Written Evidence submitted by the Food Foundation (COV 0114)

 

The Food Foundation is an independent charity working to address challenges in the food system in the interests of the UK public. Working at the interface between academia and policy makers (parliamentarians, civil servants, local authorities, business leaders) we use a wide range of approaches to make change happen including events, publications, media stories, social media campaigns and multi-stakeholder partnerships. We also work directly with citizens to ensure their lived experience is reflected in our policy proposals.  We work with many partners on a range of different thematic areas, working closely with academics to generate evidence and campaigners who can drive change. We are independent of all political parties and business, and we are not limited by a single issue or special interest. We work with others who believe there is a problem with the system and want to change it.

 

Summary:

 

Covid-19 has had serious and wide-reaching consequences for the UK’s food system, leaving millions facing food insecurity. We very much welcome this timely inquiry. There is an immediate and vital need for strong leadership from Government to drive a well-organised, coordinated response to the crisis.

 

In this submission, we would like to bring evidence on the following two issues to the attention of the Committee:

1.      Food insecurity: Covid-19 has increased by a factor of four the number of adults experiencing food insecurity in the UK[1]. Visits to foodbanks have risen by between 59%[2] and 81%[3]. Some welcome mitigating action has been taken by the Government, but many people are still going hungry – problem areas include families, those on legacy benefits, and those who do not believe themselves to be eligible for support from the benefits system. Of highest priority is the need for a comprehensive cross-government coordination mechanism to ensure that no-one falls through the gaps, alongside a much more generous economic safety net to reduce demand for direct food aid on foodbanks and Local Authorities, and an extension of free school meal vouchers to cover the upcoming half term and summer school holiday periods.

2.      Fruit and vegetable availability and access: Covid-19 has increased uncertainty for British fruit and vegetable producers by restricting access to migrant labourers and closing the food service sector that provides a market for much of their produce.  Grocery sales across all categories increased in March including fresh fruit and vegetables, but the uplift for fresh fruit and vegetables was much smaller than that seen in the frozen, canned and tinned categories[4]. In contrast, demand for veg boxes has drastically increased.  Meanwhile, food parcels provided by Local Authorities and food banks have been criticised for their lack of fresh produce. The Government should explore how it can offer predictability to growers to give them confidence to make planting decisions now for the coming season, provide investment and grant support for horticultural producers under 5ha (including veg box schemes), work with Local Authorities to improve the offering in food parcels, and optimise the Healthy Start voucher scheme to get more fruit and vegetables to young children by accelerating its digitisation and increasing the value of the voucher scheme.

 

1) Food insecurity

 

Food insecurity rates since Covid-19

 

-          Our research[5] suggests that the number of adults who were food insecure in Britain quadrupled in the first 2 and a half weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown. 16.2% of adults experienced some form of food insecurity – equating to more than 8 million adults – and an additional 21.6% were worried about getting the food they need during the outbreak.

-          Of those 8 million adults experiencing food insecurity 3.1 million were struggling due to a lack of food in shops, 1.3 million were struggling due to isolation and 1.3 million were struggling for economic reasons. Of the remainder, 1.2 million were experiencing some combination of these three main issues, and 1 million were experiencing 'other' issues which were preventing them from accessing food.  See Figure 1.

-          In a more recent survey[6] (results embargoed until 4th May) we focussed on children and families. We have found that 5 million people are living in food insecure households with children during the lockdown. 1.8 million of these are food insecure solely as a result of shortages, leaving 3.2 million (11% of households) food insecure as a result of other issues (such as isolation and economic concerns) – double the level reported in 2018.  We found that parents have not always been able to shield their children from the effects of this. The parents of 2 million children said that their children had also experienced some form of food insecurity.

 

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generatedFigure 1: Proportion of adults experiencing food security by causal factor

-          It is clear that vulnerability to food insecurity extends far beyond those 1.3 million people who have been advised to ‘shield’ for medical reasons[7].

-          Our research[8] shows that those from BAME groups and from larger households are around twice as likely to be food insecure at this time than the general population.  Those with disabilities, those self-isolating, and those with underlying health conditions are also at greater risk. Pensioners are at lower risk – which is consistent with what has previously been found in national studies of food insecurity.

-          Households with children experience significantly higher rates of food insecurity than households without children[9].

