent as intended, however evidence suggests that cash schemes are successful in meeting project aims (Bailey (2013); DFID (2017)) and the level of control provided by vouchers is unreasonable and promotes
dependence on handouts,

“One of the principles of universal credit is to encourage personal responsibility.
It’s inconsistent … to say a benefit claimant should be trusted to pay their rent,
but we shouldn’t trust them to buy food…”
(CPAG)

Secondly, the uptake of Healthy Start vouchers is low with the current rate at only 48%. If vouchers are going to be the temporary answer, then there needs to be a focus on maximising take-up through proper promotion of the support that’s available, reducing complexity and stigma and measures to ensure vouchers can be accessed easily.’

Sian Mullen Food Poverty Programme Coordinator for GM Poverty ActionUltimately, if we are going to end food poverty then we need to address the problems that lead to food poverty. What we really need in Greater Manchester is a strategy that focuses on ensuring everyone has access to a decent and reliable income (Caraher & Furey (2017); Garnham (2020); Macleod (2019); Tait (2015)). Yes, we need some short-term fixes to the symptoms, but without a strategy that has a clear long-term goal of a decent and reliable income for all, the problem of food poverty will remain.

Sian Mullen
GMPA Food Poverty Programme Coordinator

 

 

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Food poverty programme

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GMPA’s Food Poverty Programme Update, and Introducing Sian Mullen
By Tom Skinner

Addressing the underlying causes of food poverty has been a major focus of GMPA’s work over the last three years. Many of you have contributed to it, including through the Greater Manchester Food Poverty Alliance project which co-produced the GM Food Poverty Action Plan, published last year.

Since then, we have pushed for many of the actions in the plan to happen. This includes:

  • The GM Combined Authority collating information about poverty levels, access to food, Healthy Start voucher uptake and more, and sharing this with Local Authorities.
  • A greater recognition of the Combined and Local Authorities’ roles in reducing poverty as a means of tackling food poverty, and elected members and officers being tasked with this.
  • Increasingly joined up thinking about food provision during the school holidays. (Although we eventually want to reach a state where the need for charitable food aid is significantly reduced.)
  • More recently we have been very involved in helping to support and shape GM’s response to Covid-19, particularly addressing the extra impact that the pandemic has had on people in poverty.

To build on this work we recently recruited to a new post – Food Poverty Programme Coordinator – that will focus on implementing the action plan and support measures that address the underlying causes of food poverty.  This work will include piloting place-based partnership approaches to reducing food poverty in different localities across Greater Manchester. We were delighted to have appointed Sian Mullen to the role.


Sian Mullen

Sian Mullen Food Poverty Programme Coordinator for GM Poverty ActionSian has worked in the development and humanitarian sectors both in the UK and abroad for many years. She is passionate about working to alleviate poverty to create a more equal society, and is excited to be focusing on reducing food poverty in Greater Manchester.

Sian has lived in Manchester since 2012 when she came to complete her PhD in Humanitarianism.

Prior to joining GMPA she worked as a programme manager with Oxfam, coordinating their poverty alleviation programme across Greater Manchester. She has also been an active volunteer with several charities involved in food provision including during the Covid-19 response.


Tom for GMFPA article for GM Poverty Action

Tom Skinner, GMPA Co-Director

At GMPA we are excited about working with Sian and many of our partners over the coming years as we work towards our vision of a Greater Manchester free from poverty. Linked to this is the need for national action on food poverty. Part one of the National Food Strategy, an independent  review supported by a team of experts across the food  system, was published last month. You can read GMPA’s comments in response to the strategy in a separate article on the news page.

 

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Local Welfare Assistance

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Ensure Local Welfare Assistance is the lifeline it needs to be, during this crisis and in the future
By Gareth Duffield, Area Manager – Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire, Trussell Trust

During the pandemic we have seen a soaring rise in need. The number of food parcels provided by food banks in the Trussell Trust food network increased by 89% in April compared to last year, with a staggering 107% rise in parcels for families with dependent children.

Over the past few months, we’ve heard lots of suggestions that focus on getting food to people who can’t afford it. But food isn’t the answer to people needing food banks.  We are working towards a society where everyone has enough to buy food for their family, cover their housing costs, heat and light their homes, and to be able to buy all the other essentials we all need to get by.

During this crisis, we have been working in coalition with other anti-poverty charities to call for lifelines to help us all weather this storm, such as through suspending the repayment of Universal Credit advance payments, and increasing benefits that go towards the cost of raising children.

One important safety net is local welfare assistance schemes (LWA) which can provide cash grants to keep households afloat in times of financial crisis. When properly run, they get money to people quickly and can reduce the likelihood that people will become homeless or need to turn to a food bank.

It was heartening that the Prime Minister has announced a £63 million fund for these schemes; and of this, councils in Greater Manchester have received an allocation of £3.9m. Now this money has been allocated, it is absolutely crucial that these funds are administered properly if these schemes are to be the lifeline we so desperately need at this time. We are asking local authorities to:

•  Spend the money as intended: We recognise that local authorities are under huge amounts of pressure in many areas of their budgets, but we must ensure this money is not swallowed up by the growing holes in local authority budgets.

•  Build awareness of Local Welfare Assistance and the new funding: We know awareness of LWA can be extremely low. Poor publicity, unclear application processes and onerous application forms can limit uptake and leave people turning to food banks instead. Local authorities should promote and publicise the existence and purpose of schemes and agree an approach to signposting and support pathways with food banks.

•  Ensure people in need can access Local Welfare Assistance: Given the scale of present hardship, local schemes should consider relaxing their qualifying criteria to ensure those most in need get support. For example, considering applications from low income working families or those with no recourse to public funds.

