Food vulnerability during COVID-19

This research project mapped and monitored responses to household food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments, local authorities, charities and local communities worked to ensure access to food for those facing new risks of food insecurity due to being unable to go out for food or due to income losses arising from the crisis. New schemes were developed, such as governments replacing incomes of people at risk of unemployment on account of lockdowns, providing food parcels for people asked to shield, referrals for people to receive voluntary help with grocery shopping, and free school meals replacement vouchers or cash transfers. These worked alongside existing provision for those unable to afford food – such as food banks – which have been adapting their services to continue to meet increasing demand from a range of population groups. This resulted in a complex set of support structures which developed and changed as the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts, evolved.

About the project

The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through the UKRI Ideas to Address COVID-19 grant call and ran for two years from July 2020. The research aimed to provide collaborative monitoring and analysis of food support systems to inform food access policy and practice. The research team was led by the University of Sheffield and King’s College London alongside colleagues from Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming and Church Action on Poverty. Full details of the team are below. Collaboration with partners and stakeholders was at the heart of the project. The research team worked with stakeholders from national and local government, the civil service, third sector, NGOs as well as people who were accessing food and financial assistance during the pandemic.

Summary of key findings

End of project summary of key findings (published August 2022). This report provides a high level summary of key findings from across the three work packages of the project (described below) as well as identifying some of the key learnings from the responses to support food access during the pandemic. The full reports from which this summary draws are available below.

Project work packages

Work package 1: National level food access systems mapping and monitoring

Looking at food access support across the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic, national level mapping and monitoring was undertaken in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as at a UK level. National level stakeholders (for example from devolved governments and national voluntary organisations) from across the four nations worked with us to understand and monitor  how support for food access has operated and evolved across the UK.

Work package 1 publications

Mapping responses to the risk of rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis across the UK (published August 2020). The report sets out findings from a scoping of national policies and programmes that were made available during the early months of the crisis. The mapping involved systematically searching and analysing publicly available information on responses to food insecurity during the national lockdown across March – July 2020). The report is a “living document”, providing the groundwork for the second phase of the research which looks at how these interventions have worked in practice.

Monitoring responses to the risk of rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis across the UK (published December 2020). Following our previous mapping of the range of national programmes and policies intended to enhance access to food for people at economic and physical risk of food insecurity in the UK between March and July 2020, the report looks at how four of these national interventions worked in practice: replacement school food provision, emergency finance, emergency food provision and the grocery box scheme for people who were on the shielding list.

Mapping and monitoring responses to the risk of rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis across the UK - Autumn 2020 to Summer 2021 (published August 2022). Following on from the previous two reports, which mapped and monitored responses across March to August 2020, this report tracks the key interventions targeted towards food insecurity as pandemic restrictions were variously in place over the autumn of 2020 through to spring/summer 2021. As before, the report focuses on four key interventions: school food replacements, emergency income, emergency food, and support for people shielding.

Work package 2: Participatory Policy Panel

To fully understand food access responses, it was crucial to hear directly from those with lived experience of food insecurity during the pandemic. In partnership with Church Action on Poverty, we convened a participatory policy panel made up of people who have direct experience of a broad range of support to access food. Meeting regularly throughout the project (Oct 2020-Dec 2021), the panel used a range of participatory and creative methods to share and reflect on their experiences and contribute these to policy recommendations.

Work package 2 publications

Navigating Storms (published October 2021).
Published in partnership with Church Action on Poverty the report draws on material generated by the participatory panel. The panel shared their experience of accessing food during the pandemic for both themselves and for their communities. Having shared their experiences and ideas, the panel developed five overarching lessons on how policy-makers, at all levels, could deliver better for those most at risk, in crises and at all times. Navigating Storms, which was launched as part of Challenge Poverty week 2021, reports on these experiences, insights and lessons.

Food Experiences During COVID-19 Participatory Panel Deliberative Policy Engagement (published August 2022). In Autumn 2021 the panel were joined by several ‘policy specialists’ in four ‘deliberative policy engagement’ workshops, providing an opportunity for the group to share their own perspectives and reflect on the implications for future policy and practice ‘post’ COVID-19. This report records the content, themes and ideas for the future which were discussed during these four sessions.