 

Food bank use

 

-          The Trussell Trust (which operates a network of more than 1200 food banks across the UK) have reported that their food banks have seen on average 81% more people needing supporting in the last two weeks of March this year vs the same period last year[10]. 122% more parcels have been provided to children. The most common reason for people needing support was insufficient income from working or benefits.

-          The Independent Food Aid Network (whose members operate 320 independent food banks across the UK) have reported a 59% increase in people needing support between February and March this year[11]. Some food banks have seen over 300% more people.

 

Food insecurity rates in the medium term

 

-          As food supply issues have now stabilised, we would expect to see the numbers experiencing food insecurity due to supply issues falling. 

-          However, we expect to see the numbers falling into food insecurity for economic reasons increasing as a result of further job losses as the pandemic continues, and savings having been spent. The government’s own statistics show that 1.8 million declarations to Universal Credit were received in the first 6 weeks of the pandemic (to 12th April) – 5 times higher than the same period last year[12].

-          Our early polling[13] suggested that millions of people have also borrowed money as a result of Covid-19 – deferring the crisis point, but leaving people facing both food insecurity and debt further down the line. This is something that frontline organisations are particularly worried about. 

-          We will be continuing to monitor the situation through fortnightly polling over the coming months.

 

Adequacy of the Government and industry response

 

-          We expect the rapid stabilisation of supply to have improved the food security position for the 3.1 million adults (and the children who live with them) who were struggling to access food due to a lack of supplies in shops during the first weeks of the pandemic.

-          Though the reaction of the supermarkets to stabilise the immediate supply issues in the early weeks of the pandemic was admirable, we were disappointed to see that the Government did not seek to engage more widely with smaller retail food businesses. A diversity of retail options is one of the elements which contributes resilience to our food system – and in fact, in these early weeks convenience and independent grocery stores remained better stocked than large supermarkets as well as often serving more disadvantaged communities. The contributions that thousands of smaller food businesses could have made were neglected, putting the longer-term viability of these businesses at risk.

-          The Government has also taken some action to support those who are isolated, particularly that are ‘shielding’ due to medical vulnerability. However, the reliance on Local Authorities to provide food parcels to this group has led to a ‘postcode lottery’ – provision in some areas is very well-organised (often where Local Authorities had existing strong food partnerships in place pre-pandemic), but in others it is not. We also remain worried about the nutritional adequacy of the food being provided through these parcels.

-          Supermarkets have also sought to help, providing prioritised delivery slots to those appearing on the governments’ list of medically vulnerable, and offering dedicated opening times for the elderly, the medically vulnerable, and for key workers.

-          Action from Government to help those struggling for economic reasons has been much more patchy. We welcome the Coronavirus Jobs Retention scheme, the uplift to Universal Credit, the introduction of a voucher system in lieu of Free School Meals, and investment in the Local Housing Allowance.

-          However, our data clearly shows that many are still falling through the cracks, requiring help from over-stretched food banks, food aid providers and local food distribution charities

-          Supermarkets have struggled to identify those that are economically vulnerable in order to provide any dedicated support, but have made large donations of food to charitable food aid providers.

-          We are concerned that the government’s plans to help focus too heavily on charitable responses rather than ensuring that food-insecure people simply have sufficient money to buy the food they need.

-          Those on legacy benefits have not benefited from the same uplift as those on Universal Credit, many families have not benefited due to the benefits cap, and some people are not currently supported by the social security system at all, such as those with No Recourse to Public Funds. The Government has recently announced that Free School Meals will be provided to some but not all children in this category.

-          The latest government guidance on accessing food during the crisis does not provide any advice on what those suffering from financial difficulties should do, beyond advising those in need of “urgent help” to contact their Local Authority to find out what support is available in their local area[14].

-          We believe that the government should be taking a much more proactive role in coordinating the response to this food insecurity crisis, rather than relying on Local Authorities and charitable food provision to bear the brunt of the burden.   

-          The Free School Meal voucher system has also seen a wide range of difficulties during its roll-out, and our most recent polling results[15] (embargoed until 4th May) show that 31% of children who are entitled to free school meals (0.5million) are still not getting any substitute. A further 130,000 children have received a voucher code but cannot download it. In addition, of the 621,000 children who were accessing free breakfast clubs before the crisis, only 136,000 are getting a substitute.

