Tag Archives: Food security

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.

Can you deliver? Food slots during lockdown

Paul Pearson shares early findings from interviews with participants living with disabilities and long-term health conditions in Scotland, exploring their experiences of accessing food during and after lockdown. Interviews revealed that access to supermarket delivery slots has been particularly challenging.

I have been working as a researcher on the ‘Scotland in Lockdown’ project over the past five months, a study that is aiming to understand and share the experiences of people from four different ‘at-risk’ groups in our society during the pandemic. My own research, as part of a wider team, has focused on the experiences of disabled people and those living with long-term health conditions. The issue of food insecurity has been highlighted consistently throughout the pandemic, not least through the work of Marcus Rashford on free school meals in England. Food insecurity has also emerged as a key issue in our study across all four areas, and this piece is part of a series on food access and security.

This contribution draws on the nineteen interviews I have carried out, and the following quotes are from several of the people who took part in the study. The issue of accessing supermarket delivery slots has proven to be a complex and barrier-filled environment that many of the people I spoke with have struggled to navigate. This issue has affected people of all ages, from all areas of the country, and from all walks of life.

Forgotten shielders: not on the ‘list’ but shielding still

In the early stages of lockdown, the Scottish Government (along with others in the UK) agreed a range of measures designed to support those asked to shield. These measures included access to priority online supermarket delivery slots; however, navigating this system proved very difficult for many of the people I interviewed. This experience was summed up by one participant who lives with MS and faced barriers when accessing a major supermarkets online delivery system:

“[…] the whole… system for the deliveries was just a nightmare.” (Participant living with MS)

This was the case not just for those officially shielding, but also those who themselves took the decision to shield due to being at additional risk because of pre-existing conditions. This was the case for the following participant whose long-term condition has resulted in them being virtually housebound:  

“I think what would have been really useful is some of the support that the shielders got. So, the biggest issue first was we rely on Tesco grocery deliveries, and suddenly that got impossible to get.” (Participant living ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

As I spoke to more people, a significant category of individuals emerged – those who took the decision to shield but did not receive an official ‘shielding letter’ advising them do to so. This group did not have guaranteed access to the same concessions as shielders, such as priority access to online delivery slots. This frustration was voiced by the same participant, who found their access to food services severely limited:

“[…] we fall between the cracks, really, because we’re housebound but not on the shielding list.” (Participant living with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

This participant identifies a key problem that recurred throughout interviews. That is that lockdown for this group meant that some found themselves without the level of access to essentials that they had prior to the pandemic. This had the effect of thrusting people into an often-new system of food access that seemed, at times, to buckle. Furthermore, this system appeared to have little or no consideration built-in for the additional barriers that this group faced. Both, those shielding without a formal letter and those housebound, represent a collective group of what I would term ‘forgotten shielders’- a group whose needs appear to not have been met during lockdown.

Delivery issues don’t stop at the door

Once the supermarket food delivery systems were accessed, participants reported a mixed experience. Some found it worked for them, whilst others encountered a variety of problems. The inability of a major supermarket to provide a specific, and, in the case of the following participant, accessible time slot, was further raised as being a major issue:

“[…] it’ll be like an all day, eight ‘til four, or eight ‘til six slot, and that’s not great for me, because I tend to conk out unconscious, and the thing with these deliveries, they say, […] there has to be an adult to receive it.” (Participant living with MS)

One of the people I spoke to, who lives with a chronic debilitating illness, described a recent food delivery, highlighting how a ‘one size fits all’ delivery scheduling system can be inaccessible, dangerous, and the cause of extreme distress:

“[…] the other week I ordered shopping to be delivered, and obviously because I live up one flight of stairs, but the stairs are internal, so [I?] just like come in the front door and then it’s like a flight of stairs up to the rest of the house, and my health was so bad, like so bad, I could hardly get down the stairs. So, I said to the guy, I was like, could you like carry the stuff up the stairs? I can stand in another room or whatever, like…but like I’m disabled, I really can’t manage to carry the stuff up the stairs… I ended up like crawling up the stairs with the stuff that was supposed to be…that needed to go in the fridge, like the meat and stuff, and then I just sat on the floor in my kitchen and cried for half an hour, before I had the energy to put anything away. And like two days later, there’s still stuff like strewn all up the stairs and a friend came to visit, and he put a load of stuff away for me.” (Participant living with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

Hearing from disabled people and those living with long-term health conditions has powerfully detailed how food delivery systems need to consider individual circumstances and needs. Current policies appear to neglect the individual needs of the person and assume that everyone is able to carry their shopping bags up the stairs, regardless of any impairment or health condition they may have. These issues suggest that the shielding provisions need to consider practical elements of people’s living conditions such as their type of housing. This offers an illustration of a form of discrimination called ‘ableism’. Situations such as those described above, illustrate how policies put in place to address food access can themselves create barriers to getting food. It should be noted that such examples are not failings of the individual delivery workers, themselves performing a job that may have placed them at additional risk throughout the pandemic, but of the system as a whole.

Getting food, but not what you need

The issue of having access to food, but not the food that you need, was also raised. For one participant living with Crohn’s disease, whose condition is triggered by eating gluten, a lack of gluten-free products meant they would sometimes go to bed hungry:

“A lot of the gluten free food was understocked, and, you know, that was probably the worst part of it I’d say, that was the most stressful part… the consequences for taking […] gluten far outweighed being a little bit hungry till morning.” (Participant living with Crohn’s Disease)

When delivery systems couldn’t be accessed, some people were forced to rely on support from informal sources. A person who took part in the study, who is registered blind, spoke of the loss of their additional support (home-helps), and described in detail their struggles to secure food. They highlighted a period when they were reliant on the generosity of a local bar and its workers:

“[…] the local bar sent me food, so that tided me over, and then somebody else in the pub took it on herself to a couple of weeks later, and she bought me food out of her own pocket, you know, so if it wasn’t for the support and the generosity, you know, people in the community, I would have been royally fucked, to be honest.” (Participant living with multiple health conditions and registered blind)

Accessing and using online food delivery services both during and post-lockdown has been extremely challenging for many of the official and ‘forgotten’ shielders. The issues and barriers  described by these people can be tackled, and it is encouraging to see the Scottish Government’s updated guidance, which states that the Government is exploring how to expand access to online delivery slots. However, to address the issues discussed in this piece, it would appear that a collaborative approach, which looks specifically at how to meet the needs of individuals, both official and ‘forgotten shielders’ alike, is needed. This should involve all stakeholders, including the major supermarkets, Government and, crucially, the people affected by this issue. This is particularly urgent given the resurgence of COVID-19 and the possibility of Scotland facing further public health restrictions as we approach winter.

Paul Pearson (@paulthepearson) is a Research Associate in the DHC stream on the Scotland in Lockdown Study. He is also a PhD student researching the lived experience of brain injury.