One in five UK schools has set up a food bank in Covid crisis, survey suggests

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Exclusive: third of teachers say schools have become key providers of support services for families in poverty

Melanie Evans, right, headteacher of Willowtown community primary school in Ebbw Vale, Wales, with deputy headteacher, Emma Thomas .
Melanie Evans, right, headteacher of Willowtown community primary school in Ebbw Vale, Wales, with deputy headteacher, Emma Thomas. Photograph: Ashley Crowden/Athena
Melanie Evans, right, headteacher of Willowtown community primary school in Ebbw Vale, Wales, with deputy headteacher, Emma Thomas. Photograph: Ashley Crowden/Athena
Social policy editor

Last modified on Thu 4 Mar 2021 12.58 EST

One in five UK schools have set up a food bank since the start of the coronavirus pandemic to support struggling local families, according to a survey that highlights how deeply the Covid crisis has hit living standards for many, especially in deprived areas.

A fifth of teachers said their school had launched a food bank, over a third said their school delivered food parcels to pupils’ homes, and over a quarter ran breakfast clubs, some even for vulnerable pupils not eligible to attend schools during lockdown.

A third of teachers believe their schools have become key providers of Covid social support services for families in poverty, often funding this extra support from school budgets, with help from local charities, parent-teacher groups and councils.

More than a quarter of teachers said they personally kept private stores of food and snacks in a cupboard or desk to give to hungry pupils on an ad hoc basis, while 5% of teachers said their school had provided emergency loans to parents.

The findings come amid concerns over a predicted surge in poverty levels in the autumn when furlough job support and the £20-a-week Covid top-up to universal credit is due to be withdrawn, hitting the budgets of many low-income households and pushing an estimated 500,000 more people below the breadline.

Charitable food aid has increased sharply during the pandemic economic crisis. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, gave out nearly 50% more food parcels in the first half of last year, and warned of the dangers of food parcels being “normalised” as a response to poverty.

The YouGov poll, commissioned by the food company Kellogg’s, surveyed 1,100 primary and secondary school teachers from across the UK in February. Kellogg’s funds breakfast clubs in deprived areas and supplies food to the charity FareShare.

Sarah Wardle, assistant headteacher at Benfield school, Newcastle upon Tyne, said: “The findings of this survey were not a surprise to me; we work in really economically vulnerable areas and there’s a lot of deprivation. We knew that because of lockdown a lot of our students and their families would need extra support.”

Wardle said Benfield – where 65% of children are on free school meals – had run breakfast clubs for all children during the pandemic, and did not expect the need for extra food provision to reduce in the near future. “Covid has highlighted inequalities and shown where we need to improve services to vulnerable people,” she said.

The Kellogg’s survey found that of those teachers who felt their school had taken on a bigger family support role during the pandemic, 61% believed local household incomes had fallen due to coronavirus and 57% felt families were struggling to manage their finances under lockdown.

More than half of the teachers surveyed – 56% – felt the government had not done enough to support struggling families during the pandemic, while 46% called for universal credit to be increased, and 55% believed the value of food vouchers given to families on free school meals should be increased. Approximately 28% of teachers thought more food banks should be opened.

Schools had also provided a range of other services, from delivery of fruit and vegetables, to emotional support provided by family liaison teams. Nearly three-quarters of schools had delivered non-food items such as IT equipment to pupils’ homes during lockdown.

According to the Food Foundation thinktank, food insecurity has risen most among poorer families with school-age children during the pandemic. Four in 10 families with children on free school meals experienced food insecurity over the last six months, compared with 12% of all households with children.

Reliance on charity food was also higher among families with children on free school meals, the foundation reported this week. Nearly a third of this group (32%) used food banks during December and January, compared with 13% of all children over the same period.

A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that we will support every child eligible for free school meals while they are learning remotely during the school term and we have increased the funding we give to schools so they continue to make sure eligible pupils are fed, whether through lunch parcels, local vouchers or our national voucher scheme.

“Wider support for schoolchildren is also available through our breakfast clubs programme, through the school fruit and veg scheme, and via our significant investment in food distribution charities, including FareShare.

“We know many vulnerable families are struggling – that is why we have raised the living wage, boosted welfare support by billions, and introduced the Covid winter grant scheme to ensure children and families are warm and fed. In April we will be increasing the value of our Healthy Start vouchers by over a third to help those in need with young children.”

‘A good breakfast changes their moods and mindset’

Melanie Evans, headteacher of Willowtown community primary school
Melanie Evans, headteacher of Willowtown community primary school Photograph: Ashley Crowden/Athena

Last October Willowtown community primary school in Ebbw Vale decided to tweak its annual harvest festival charity event; rather than collect produce for the whole town, it would target support at its own pupils’ families who were going hungry.

“We started a food bank for our school,” said Melanie Evans, Willowtown’s headteacher. As the pandemic spiralled and need grew, those food parcels took on an increasing importance and the food bank rapidly became “a weekly fixture”.

The school, in south Wales, is no stranger to pupil deprivation. But this crisis was deeper and wider. “We have seen an increase in demand for help from parents who we thought wouldn’t normally have needed support, due to loss of jobs,” she said.

Approximately 50 families a week are supported through the school food bank – about one in 10 of all pupils. The content of the food parcels – bread, pasta, and basics, plus a few treats – is supplied by local supermarkets, with donations from local families.

Evans believes this provision of extra food support by the school, alongside the outreach support of its three-strong family liaison team (and, more widely, help for families through the benefit system), is vital to ensure it can continue to deliver its core educational role.

“When [the children] have had a good breakfast or meal it changes their moods and their mindset. Their wellbeing is our priority and we have to get that right before we start the academic journey,” said Evans.

Despite the green shoots of optimism that have arrived on the back of vaccination, Evans believes school food parcels are here for the immediate future: “Hopefully things will change with the pandemic easing. But we always cater for families who are in need. The food bank will be a long-term project.”