Food Experiences During COVID-19 - Participatory Methods in Practice: Key Learning (published August 2022). This report presents a case-study of participatory methods, documenting what was done as the project developed and sharing our main learning regarding the opportunities and challenges presented by this particular example of collaborative, participative research.

Work package 3: Local area case studies

Fourteen local areas across the UK were the focus for more in depth case study research. Working with local stakeholders in each area, the research mapped what local responses looked like and how they operated. The research followed the developments in these areas throughout the duration of the project.

Work package 3 publications

Comparing local responses to household food insecurity during COVID-19 across the UK (March – August 2020) – Executive Summary (published July 2021).
The Executive Summary sets out the key findings and take aways from the comparative report of 14 in depth case studies, which were undertaken to explore local responses to food access issues between March-August 2020.

Comparing local responses to household food insecurity during COVID-19 across the UK (March – August 2020) (published July 2021).
This comparative report presents findings from a cross-case analysis of 14 local case studies which were undertaken to explore local responses to food access issues between March-August 2020 (the first UK COVID-19 lockdown). Drawing on the data gathered in individual case studies, the report details the phases of the response, the range of actors and interventions put in place to support people with food access, and the resources that supported this response. From this comparative study, key takeaways and questions raised by the research are presented.

Eight local case studies are presented in the Mapping local responses: March to August 2020 reports: Argyll and Bute, Belfast, Cardiff, Derry and Strabane, Herefordshire, Moray, Swansea, West Berkshire (published July 2021).
Drawing from data collected during interviews, workshops and desk-based research, the eight individual reports provide rich detail on the actors and interventions in each local authority area. Following a descriptive mapping key themes and stakeholders’ reflections are provided.

Local Area Case Studies – Methodological Appendix (published July 2021).
This appendix sets out the research methods that were undertaken in the Autumn/Winter of 2020/21 for the local area case studies.

Local responses to household food insecurity during COVID-19 across the UK (March – August 2020): Full report (published July 2021).
This publication combines all of the reports detailed above to include all case studies, cross case analysis and the methodological appendix.

Local responses to household food insecurity across the UK during COVID-19 (September 2020 – September 2021) (published February 2022).
Building on the previous case studies, this report presents findings from a second phase of research exploring how local responses to food access issues during the COVID-19 pandemic evolved after August 2020. It looks at local level responses to risks of household food insecurity between September 2020 and September 2021, with a particular focus on the work of local councils, food aid providers, and community food initiatives as well as local collaboration and partnership working. Drawing on data collected through a series of online workshops with third sector and council practitioners, the report provides an analysis of experiences of responding to food insecurity from 14 local areas from around the UK and makes recommendations for future policy and practice.

Local responses to household food insecurity across the UK during COVID-19 (September 2020 – September 2021) - Executive Summary (published February 2022).
The Executive Summary sets out the key findings, lessons and more immediate questions arising from a series of online workshops with practitioners, both council and third sector, which were undertaken to explore local responses to food insecurity between September 2020 - September 2021.

Work package 3 webinar

Webinar: Supporting food access through partnership working - what can we learn from the pandemic? (held on 13th June 2022) Project findings have highlighted the key role of partnership working across a range of statutory agencies, third sector and community organisations in local responses that supported access to food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on this we hosted a webinar in partnership with Sustainable Food Places which shared experiences of partnership working to support food access during the pandemic and reflected on what can be learned from this time, particularly in the context of the current cost of living crisis. The webinar included presentations from Mat Jones (UWE) on their evaluation of the value of local food partnerships during COVID-19 and beyond, Katie Palmer (Food Cardiff) on experiences on partnerships working ‘on the ground’ in Cardiff, Ren Piercey (Sustain) on food partnerships in the context of the cost of living crisis, and a panel discussion on the enablers and challenges of partnership working in the current context.

Watch the webinar

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