The impact of covid-19 and the resulting mitigation measures on food and eating in the East of England: Interim report
Hamilton, Laura Kate
Measures to control the spread of Covid-19 are impacting food systems, household food practices, and organisations supporting vulnerable people in the UK. We report here on the interim findings of an ongoing qualitative study which aims to understand how Covid-19 is affecting local food systems, household food practices and efforts to mitigate dietary health inequalities in the East of England. The findings presented are from the first 35 interviews carried out with households (n=24) and those involved in community and local authority schemes (n=11) providing assistance in relation to food. Our findings so far suggest that Covid-19 and the mitigation measures put in place from March 2020 (e.g. ‘lockdown’ and social distancing) are serving to amplify existing dietary health inequalities. Those who are relatively more secure financially have been able to spend time addressing and improving their dietary health, whereas those struggling financially or in economic hardship have experienced their diets worsening. Older people living alone and/or on low incomes have had to contend with difficulties in accessing food and a lack of opportunities to eat socially. Those with physical impairments and limited mobility sometimes find busy supermarkets potentially hostile and stressful environments and this has been amplified by the instore changes related to Covid-19. Online food shopping has been a particular challenge reported by participants. For some, the Covid-19 mitigation measures meant they were shopping online for the first time. Participants expressed frustration at the difficulty in securing a delivery slot and deliveries arriving with missing products and/or unsuitable substitutions. There was a general perception that food prices have risen since Covid-19 mitigation measures, especially in supermarkets. Participants suggested this was due to a reduction in the availability of food products and special offers. Across the East of England, locally organised efforts to support and feed people included setting up community funds to supplement the income of organisations working with vulnerable people and with local businesses and partners to organise food supplies. While the Government food parcel scheme focused on feeding those in the shielding category, local authorities worked on supplementing the scheme, where required, by helping to feed and support other vulnerable groups in the community. Food banks have seen a rapid increase in need for their services and have also had to change their operating practices. Some have had to close or change venue and operating hours to accommodate changes to their volunteer base. While media coverage during the pandemic has reported a reduction in donations to foodbanks, some of our participants reported that donations to food banks have increased. This has created the need for increased storage capacity and processing facilities. Despite ongoing difficulties, local groups across the region have devised, adapted and operated a range of schemes to support and feed vulnerable people, tailored to the needs of local residents. Some of the feedback and recommendations provided by households and organisations thus far are summarised at the end of this interim report. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on food and eating practices across the East of England in a range of ways. While some groups have been merely inconvenienced, others have had to manage with less healthy food and less money to buy food. The potential of the pandemic to amplify existing dietary health inequalities is a theme that we will continue to explore and report on as our research progresses into 2021.