2020 has been a remarkable year to say the least. A global pandemic has put public health at the top of the agenda and the world has had to adjust to a new socially distant normal.

The pandemic has had an impact on many different aspects of life but one of the most devastating impacts is the increase in food poverty.

Although the UK is the seventh richest country in the world, many people struggle to afford food. Figures published by the government reveal that 100,000 more children were living in poverty in 2017/18 compared to in 2016/17 and the Child Poverty Action Group reports that 46% of BAME children compared with 26% of children in White British families are in poverty.

Even prior to the pandemic, a decade of austerity, together with a rise in living costs and shrinking incomes led to an increase in people "stealing to eat". Police officers say food shoplifters can be mothers struggling to feed their children, or hungry pensioners. In many cases they have no criminal record. 

For example, cases logged by South Yorkshire police include four instances of grocery shoplifting by mothers in 2012. Among them were a 31-year-old who stole baby milk and fabric conditioner worth £17.50, and a 19-year old who took baby milk and clothes worth £70. All told police they had shoplifted to feed and clothe their children. Three of the four had no previous convictions. All were given a fixed penalty notice.

According to Statista, in 2019/19 approximately 1.6 million people used a food bank in the UK, around 250 thousand more than the previous year. Since 2008/9, the number of food bank users has increased every year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded this trend with food banks across the county witnessing a sharp rise in demand for emergency food parcels since lockdown started. In April 2020, the first month of lockdown, the Trussell Trust gave out 89% more food parcels than the previous month.

Poverty intersects with other identities including gender, race, disability, age and sexuality. The Women’s Budget Group have highlighted that women continue to be more likely to live in poverty* than men (20% compared to 18%), with single women most at risk of poverty. Research has shown that in 2018 26% of households with a disabled person are in poverty, compared to 22% in the overall population. As well as food poverty, panic buying has created additional barriers for some disabled people, as highlighted by the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida in their briefing The Impact of COVID 19 on Disabled Women. Testimonies in this report include the need for certain food products due to health conditions, the government’s failure to put measures in place to prioritise disabled people in online shopping and increasing the need to rely on informal support networks. 

It is well documented that austerity has disproportionately affected women and in particular black and minoritised women (for example this report from the Women’s Budget Group). Racial disparities have also been exacerbated by COVID-19, with a quarter of BAME mothers reported that they were struggling to feed their children (23.7%). Loss of support from the government has affected over twice as many BAME women and men compared to white women and men. Women’s vulnerability to poverty is due to “the position of women in the labour market, the design of social security and women’s roles within the family”. Inequalities at the intersections of race, class, gender, disability and other identities are deeply entrenched and COVID-19 has exacerbated existing crises due to inequalities. 

As lockdown begins to ease, we spoke to Jeredyne Stanley, founder of Rivers LPC, a local independent charity based in Crawley, to discuss the impact this pandemic has had on women who experience food poverty.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Rivers was more likely to support the same groups of women over a short period of time, maybe a few months until their complicated situations were settled. Since the pandemic, there has been a marked increase in new referrals from individuals and families on a range of income levels that had lost their jobs, been put on furlough or were on No Recourse to Public Funds visas.

Listen to our podcast to hear about the CHRYSALIS project, which Jeredyne set up to support families during the COVID-19 crisis, and how they have been able to reach families in need.

Created by the Feminist Leaders of 2020, the London Cohort.
Thank you to all amazing women who are part of this project!

Find out more about the Feminist Leadership programme here.

The views and opinions herein may not necessarily be those of Women's Resource Centre.