The Scottish Government's response to food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic
82. The COVID-19 pandemic led to considerable worry about household food security – a survey by Food Standards Scotland in May 2020 found 25% of people were either very worried or somewhat worried about their household not being able to afford food in the next month.
83. The COVID-19 crisis also created new challenges in relation to physical access to food, particularly for those groups at high clinical risk and who were temporarily asked not to leave their homes. It has been of vital importance that all individuals have access to adequate food and the barriers that caused food insecurity are mitigated and addressed. That is why the Scottish Government made considerable investment in providing on-going support for food access through our communities funding package, which included ensuring free school meal replacement was available to eligible pupils during periods of remote learning.
Access to food and other essentials
84. On 18th March 2020 the Cabinet Secretary for Community and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, announced an initial investment of £350 million in a package of support for communities and households affected by the pandemic. This included an initial £70 million Food Fund to support people facing physical and financial barriers to accessing food. Scottish Government has now committed over £130 million to tackle food insecurity caused by the pandemic. This has included support in the following areas:
Support for those at highest clinical risk
£50.3 million was invested in our nationally coordinated response for those at highest clinical risk of COVID-19, known as the 'shielded' group who were asked to isolate in the first months of the pandemic. This provided funded grocery packages, containing essential supplies, until the end of July 2020. Work was also done with retailers to make priority online supermarket delivery slots available.
A National Helpline was established for anyone concerned (shielding or otherwise) which connected callers to local sources of support, including support to access food and other essentials.
Support for others struggling to afford or access food and other essentials
85. £87.6 million has been made available to local authorities in Scotland to provide support for at-risk groups from April 2020 - March 2021, with a focus on those facing financial barriers to accessing food, including the provision of free school meal support over the school holidays up to and including Easter 2021. This support also enabled local partners to support older people and those with long-term health conditions who were not in the shielded group but were asked to take additional precautions and may have faced difficulties accessing food.
86. The Scottish Government issued Guidance to Local Authorities on the delivery of this funding. This highlighted the importance of a 'cash first' approach to food insecurity caused by a lack of income, and provided flexibility to use the Fund to best meet emerging local needs and circumstances. The guidance included a set of guiding principles, such as multi-sectoral joined up approaches and the importance of "whole household whole need" responses which did not look at issues in isolation but considered the wider context of an individual's life. Local authorities worked closely with the third sector, community groups and local businesses to support home delivery, provide financial help, and meet dietary requirements. Scottish Government officials have engaged closely with local authorities to develop shared practice, monitor this spend and provide advice and support.
87. For people who have been able to access food shopping safely during the pandemic, we recognise the importance of ensuring they are able to afford to buy the food and other essentials they need. This approach is founded on the principles of respect and dignity. That is why we provided local authorities the flexibility to offer their allocation of funding as cash where appropriate. An example of this cash first approach in practice is provided by Moray Council which established a new Flexible Food Fund providing people who were struggling financially, particularly new Universal Credit claimants, with a cash grant alongside income maximisation and debt support.
88. Furthermore, in March 2020 we significantly increased investment in the Scottish Welfare Fund, distributing £22 million to meet demand for urgent financial support arising as a consequence of COVID-19. This is in addition to the £35.5 million already provided to support people in need through the Scottish Welfare Fund. We recognise that people with no recourse to public funds are unable to access crisis support through the Scottish Welfare Fund because it is restricted under UK Government immigration rules. By providing local authorities with flexibility in how they use additional funding allocated during the pandemic, they are able to support people living in our communities on the basis of need not immigration status.
89. Considerable investment has also been made in national and local third sector and community food responses to the pandemic, totalling over £15 million. Funded activities have included shopping services, food and activity packs and meal delivery, alongside wider social and emotional, as well as practical support. We have sought to retain this emphasis on dignity through our COVID-19 response funding.
