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Guest blog: Impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns in service providers’ perspectives of the food insecurity of families with school-age children in Scotland

David Watts and John McKenzie from the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen discuss findings from their research during the Covid pandemic:

In 2021, with Scottish Government funding, we interviewed staff and volunteers working to provide emergency food supplies to families with school-age children during the Covid-19 lockdowns. We had two aims. First, to understand how the organisations they work for had coped with the needs of families with school-aged children during the lockdowns. Secondly, to draw out learning points, examples of new and collaborative practice, and insights for policy-makers on what worked well and what could be improved in future emergencies.

We interviewed 47 people for our study, from 38 organisations throughout Scotland, in rural and urban areas. The fact that so many people were willing to participate in our study, despite having worked extremely hard for many months by the time we were able to contact them, enabled us to build up a large dataset and to ensure that the project met its objectives. We are very grateful to all participants for giving so generously of their time and for engaging so enthusiastically with the research. Our report has gone to the Scottish Government, where we hope that it will inform their ongoing development of the policies required to tackle food insecurity.

Interviewees highlighted that a major impact of the lockdowns was to exacerbate pre-existing difficulties for families with school-age children. This was not surprising, as less-well-off families are known to be more vulnerable to food insecurity when children are at home for long periods, such as during school holidays. However, what was new was that many additional families faced increased uncertainty due to the economic disruption caused by lockdown, such as redundancy and furlough. As a result, the need for emergency food provision grew significantly for many organisations. Our interviewees thought that many of the families who experienced food insecurity for the first time during lockdown were particularly economically vulnerable, as many did not know how to navigate the benefits system and had outgoings that benefits tend not to cover.

Nevertheless, many participants reported that their organisations were able to meet most of the needs of their communities as they received generous support, including grants, donations, sharing and volunteers, that were provided by other emergency food providers, businesses, local authorities and the public. However, some participants felt that they had not been adequately supported by the authorities and that their organisations were left floundering trying to meet the needs of their communities.

Our participants highlighted best practices in relation to the services and support that frontline organisations provide and the ways in which they operate. We collated and reported these to policy-makers and stakeholders. A key finding from our research is the importance of a ‘three capitals’ approach. The first ‘capital’ is of course money: a cash-first approach is widely recognised as essential to enable people to buy the food they need, free of the perceived stigma of having to visit emergency food providers. To some extent during lockdowns, the generosity of donors (as described above) helped to offset some of the more pressing economic hardships that were experienced by many, by enabling emergency food aid providers to meet increased levels of need.

In addition, the prolonged lockdowns highlighted the crucial role that family, friends, and the care sector play in providing ‘social capital’. Providing practical help and in-person support became difficult, and some interviewees felt that the inability to meet complex needs in person may have had fatal consequences for some vulnerable people. The third ‘capital’ (called ‘embodied cultural capital’) refers to people’s ability to develop and use life skills, such as budgeting, shopping and food preparation. Opportunities to develop new life skills, and to deploy the skills that people already have, were severely curtailed by lockdown restrictions. This, in turn, made some people more dependent on others’ help.

Our participants emphasised the variety of third-sector organisations that respond to food insecurity. Because they are so many and varied, responding to different types and mixes of needs in different areas, a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to policy development is unlikely to succeed nationally. Our data suggest that that flexibility and adaptability to local circumstances will be important. In addition, there may be continuing demand for third-sector provision, as some service users, especially those thought to be most vulnerable, are perceived by our interviewees to be distrustful of public sector bodies. We found similar mistrust in separate research with adults who have experienced food insecurity.

The organisations for which our interviewees work also tended to be economically fragile, relying on short-term funding, donations and public goodwill. One policy option may be for the Scottish Government to provide direct support that would enable all of Scotland’s residents to be food secure. However, given the distrust of public authorities noted above, there may be reluctance among some vulnerable people to use services provided directly by the public sector. This, when coupled with the flexibility and adaptability of organisations such as those whose staff and volunteers were interviewed for this study, suggests that any displacement of the third sector from the provision of support – whether in the form of economic, social or embodied cultural capital – for families with school-age children at risk of food insecurity should be planned holistically and undertaken cautiously.

John McKenzie j.s.mckenzie@abdn.ac.uk and David Watts d.watts@abdn.ac.uk

Here is the full report from the Rowett Institute: Emergency food provisioning during lockdown

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