It’s difficult to overstate the strain that coronavirus has put on our communities, and likewise it’s easy to forget that some of those communities have been under immense pressure for many years. The virus is making existing inequalities worse, as people with underlying health conditions are more likely to be badly affected, and people in the least secure, lowest paid jobs are often those who can’t work from home.
Since March, Voluntary Action Sheffield has been co-ordinating a network of community hubs across Sheffield that, along with food banks, are making up a large part of the city’s response to the outbreak. In just one week in April, food banks supplied food to 3,152 people in Sheffield. This suggests that one in 160 households were relying on food banks to eat – and this doesn’t include the many hundreds of weekly meal deliveries co-ordinated by the city’s faith groups. Nationally, the Trussell Trust, which runs a network of food banks, recorded a 122 per cent rise in children relying on food aid in the second half of March.
Working in the voluntary and community sector you often hear the term “food poverty”. In the end it doesn’t withstand much scrutiny, because poverty doesn’t neatly affect one area of your life. Problems can be compounded very quickly and, perversely, basic goods and services often ending up costing far more.
Talk to any food bank co-ordinator and they will tell you that they want with every fibre of their being to not be needed anymore, because the existence of food banks represents an ongoing and systemic failing in our society. But what started as an emergency response is now baked into the system, ingrained so deeply that it’s taken for granted utterly by central government.
There are clear parallels here with the voluntary and community sector at large. Our adaptable, caring charities and community organisations are well equipped with the skills, experience and genuine trust within communities to lead a revolution in how we look after each other – and they have been supporting people in every way possible during this pandemic – but time and time again they are undervalued.
The third sector has rightly focused on making sure no one goes hungry during this pandemic. But we are now lifting our eyes to the horizon, to an inevitable recession that could be the deepest for a generation, and bracing ourselves for a series of far greater shocks. And when you are living in poverty, shocks hit you hard.
Central government must recognise that any response to this crisis and its aftermath needs to work closely with those existing neighbourhood and community-level relationships. It needs to value what has been cultivated with such care by our voluntary and community sector over decades. It needs to understand that without that support thousands, perhaps millions, of vulnerable people will slip through the cracks.
This means the government properly resourcing councils and charities to support the next major logistical challenge we face: a national test and trace programme. Charities do not currently have the capacity to pick up the pieces of a failed national scheme, but almost inevitably they will be expected to do so. It’s also critical that the government provides ongoing financial support for those who are forced to self-isolate due to showing symptoms, or shield because of existing health conditions.
Not being able to eat is one of the most tangible expressions of poverty and a very visible indicator of far greater needs. We have to widen the frame considerably to meet those needs. As Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie told the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee recently: “The problem is financial hardship. The answer to financial hardship is not food.”
Maddy Desforges is chief executive at Voluntary Action Sheffield, which is co-ordinating a network of community hubs responding to the coronavirus outbreak in the city