90. Funding to the third sector included £2.1 million to FareShare to purchase food for distribution to local food hubs and community groups. This helped bolster local responses during a period of significant disruption to food sourcing. However our commitment, shared by partners and outlined elsewhere in this report, is to move away from food aid responses to food insecurity caused by financial drivers. Where food purchasing is required, we recognise that this may provide an opportunity to further examine and enhance local food system resilience and should be tailored as far as possible to meet diverse needs.
91. We have partnership working in place with national food aid organisations and throughout the pandemic Scottish Government officials have held regular discussion with FareShare, Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network. This partnership will also be crucial in our transition to recovery and renewal and our ambition to end the need for emergency food aid.
92. Additional support has been provided to households on low incomes and people at risk of homelessness or social isolation over the winter months December 2020 to March 2021. The Winter Plan for Social Protection aims to help households cope with the winter weather and economic impacts of the pandemic and the UK's Exit from the EU. Key elements of the Plan include:
- £22 million for low income families including £16 million to provide the families of an estimated 156,000 children in receipt of free school meals a one-off £100 COVID Winter Hardship Payment;
- £23.5 million to help vulnerable children through additional support for residential and care homes, social work, and the Children's Hearing system;
- £15 million for the Communities and Third Sector Recovery Programme to support the work of local organisations;
- £5.9 million to promote digital inclusion for older people, support social isolation and loneliness and to promote equality;
- £7 million to help people who are struggling to pay fuel bills; and
- £5 million to help those at risk of homelessness find a settled home.
Free School Meals support during the pandemic
93. The Scottish Government recognises that free school meals are a key support for low income families during term time, and provides on average a saving of £400 per year per child for every family in receipt of free school meals. Prior to school closures the Scottish Government estimated that approximately 122,000 were eligible for free school meals.
94. The unprecedented situation with remote learning due to Covid-19 led to new approaches being put in place by Scottish local authorities to ensure that: eligible pupils continued to receive free school meals or alternative support; that newly eligible pupils also received this support; and, that the support was expanded to cover school holidays.
95. At the outset of the pandemic, we outlined the benefits of cash-based support but recognised that flexible approaches were required for local authorities to enable them to ensure that all eligible children were able to receive a free school meal or alternative support. In doing so, we took account of factors such as the geography of Scotland and the fact that local authorities have to meet the needs of diverse communities, across urban, rural, island and remote communities.
96. We issued guidance to our local authority partners on 26 March 2020 to ensure appropriate care and support was provided to vulnerable children, this included guidance on the provision of free school meals during remote learning. We also introduced, as part of the educational continuity directions, a regulation to require alternative provision (e.g. other food and drink, vouchers or cash) to be provided to eligible pupils when a local authority was unable to secure the continued provision of free school meals.
97. From April 2020, the Scottish Government has provided over £37 million specifically for the continued provision of free school meals and alternatives up to and including the Easter holidays in April 2021, reaching over 170,000 eligible children and young people. Local authorities in Scotland have predominantly fulfilled this responsibility through direct cash payments and the provision of vouchers, alongside the provision of meals to those attending school.
98. We recognised that families financial circumstances may change as a result of the impact of COVID-19 and we worked closely with local authorities during this time. Local authorities were able to utilise an existing power, granted through the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which gives discretion to offer free school meals to families who do not receive any of the qualifying benefits which would normally entitle them to free school meals but where they are experiencing financial hardship due to exceptional circumstances. This included any changes to circumstances which may have been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
99. This discretionary power also provides local authorities with the ability to provide free school meals to all families with No Recourse to Public Funds, where a situation of this nature has been brought to their attention. The Scottish Government has included this on our advice page on free school meals on our national webpage.
100. In addition to funding for free school meals and alternative support, the flexible funding provided through the communities funding package has enabled local authorities to target further wraparound support to low income families, including those with young people eligible for free school meals.
101. In recognition of the higher cost of living many households experience during the school holidays, the Scottish Government has committed in Programme for Government to further exploring with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) what support can be provided during the school holidays in future.
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