In April 2020, Caritas Westminster launched the Caritas Emergency Food Voucher Scheme as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first phase of the scheme, Caritas Westminster sent out £31,000 in supermarket vouchers to 62 parishes and schools in the Diocese of Westminster. The participating parishes and schools each received £500 in vouchers to distribute to those in need in their communities. Following the success of the first round of vouchers, Caritas Westminster has extended the scheme to provide more vouchers for parishes and schools.
In its second round, the food voucher scheme is now supporting 72 parishes and schools, including 6 parishes in the Diocese of Southwark. The individual parishes and schools take on responsibility for distributing the supermarket vouchers to individuals and families they already work with, or to those who have asked the parish for support. Church and school communities are seeing a steep increase in need during the pandemic, with many individuals no longer in work, and families facing a higher food bill while children are at home during school closures.
Although some households have been able to access foodbanks, many foodbanks have been under increased pressure and have had limited supplies. The supermarket vouchers enable people to shop for themselves and buy the specific items their family needs. As one parish priest from a church that received the vouchers commented, ‘there is nothing like doing your own shopping’.
28 of the parishes and schools who participated in the first round have provided Caritas Westminster with feedback, offering insights into the difficult circumstances facing those who were offered the vouchers. According to this set of data, the vouchers distributed by these 28 parishes and schools have supported 1,468 people in 414 households. As the scheme is extended, these numbers suggest that the Caritas Emergency Food Voucher Scheme will go on to benefit thousands of people.
The recipients of the vouchers were asked to share the main reason why they require help to buy food. The highest reported reason was low income, with 39% of respondents naming this as the main reason they are struggling to access food. Workers who have been furloughed have seen their income cut by 20% and others have had their hours reduced significantly. One family told Caritas Westminster they were having to decide whether to spend money on food or rent. They said receiving Caritas Westminster’s supermarket vouchers was like ‘a gift from God’.
Other common reasons for needing the vouchers included losing work due to COVID-19 (9%) and being unable to work safely due to the virus (8%). Many people have had to isolate as they, or someone they live with, is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, leaving them unable to work. One parent described how they had to move their children away from their partner who was isolating whilst being treated for cancer. This made them the sole carer for their children whilst schools were closed, leaving them unable to go to work and struggling under financial pressure.
8% of respondents have no recourse to public funds, which means they cannot access benefits and Government support. This group includes people who are subject to immigration control, such as asylum seekers. Some of these people have nowhere else to turn and are reliant on their local parish for help. One parish shared the story of a Christian family who had come to England after facing persecution in their home country of Pakistan. Whilst the family wait to hear whether they have been granted leave to remain in the UK, they are not allowed to work and have had to rely on the parish and Caritas vouchers for support.
Many people experience several of these issues at the same time, facing low income, the fear of losing work, complex caring responsibilities, long waits for Universal Credit and more all at once. The anxiety and complexity of these different issues coming together, especially during a pandemic, makes it more difficult for people to be resilient to the next challenge. The Caritas voucher scheme offers these people breathing space and reduces some of their financial burden, helping them to keep going.
An example of this is how the vouchers have supported those facing problems with the Government Free School Meals scheme. The Government scheme has had many delays, leaving families waiting a long time to access the funds they need. The Caritas Emergency Food Voucher Scheme has helped to cover this gap, with one head teacher telling us the vouchers had ‘filled a hole for us while we wait for the Government's scheme to kick in’. One family commented, ‘These vouchers are a God send. Thank you.’ Another family said, ‘We are able for the first time, in a long time, to buy the children a small treat.’
Anna Gavurin, Coordinator of the Caritas Food Collective, said:
‘Caritas Westminster are very pleased to be able to continue offering this scheme and supporting parishes and schools to support their local communities. Through this challenging time, it has been brilliant to see the Church community coming together to respond. The feedback Caritas has received shows that this work of the Church is making a big difference to people. As one parish told us, “it gives hope to those feeling abandoned”.’
You can support the ongoing work of Caritas Westminster at bit.ly/caritasdonations
If your parish or school needs support to help those in your community, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.