Food, Poverty and Gender in the UK

The government has recently faced criticism for their decision to switch from food vouchers to food parcels for parents whose children are eligible for free school meals. The task of creating these parcels was outsourced to private company Chartwells. When parents received the parcels, they were under the impression that the contents were to provide enough food to last for 10 days, amounting to the cost of £30. In actuality, the parcels contained a scarce amount of food, amounting to little more than £10.50. Many parents took to Twitter, frightened, distressed and confused about how they were going to feed their families.

Image: Twitter user @roadsidemum
Image: Twitter user @roadsidemum
Image: Twitter user @roadsidemum
Image: Instagram account @UKfactcheckpolitics

The justification for switching to the food parcels was the claim that parents may use the vouchers to buy items for themselves like alcohol and cigarettes. This claim was reiterated by some people in response to parents sharing their anguish with their parcels, despite the fact the vouchers are blocked from being spent on age restricted products like alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets, meaning there is no evidence of this actually happening. Parents who are struggling to make ends meet are demonised, painted as corrupt, irresponsible and incapable of looking after their own children. This narrative is harmful and untrue. The subsequent decision made as a result of this narrative stripped people of their dignity, autonomy and freedom.

Thanks to the work of activists like Jack Monroe, Marcus Rashford and parents up and down the country using their voice to speak their truth, the government has u-turned and decided that schools will be able to give out vouchers rather than food. This is an amazing achievement and should be celebrated as a brilliant moment of activism. But we must use this controversy to galvanise, drive our activism forward and keep pushing for change.

This specific controversy was appalling and abhorrent, but it follows the, eventually u-turned, decision made by the government to end the provision of free school meals over the October half-term.The government aren’t learning from their mistakes and don’t seem to realise what a lifeline this resource is to families who are struggling. According to data from the Department for Work and Pensions and the End Poverty Campaign, before the pandemic 4.2 million children in the U.K. were living in poverty in 2018–19. That’s 30% of children in the U.K. and nine in a classroom of thirty. In England 31% of children lived below the breadline, with the figure being 28% in Wales. With job losses and economic insecurity as a result of the pandemic, this issue has only been exacerbated. We are living in an era of austerity where the poorest and most vulnerable are suffering its harshest effects, and then told they must be happy with whatever the state provides.

It is also widely accepted that there is a relationship between gender and poverty, with women over-represented in poverty statistics. According to data from the Fawcett Society, 64% of the lowest paid workers are women, and there are four times as many women in part-time work as men. These women are likely to receive lower hourly rates of pay and this contributes not only to their own, but their children’s poverty. Women are also more likely to be single parents, with nine out of ten lone parents being women, meaning they have more childcare responsibilities and less opportunity to seek full employment. Figures from the Department of Work and Pensions reveal that 52% of children living in single parent families are poor, suggesting an explicit link between child and female poverty. These hardships will be even more acutely felt by women of colour and disabled women, who have some of the lowest rates of employment and biggest gender pay gap.

This is also an issue that concerns us as advocates for and supporters of survivors. 97% of survivors of domestic abuse have experienced economic abuse, where the perpetrator has control over their finances. When survivors leave abusive relationships many of them find themselves in poverty or experiencing financial difficulties. Free school meals are a lifeline for these women and provide one less thing to think about, alleviating stress during an incredibly difficult period where they are rebuilding their lives. Therefore, it is a resource that we must fight to protect.

If you’re looking for ways you can get involved to help the fight against food poverty, you could:

Write to your local government representatives stressing the importance of the issue, asking them how they plan on tackling and eradicating food poverty within your local community. Ultimately it is the government’s responsibility to provide a solution for this issue so we must ensure they do. You can find the details for your local representative here:

Donate food to your local food bank. You could donate resources directly to your local food bank or use one of the food bank boxes at your local supermarket, picking up a few extra items on your weekly shop.

Volunteer with your local food bank. You could reach out to your local food bank and see if they need any volunteers to help with packing or delivering food parcels.

Volunteer or donate with Bankuet. Bankuet is an organisation that allows you to set up a weekly or monthly donation to a food bank of your choice in the U.K. They also offer remote volunteering opportunities helping food banks to spread their message through marketing.

  • Bethan Gilson, CWA Volunteer