Hunger, health, dependence and autonomy: Food issues during lockdown

Molly Gilmour, Dominic Reed and Phillippa Wiseman explore the subject of food and how it affected interview populations during lockdown. The availability of not just food, but the right kinds of food, had a huge impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of participants from all the research streams in the project.

Food has played a central role in understanding how Covid-19 (and state responses) has shaped everyone’s experiences. While recipes for banana bread and sourdough starters circulated amongst some, supermarket delivery slots and mould ridden food packages featured prominently in daily lockdown lives for others. Food and its availability during the lockdown, was a common theme stemming from over 130 interviews and observed across all four groups of the project:  with refugees and people seeking asylum or facing destitution (RAD); survivors of domestic abuse or sexual violence (DASV); those affected by the criminal justice system (CJS); and those living with disability or long-term health condition (DHC). In many cases, participants (and the staff members working in organisations supporting them) mentioned issues in obtaining food (and the right kinds of food) as a result of the measures imposed during the pandemic.

But these difficulties, and how they were addressed, revealed more about conceptions of what food represented to different groups of people and how its provision (or lack thereof) was informed by the preconceived notions of these groups. To properly analyse the findings related to food, we are compiling a working paper which will be shared as part of the emerging findings of this research in the coming weeks. This blog offers an abridged account of these findings.

Food security: An issue prior to the pandemic 

The rising cost of living in tandem with low-paid insecure employment has increased the number of people living in Scotland experiencing food insecurity. Covid-19 has both amplified and exacerbated these numbers: by mid -April 2020 the Food Foundation reported that 600,000 adults in Scotland were facing food insecurity.  The subsequent austerity measures that are likely to be created in response to the impending recession caused by Covid-19, is expected to be equal to or worse than that in 2008, and will inevitably worsen food insecurity for  groups who already experience systemic inequalities and marginalisation.

In a letter to the British Retail Consortium in April 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) outlined their concerns about disabled people, who fall outside the government’s high-risk groups, being left unable to shop for food and essential items during the Covid-19 pandemic and left to decide whether they should shield or not (due to unclear and changing messaging). In May 2020, the Scottish Human Rights Commission outlined that food insecurity was already at an unacceptably high level and that some people who were not eligible for government support have not been reached by food distribution programmes run by government or charities. The specific barriers to food access for asylum seekers and refugees, disabled people, carers, and women and children was explained, and the authors cautioned that there is a risk that asylum seekers and disabled people may become increasingly dependent on food banks models due to Covid-19.   

Food and health

Difficulty in accessing food and the effects this had on health, was mentioned by participants in all groups included in the research. Several participants referred to health issues caused (directly or indirectly) by access to food. Issues in accessing food often acted to compound the sense of isolation that participants had. Other participants spoke about illness as a barrier to accessing food when they have long-term health conditions. For many, difficulty in accessing appropriate food often meant that they simply did without, noting that this had detrimental effects on both their physical and mental wellbeing. For participants with long-term health conditions such as diabetes, Chrohn’s disease, colitis (and other dietary and digestive conditions) having access to required food was essential.

Increasing reliance on the voluntary sector

What emerged throughout the course of interviews was the increasingly pivotal role played by third sector organisations in supporting the food needs of service users (often in the absence of meaningful support from statutory services ). This then had a huge impact on staff welfare and wellbeing, as they were required to undertake larger workloads in order to ensure that services users received the food they needed. Food deliveries, made possibly by the voluntary and third sector, frequently facilitated a sense of community and played a significant role in responding to isolation. Thus, organisations providing food serves an important purpose also of social connection and human/compassionate communication.

Food, dependence and autonomy

Crucially, our interviews showed the clear link between the availability of food, and the autonomy of those who might already have been isolated and excluded before the advent of Covid. Too often, a lack of access to food, or the right kinds of food, left people in a situation where they were reliant on others, be they neighbours, family members/friends or supportive organisations. This risked not only eroding people’s sense of self-worth, but also meant that many were unable to exercise any kind of control over the type of food they received. Too often this led to situations where people had to eat things that were not culturally appropriate or which they feared could have a detrimental affect on their physical health. The only other option, many thought, was to go without eating regularly, which many did.

The lack of access to food and lack of control over food decisions, then fed into existing inequalities and feelings of marginalisation and isolation. For example, refugees and asylum seekers, living in temporary accommodation, sometimes already feeling disempowered by their experiences with the immigration process (a process over which they felt they had little control), were then also unable to decide what food they wanted to eat, food which often, prior to lockdown provided a tangible reminder of the countries they had travelled from and which allowed an expression of their identity and community. Like refugees and asylum seekers, people with learning disabilities, women experiencing coercive control and people in criminal justice settings already lack autonomy over food, food choices and buying food.  It meant that disabled people and those with long term health conditions had less control over the food they ate, in some cases having to eat things which negatively affected their health conditions. Food insecurity has also placed additional pressure on victims and survivors of domestic violence to safely feed their children. For many survivors, the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown, forced them to relive past experiences of abuse where they were isolated and robbed of control in their lives by perpetrators.


The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare Scotland’s reliance on the third sector to meet fundamental socio-economic rights for people living in our communities. People living in Scotland should not be reliant on food provided by charitable, community led initiatives for an extended period. Yet our findings suggest that an institutionalised reliance on foodbanks, left many people with no access to food: those we spoke to were unable to afford to travel to foodbanks and could not shop at a supermarket as they were shielding. Moreover, some had to choose whether to eat food that was culturally unsuitable or  that made them unwell. This is a finding consistent with the Scottish Human Rights Commission in May 2020, who identified that the  food provided by charities to BAME communities, asylum seekers and Gypsy/Travellers did not show awareness of cultural requirements or the limited facilities for cooking and eating affecting these groups .

A dignified food access model, such as providing  cash first, will enable people to have access to nutritious and culturally relevant food. Furthermore, key stakeholders including retailers, must take a collaborative approach, which looks specifically at how to meet the needs of individuals. As we progress through the Covid-19 pandemic, it is becoming ever more clear see how policies are affecting the lives of people. The Scottish Government must ensure that access to nutritious, culturally relevant, sustainable and safe food at all times, is at the heart of decisions that realise human rights and address inequalities.    

Molly Gilmour (@MVGilmour) is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Glasgow researching how community engagement methods can be used to improve humanitarian medical provision in Lebanon. She is Research Assistant in the Refugee, Asylum Seeker and populations facing Destitution stream of the study.

Dr Dominic Reed is a Research Associate in the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence stream. He recently completed doctoral research at the University of Glasgow into medical confidentiality and domestic abuse.

Dr Phillippa Wiseman (@PhillyWiseman) is a Lecturer in Social Research Methods at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on disability; gender, violence and inequality and everyday embodied citizenship. Phillippa is a Co-Investigator and stream lead of the Disability and Health Conditions stream.