 

Policy asks for government

 

-          We believe that the Government needs to build on the action it has taken to so far, in order to protect each and every person who is at risk of hunger. We recommend:

 

2. Fruit and vegetable availability and access

 

Fruit and vegetable sales and prices

 

-          The Food Foundation is tracking the impact of the pandemic on fruit and vegetable availability and prices. 

-          Grocery sales across all categories increased in March including fresh fruit and vegetables, but the uplift for fresh fruit and vegetables was much smaller than that seen in the frozen, canned and tinned categories[16]. Overall, the data suggests a dietary shift towards savoury carbohydrates, snacks, and canned goods.

-          Analysis of the latest CPI data shows that prices of fruit and vegetables are currently fairly stable, but there are a number of reasons to expect that they may rise in the medium term.

 

Migrant workers

 

-          The UK’s fruit and vegetable producers employ up to 70,000 seasonal workers annually – 99% of these are non-UK nationals[17].

-          Though interest levels in farming jobs by British workers has been relatively high, conversion rates have been low. Only 150 people have taken up jobs picking fruit and vegetables in the UK following a recruitment drive by Concordia that garnered 50,000 expressions of interest[18].

-          The industry is also concerned that British workers will not have the necessary skills and experience which are usually brought by returning migrant labourers. Many farms depend on the same experienced pickers returning each year.

-          As we approach the British picking season for both soft fruit and salad, the labour shortage on farms may begin to affect prices.  

-          These issues are being replicated on farms across-Europe.

 

Trade impacts

 

-          The UK is highly dependent on imported food - particularly for perishable items such as fruit and vegetables – only 16% of fruit and 53% of vegetables are UK grown[19].  58% of our vegetable imports come from Spain and the Netherlands, and 38% of our fruit imports come from Spain, South Africa and the Netherlands[20].

-          Global food prices are volatile. If a substantial number of nations start imposing trade restrictions on food products this could cause a serious price crisis (as happened in 2007/8). For both wheat and rice, the top five producing nations account for more than 75% of global exports[21].  

-          IFPRI are tracking trade restrictions which have been introduced since the pandemic started. Currently 18 countries have imposed export bans and restrictions, accounting for 3.4% of global calories[22].

-          Though global trade currently continues to flow relatively unimpeded, if global trade restrictions become more extensive the prices for imported staples and perishables could begin to rise.

 

Fruit and Vegetable Alliance

 

-          Members of the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance – a diverse group of producer organisations brought together by the Food Foundation in 2018 – have been calling on Government to provide financial support for the sector. 

-          A key concern is the loss of demand through the food service supply chain, which has required producers to re-direct their produce through alternative routes to market.

-          This issue is of notable concern for some particular crops – around half of the asparagus harvest would usually go into food service and restaurants. Potato growers have seen big reductions in demand following the closure of chip shops and take-aways etc. And hops and cider apple producers are also feeling the impacts of closure of pubs and bars.

-          Several members of the Alliance have reported that a lack of certainty over future demand is already affecting spring plantings. The NFU expect to see impacts on the potato harvest this year.

 

Survey of fruit and vegetable growers in Wales

 

-          A survey of fruit and veg producers in Wales[23], conducted by Cardiff University, the Food Foundation, Food Sense Wales and Tyfu Cymru, found that Welsh fruit and vegetable producers were suffering from similar issues as those highlighted through the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance.

-          34% of respondents were not currently able to supply their normal level of produce for the time of year, due to issues including staff sickness, labour availability, and the need to ensure social distancing on their operations.

-          In contrast to the concerns raised by the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, none of the growers contacted through this survey said that they were planning to downscale production as a results of the pandemic, though many plan to change their business model (shifting towards direct sales and box schemes), or to change the crops or varieties that they are growing.

 

Vegetable box schemes

 

-          Our research (a survey of over 100 box scheme providers – embargoed until 5 May 2020)[24] shows that on average vegetable box schemes have doubled the number of weekly boxes that they sell since the start of the pandemic. Smaller box schemes (supplying up to 300 boxes per week) upscaled sales by 134%. 

-           There are an estimated 500 vegetable box schemes in the UK, which supplied around 2.5 million boxes over a 6 week period during March and April.

-          There is scope for this provision to be increased even further – 82% of box schemes are now operating waiting lists for new customers, with an average wait list length of 160 customers.

-          65% of schemes are actively prioritising vulnerable groups and key workers – for example by moving them faster up waiting lists and offering delivery to those isolating. 10% of box schemes have created systems to help the economically vulnerable e.g. discounted boxes for those in financial hardship. 

