Food vulnerability during COVID-19

This research project will map and monitor responses addressing concerns about insufficient food access during the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments, local authorities, charities and local communities have been working to ensure access to food for those facing new risks of food insecurity due to being unable to go out for food or to income losses arising from the COVID-19 crisis. New schemes have been developed, such as governments replacing incomes of people at risk of unemployment on account of the lockdown, providing food parcels for people asked to shield, referrals for people to receive voluntary help with grocery shopping, and free school meals replacement vouchers or cash transfers. These have been working alongside existing provision for those unable to afford food – such as food banks – which has also seen a dramatic rise in demand during lockdown. The result has been a complex set of support structures which have been developing and changing as the COVID-19 outbreak, and its impacts, evolve.

About the project

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through the UKRI Ideas to Address COVID-19 grant call and runs from July 2020 to January 2022. The research aims to provide collaborative, real time monitoring and analysis of food support systems to inform food access policy and practice as the UK emerges from the COVID-19 lockdown and going forward, as the longer-term socio-economic impacts of the crisis become clearer.

The research team is led by the University of Sheffield and King’s College London alongside colleagues from Sustain : the alliance for better food and farming and Church Action on Poverty. Full details of the team are below. Collaboration with partners and stakeholders is at the heart of the project. The research team will work with people working in national and local government, the civil service, third sector, NGOs as well as people who accessed food and financial assistance during the pandemic.

Reports will be produced throughout the project including systems maps, case study reports and system monitoring reports. We hope these reports will be used to inform policy and practice decision making throughout the COVID-19 response. A final project report and further academic and policy outputs will also be produced.

Aims of the project

  • Undertake comprehensive mapping of food access support systems during COVID-19, highlighting key areas of vulnerability within them and identifying links to other support systems.
  • Develop and apply methods for monitoring and evaluating food access for groups at greater risk of food insecurity during the COVID-19 outbreak and through the easement of lockdown restrictions.
  • Develop ‘exit strategies’ for managing the transition out of systems that will not be provided after the crisis.
  • Establish ‘best practice’ protocols for resiliency planning for the future.

The three aspects of the project

National level food access systems mapping and monitoring
Looking at food access support across the UK during the COVID-19 outbreak, national level mapping and monitoring will be done in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as at a UK level. National level stakeholders (for example from devolved governments and national voluntary organisations) from across the four countries of the UK will be involved in understanding and monitoring the way support for food access has evolved and is operating across the country.

Food access system user panel
Crucial to understanding the food access responses is to hear from people who have accessed this support, including those who have received government food parcels, referrals to volunteer support, wages from the government’s furlough scheme, or help from a food bank. These experiences will be collected through a panel of system users. This panel will also form a crucial aspect of the national and monitoring work.

Local area case studies
Eight local areas will be the focus for more in depth case study research. Working with local stakeholders in these areas, the research will map what responses in these areas have looked like and how it is operating. The research will follow developments in these areas through the duration of the project.

Project reports

The first project report - Mapping responses to the risk of rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis across the UK - was published in August 2020. The report sets out findings from a scoping of national policies and programmes that were made available during the crisis. The mapping involved systematically searching and analysing publicly available information on responses to food insecurity during the crisis to date (March – July 2020).

The report is a “living document”, providing the groundwork for the next stage of our research, which is looking at how these interventions worked in practice. This research, exploring the implementation and effectiveness of interventions, is currently underway and will be published as part of the monitoring phase of the project in the Autumn 2020.

Contact us

  • If you have questions on the project, or any publicly available data or reports that may be relevant, please get in touch at
  • If you would like to share your own experiences of using food provision services during the pandemic please get in touch with Niall Cooper.

The research team

Hannah Lambie-Mumford co-leads the research team. Hannah is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield and a Research Fellow at SPERI. She has undertaken research on food insecurity, food charity and public policy responses for funders including the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the British Academy. Her work has explored in particular the rise and political economy of food charity systems in the UK and comparatively across Europe.

Rachel Loopstra co-leads the research team. Rachel is a lecturer in the Department of Nutrition at King’s College London. She conducts research on household food insecurity and food bank use in the UK. Rachel sits on the advisory board of the Food Foundation and has been working with them to monitor food insecurity since the COVID-19 lockdown. Rachel and Hannah co-lead ENUF, an Evidence hub and Network for UK Food insecurity research.

Katy Gordon has worked as a qualitative researcher and local authority practitioner on community food issues across Scotland. In her current research and knowledge exchange role at the University of Sheffield working with ENUF, Katy has developed food access policy and practitioner networks across the devolved nations.

Peter Jackson is the Co-Director of the University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food. He is a member of Defra's Social Science Expert Group; chairs the Oversight Group for the public dialogue phase of the National Food Strategy; and sits on the UKRI working group on COVID-19 and the risks to the food supply chain.

Simon Shaw is the head of the food poverty programme at Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. As part of his work, Simon manages the Food Power programme supporting food poverty alliances around the UK. Within this programme he leads on alliance development, food poverty action planning and evaluation. Simon brings to the project connections and working relationships with food poverty alliances across the UK as well as national level insight on the work of the voluntary and community sector in responding to local needs.

Niall Cooper is Director of Church Action on Poverty, a national ecumenical Christian social justice charity, committed to tackling poverty in the UK. Niall has led on several flagship participatory policy programmes and will oversee the facilitation of the system users panel drawing on this unique experience.