COVID-19, food insecurity and health: Good food needed for all

Written by: Flora Douglas, Robert Gordon University

Published: 30/04/2020

Flora Douglas highlights the growing food insecurity affecting people with long term conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food insecurity was a significant health problem before the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, but the latest YouGov survey commissioned by the Food Foundation (this link will take you away from our website) shows that the prevalence of food insecurity in the UK has increased 4 times (to an estimated 8 million people) since the start of the lockdown. People affected by life limiting long term conditions were found to be amongst those most at risk of food insecurity,  affecting 20% who were defined as having an underlying health condition (this link will take you away from our website) (requiring a flu jab) compared to a prevalence of 14% in the general population.  Economic hardship and isolation arising from lockdown measures were highlighted as amongst the main reasons underlying this finding.  I expressed concern in a previous blog about the need for more attention to be paid to the challenges faced by people living with long term conditions living in food insecure households, as an overlooked health issue in the UK. International evidence shows that living with food insecurity makes it more difficult to manage a range of conditions such as diabetes and other conditions that require careful monitoring of and management of diet and medication regimes. The current and predicted economic hardship to come due to the COVID-19 pandemic means that this issue is even more pressing than before.

We have witnessed an incredible outpouring of offers of help and compassion towards others, gratitude, and community pulling together to response this crisis across the four UK nations. Both the UK and Scottish Governments have implemented creditable measures to alleviate economic hardship with the furlough scheme for non-essential workers, extension of Scottish crisis grant scheme (this link will take you away from our website), and the relaxation of some conditions normally required to gain access to social security payments. However, the demand for help from food banks has exploded (this link will take you away from our website) since the lockdown started, and continues to rise almost on a daily basis. Public appeals from food banks for food and money (this link will take you away from our website) to enable their continued operation and to meet demand, have become a regular feature in my social media feed. We are already seeing the fragility and limits of free food schemes (this link will take you away from our website) being set up within local authorities in Scotland, almost as they are launched.  And it is also telling that those who work in food banks themselves (this link will take you away from our website) are lobbying governments and wider society that they should not be the frontline response in this public health and economic crisis.

Therefore, it is important that as we rush to support those food bank appeals for help, that we also remain vigilant and mindful to the risks we run in the future, as we do. Food banks were not an appropriate or effective response to food insecurity before the pandemic (this link will take you away from our website), as much as we admire and respect those who do this work. Once again, international evidence has shown that as food banking systems becomes more robust and entrenched (this link will take you away from our website) in the aftermath of crises (such as the COVID-19 pandemic), it becomes even more difficult to shift from political and public imaginations the idea that they are an acceptable or legitimate means of supporting people living in poverty.

People find it much easier to manage long term conditions if they have the money buy food for themselves. As the Food Foundation report concluded, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated already existing vulnerabilities to poverty and food insecurity, and “that there is an urgent need for people with disabilities (health conditions and disabilities that limit their daily activities) to be financially able to access the food they need”, as well as have the physical access they need too. We should insist, post this crisis period, that our governments respond by ensuring that people are able to do this through having sufficient incomes (this link will take you away from our website), and that charitable food banking is no longer regarded or needed as an essential service, or considered an acceptable means of supporting people affected by food insecurity and poverty.

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