•  Ensure people get the right kind of support: There must be a flexible, tailored approach to the kinds of support people receive, including the option for cash payments, rather than just food vouchers or other in-kind benefits, so people can buy food and other essentials like gas and electricity like anyone else. We know that GMPA have also been advising councils to adopt this approach.

It will also be important for local authorities to monitor the impact of this new funding, so that we can build the case for long-term investment in local welfare assistance.

We are calling on the UK Government to allocate £250m a year in funding for local welfare assistance, which would bring spending in England in line with equivalent schemes in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that the £63m fund is not a one-off, but instead local authorities can continue to provide this vital funding during the challenging times ahead.

Gareth Duffield TT article for GM Poverty ActionThank you to all our campaigners, food banks, and partners such as The Children’s Society, who helped make the changes we’ve seen so far happen. Please continue to join our calls for long-term investment into this crucial local lifeline.

No one should be forced to use a food bank. When we stand together, we can make a real impact – we hope this new money is an important first step in doing just that.

 

Gareth Duffield

 

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Food support provision through Covid-19

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Food support provision through Covid-19
by Filippo Oncini, University of Manchester

In June, a mixed method study was launched to understand the obstacles, needs, and prospects of the food support providers active in Greater Manchester immediately after the Covid-19 peak. Food support providers were invited to fill out a questionnaire and to participate in a longer interview online. Of the organisations that responded, 55 completed the questionnaire and 33 agreed to a follow up conversation. Five additional interviews were conducted with sector experts not primarily involved in frontline support, to gain additional insight into some of the findings. Although the sample is mostly composed of food banks, it also includes several responses from food pantries, food clubs and meal providers. Preliminary analyses of the data should be taken with a pinch of salt, as respondents are likely to be self-selecting on certain characteristics of the organisations, which may produce biased responses. Nonetheless the data is useful as a starting point to reflect on the emergency responses put in place, the most common difficulties and the expectations food providers have for the near future.

Let us start with some good news: respondents have not been turning eligible people away due to lack of volunteer and staff capacity, or because of a shortage of food in stock. Despite most organisations declaring that the number of volunteers has decreased during the crisis, the capacity to improvise and quickly adapt to the new circumstances, coupled with the great generosity shown by individuals and companies, has allowed them to respond promptly to the increasing requests of people in need. For instance, many of them shifted logistics operations from food pick up to food delivery to help people that were shielding. It is not by chance that a striking majority claimed to be resilient against the challenges posed by the crisis, talking about a rise in monetary and food donations (Figures 1 and 2). Interestingly, despite many food support providers being forced to shut down after the lockdown due to a lack of volunteers and/or funds, the ‘parallel welfare’ provided by the charities and by mutual aid groups (MAGs) apparently absorbed many needs that emerged after the lockdown.

Figures 1 and 2. “Thinking about the following aspects of your organisation, how have each of them changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak?”

Figs 1 and 2 for Oncini artcle for GM Poverty Action

Yet the necessity to maintain the supply of food at all costs came with some drawbacks. The lockdown measures that followed Covid-19 not only affected the financial stability (Figure 3) and the management of the organisations, but actually undermined the influential ways in which food support providers used to operate – i.e. the “social atmosphere” (see Figure 4). Before the lockdown, a whole series of services were offered in addition to food support that were as important as the food parcels themselves. With 40 of the respondents reporting an increase in the number of clients (Figure 5), due to physical distancing measures in place, other forms of support such as financial advice, empathic listening and human connection were partially or totally lost, just when they were likely to be needed the most.

Figures 3 and 4. “On a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is “Not at all” and 5 is “Very much so”, to what extent would you say COVID-19 has affected the following?”

Figs 3 and 4 for Oncini article for GM Poverty Action

Figure 5. “Thinking about the following aspects of your organisation, how have each of them changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak?”  

Fig 5 for Oncini article for GM Poverty Action

This leads us to another consideration. The exceptional nature of the first Covid-19 wave provoked the exceptional response of charities and public services alike. The sudden growth of MAGs all over the country is probably the most evident sign of this collective effort. Yet many food providers do not know how to project food poverty relief in the future. Especially during the interviews, respondents wondered whether food and monetary donations would increase again should a second lockdown occur, and stressed that the end of the furlough scheme, winter hardships, and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, will exacerbate the situation for many people that already struggle to make ends meet and increase the number of people in need of food aid. This, in turn, could affect the response capacity of many organisations, some of which have less than two months’ worth of food or cash reserves at current levels of demands (Figures 6 and 7). Hence request of food support providers is the conception of a strategy at both the national and the local level that considers the potential scenarios and responses to a second crisis, to keep the sector afloat regardless of the severity of the upcoming crisis.

Figures 6 and 7. “Roughly, how many weeks will your existing food stocks/cash reserves last at current levels of demand?” 

Figs 6 and 7 for Oncini article for GM Poverty Action

Filippo Oncini research - Covid-19 article for GM Poverty Action

Filippo Oncini

While highlighting the fragility of the UK welfare system, the Covid-19 crisis has also shed light on the resilience of many food support providers, as well as on their complementarity. From more formal organisations, to less structured and extremely agile ones, food support providers have played a central role in the first phase of this major crisis. Yet the solidity of a social contract between the state, businesses and social groups cannot rely on a sector of the economy, no matter how well organised, intentioned and funded, for shielding the most vulnerable from poverty, precisely because food aid should be a very last resort, and not the central backbone of the social welfare.

i3oz9sFood support provision through Covid-19
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