 

Policy asks for government

 

-          The Government could build resilience in fruit and vegetable supply chains, support UK producers, and increase access to fruit and vegetables for vulnerable people at this time by:


[1] Rachel Loopstra, King’s College London for the Food Foundation, Vulnerability to food insecurity since the COVID-19 lockdown (14 April 2020): https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Report_COVID19FoodInsecurity-final.pdf

[2] Independent Food Aid Network (1 May 2020): https://uploads.strikinglycdn.com/files/2bc1ebe9-e13d-4104-bda3-e4541a0d5b47/IFAN%20data_IndependentFoodBanks_FEBMARCH20192020_COVID-19_FINAL_EMBARGOED.pdf

[3] Trussell Trust (1 May 2020): https://www.trusselltrust.org/2020/05/01/coalition-call/

 

[4] Kantar WorldPanel (unpublished analysis of the 4 weeks ending March 22nd 2020, for the Food Foundation)

[5] Rachel Loopstra, King’s College London for the Food Foundation, Vulnerability to food insecurity since the COVID-19 lockdown (14 April 2020): https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Report_COVID19FoodInsecurity-final.pdf

[6] Food Foundation (currently under embargo until 4 May 2020)

[7] NHS Digital, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Shielded patients list: https://digital.nhs.uk/coronavirus/shielded-patient-list

[8] Rachel Loopstra, King’s College London for the Food Foundation, Vulnerability to food insecurity since the COVID-19 lockdown (14 April 2020): https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Report_COVID19FoodInsecurity-final.pdf

[9] Food Foundation (currently under embargo until 4 May 2020)

[10] Trussell Trust (1 May 2020): https://www.trusselltrust.org/2020/05/01/coalition-call/

[11] Independent Food Aid Network (1 May 2020): https://uploads.strikinglycdn.com/files/2bc1ebe9-e13d-4104-bda3-e4541a0d5b47/IFAN%20data_IndependentFoodBanks_FEBMARCH20192020_COVID-19_FINAL_EMBARGOED.pdf

[12] Department for Work and Pensions, Official Statistics: Universal Credit: 29 April 2013 to 12 March 2020

(21 April 2020): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-29-april-2013-to-12-march-2020/management-information-1-march-to-12-april-2020-supporting-explanatory-note

[13] Food Foundation (March 2020): https://foodfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-latest-impact-on-food-2/

[14] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Guidance: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Accessing food and essential supplies (29 April 2020): https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-accessing-food-and-essential-supplies?utm_source=ed1dee4d-0107-43d5-9cdb-f0b2fde189cc&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=govuk-notifications&utm_content=immediate

[15] Food Foundation (currently under embargo until 4 May 2020)

[16] Kantar WorldPanel (unpublished analysis of the 4 weeks ending March 22nd 2020, for the Food Foundation)

[17] NFU, Coronavirus: The impact on seasonal labour in the horticulture sector (updated 24 April 2020): https://www.nfuonline.com/news/coronavirus-updates-and-advice/coronavirus-news/coronavirus-the-impact-on-seasonal-labour-in-the-horticulture-sector/

[18] Reported in the Financial Times, Time runs short for UK to recruit tens of thousands of fruit pickers

(29 April 2020): https://www.ft.com/content/e3713342-c883-483a-956f-41cd6ec5367e

[19] Defra, Horticulture Statistics 2018: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/latest-horticulture-statistics

[20] Defra, Horticulture Statistics 2018: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/latest-horticulture-statistics

[21] IFPRI, COVID-19: Trade restrictions are worst possible response to safeguard food security (27 March 2020): https://www.ifpri.org/blog/covid-19-trade-restrictions-are-worst-possible-response-safeguard-food-security

[22] IFPRI, Tracker - Food Export Restrictions during the Covid-19 crisis (Accessed 1 May 2020): https://public.tableau.com/profile/laborde6680#!/vizhome/ExportRestrictionsTracker/FoodExportRestrictionsTracker?publish=yes

[23] Cardiff University, the Food Foundation, Food Sense Wales and Tyfu Cymru, C19 Horticulture Summit Results from edible producers in Wales (9 April 2020):

http://www.foodsensewales.org.uk/pdf/C19Hort-Survey-&-Summit-Responses-3.pdf

[24] Food Foundation, Covid 19: UK Veg Box Report (currently under embargo until 5 May 2020)