Plans to pilot local support scheme for struggling families

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Over £5 million available from the Government's Household Support Fund to help those most in need this winter - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's a shocking statistic but research by staff at the county council has found one in ten households in Devon don't have enough to eat.

It's two years now since the pandemic started and its effects continue to remain profound.

I've written here before about the huge increase in the number of children in the county who have become eligible for free school meals and how we have used Government money to support their families with food vouchers during the holidays to ensure they didn't go hungry. Our latest statistics show around 18,000 children across Devon now qualify for free school meals.

But we heard last month that some 17 per cent of households in Devon don't have reliable access to enough affordable and nutritious food and 10 per cent are experiencing substantial disruption to their eating patterns, are eating less and going hungry.

These numbers have increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic as people have lost their jobs or seen their incomes substantially reduced.

As a county council, we have worked ever more closely with colleagues in Devon's eight district councils, with parish and town councils and voluntary and community organisations to deliver help and support to our vulnerable residents.

Our Team Devon approach has had some notable successes and we have spent around £5 million of Government emergency funding on food and essential support, not least for the 60,000 clinically extremely vulnerable people in Devon. We have helped fund groups running community kitchens, food banks and food box providers and collaborated with Citizens' Advice to provide support with energy bills and debt advice.

We've used Covid support grants to fund projects where recipe kits and ingredients for families with young children experiencing financial difficulty were delivered during school holidays to help them produce healthy, cost-effective meals.

But there is still much work to be done. The survey found many of those most at risk were among the least likely to access support. Some of the reasons for this are obvious and include geography and transport in our large, sparsely-populated county.

Other reasons are stigma - people who have worked all their lives to provide for their families may be intensely embarrassed about having to ask for help because of the effects of the pandemic. The colder, winter weather and the impending increase in fuel costs mean many households will be under even more pressure in the coming months, as a result of the global increase in gas and oil prices as world economies recover from the pandemic and demand mushrooms.

So what are we doing about it? In the short term, Devon has just over £5 million from the Government's Household Support Fund to help those most in need this winter with food, energy and water bills and we're working with the district councils and other partners to make this money available as quickly as possible.

We've helped to establish the Devon Food Partnership which will help us work more closely with a variety of groups across the county and we're developing local food networks in local communities with our partners.

And in the longer term we're talking to the Government about a potential local pilot where we could provide support directly to families under the most financial strain.

In my last column I wrote about the budget discussions which are currently going on at the county council and these statistics only serve to illustrate how we need to ensure we have enough money to support the most vulnerable people while at the same time not putting up council tax bills to an unacceptable level.