It’s been almost 15 weeks since restaurants and cafés closed down across the UK as the country went into lockdown.
On 4 July, pubs and restaurants in England will invite customers back in, as A&E workers brace themselves for a peak in activity “similar to that of New Year’s Eve”.
Yet while some people will enjoy the chance to go out for a long-awaited restaurant meal, others will remain hungry.
Around 7.7 million people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were forced to skip a meal or cut down their meal sizes because they did not have enough money over the month of April. Eating less was more common among younger people, with more than one in three (35 per cent) of those aged between 16 and 24 doing so.
Figures released by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) last week (24 June) also show that 28 per cent of families with children and 21 per cent of households with four or more members were struggling to eat enough.
But while the pandemic has intensified hunger, it definitely did not start it. The UK was facing a growing food insecurity crisis before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Before 2010, there were almost no food charities in the UK. In the year to March 2019, the Trussell Trust, which operates some 60 per cent of food banks in the UK, delivered 1.6 million emergency food supply parcels.
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Now, the FSA estimates that at least 3.4 million people had to use the services of a food bank or food charity in April alone. The rate is even higher for young adults, with one in five (20 per cent) of those aged 16-24 having had to use a food bank.
Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, said: “We have been seeing rises in need at food banks for the past five years and reported a 89 per cent increase across the UK in April alone — with the number of families coming to food banks doubling.
“This is completely unprecedented and it’s not right. People need to have enough money to put food on the table.”
Google Trends, which shows search interest for particular terms across time, reveals that interest in food banks spiked to a record high in March this year, right before the lockdown, with a gradual return to pre-pandemic levels towards the end of June. The only other point since 2014 when searches for food banks were nearly as high was just before Christmas last year.
Search interest in food banks peaked in March
These results are not a one-off. A separate study from Feeding Britain and the Healthy Living Lab found that one in four people in the UK have struggled to access food they can afford during lockdown, which risks leaving them susceptible to hunger and malnutrition.
Another survey commissioned by the Food Foundation found that more than three million people reported going hungry in the first three weeks of lockdown alone.
Will it last?
“The Covid-19 pandemic poses a clear and present danger to food security and nutrition, especially to the world’s most vulnerable communities,” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) director-general Qu Dongyu said at a humanitarian action event last month.
We’ve seen a spike in hunger before. The 2008 financial crisis led to an increase in food prices and higher levels of food insecurity.
This time around, the global food supply chain has suffered less disruption during the coronavirus pandemic compared to other industries. But the crisis hasn’t ended yet.
Significant economic decline can translate to issues in accessing food and limits to people’s ability to get enough food, or enough nutritious food, an FAO study found.
And food costs could still rise in the coming months as competition increases globally and countries become more protective of their resources.
The pandemic has also exposed the UK’s dependence on imports of vegetables, a big share of which arrive from countries like Spain and the Netherlands.
A paper published in the Nature Food journal warns that the UK narrowly escaped food shortages during lockdown. This, coupled with a shortage of seasonal farm workers caused by Brexit and exacerbated by pandemic-related travel restrictions, puts the country at a high risk.
[see also: Brexit isn’t done: what next for agriculture?]
Food charities, businesses and local authorities have taken it upon themselves to provide emergency food relief to millions of people across Britain for the duration of the pandemic. But there are fears that when the lockdown goes away, the hunger will remain.
Several food charities are calling for a national food security plan. This would provide large-scale solutions for the entire sector, including wage increases, holiday hunger and enrichment programmes, meals-on-wheels and other such services.
“The government must put urgent support in place to ensure people already struggling to keep their heads above water can stay afloat,” said Emma Revie. “That’s why we’re working with a coalition of charities in calling for a Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme to ensure we all have enough money coming in to weather this storm. It’s within our power to protect one another during this economic crisis.”
The coronavirus pandemic also offers an opportunity to rethink the way Brits consume food. People have been increasingly buying locally sourced food, with 35 per cent saying they are buying more from local suppliers.
To support that, the UK must also diversify its food supply system to avoid future shocks, including supporting local agriculture. Currently, only about 20 per cent of the fresh fruit consumed in the UK is produced locally.
There has also been a significant increase in cooking at home and a decrease in takeaway food purchases, which might create healthier relationships between consumers, supermarkets and farmers.
At the same time, the government needs to give clear signals that it will not accept lower-quality food imports, such as chlorine-disinfected chicken from the US.
Demand for food has kept increasing and shows no signs of stopping. The UK needs a consensus on how to approach rising food insecurity levels and a clear plan on how to help the most vulnerable beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.