Of all the “worst case planning assumptions” in the UK government’s recent Yellowhammer report, which detailed the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit, a single line near the very end of the document stands out: “Low income groups will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel.”
The matter-of-fact statement in the papers – marked “official sensitive” - belies its significance.
“It’s hard to imagine the impact a no-deal Brexit could have on these communities,” one long-serving trustee of a food bank working across Brexit-supporting areas in the East Midlands told HuffPost UK.
Indeed, the uncertainty around the UK crashing out of the European Union (EU) without any sort of agreement has already appeared to create a strain on services. “Our shelves are empty, there’s a huge demand on our foodbanks and at this point we are absolutely desperate for donations,” said the trustee, a 40-year-old school leader from Nottingham, who asked to remain anonymous due to the nature of her work.
“I work in schools in some of the most deprived areas of the East Midlands, and teachers are already having conversations about how petrol shortages in a no-deal Brexit could stop them from getting into work, the schools having to close,” she said.
“We know that the only place some children have a proper meal is at school - if shortages mean the school can’t open, what will they do then? The implications are just enormous.”
HuffPost UK spoke to a number of people working in food poverty charities about how a no-deal Brexit would impact families from the UK’s most deprived communities. They stressed that the consequences of a no-deal Brexit would be dire – and that in many ways the impact is already being felt.
Garry Lemon, director of policy, external affairs and research for the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of foodbanks, said there is already constant demand for food assistance, and Brexit would simply add to the strain. “Any form of Brexit risks increasing the cost of food and essentials, and therefore increasing the need for food banks,” he said. “We’re giving Brexit guidance to food banks – but there’s a limit to how much we can prepare for and mitigate its consequences.”
Given the steady demand for donations, the organisation is not stockpiling food ahead of a potential no-deal exit from the EU. Instead it is working with local authorities to improve their resilience planning and preparing to redistribute stock amongst foodbanks if necessary.
Natalie Williams, who works both with Hastings Foodbank and Jubilee+, a charity that helps churches assist communities affected by poverty, similarly reports that a huge demand for assistance already exists. “Since the introduction of Universal Credit in 2016, the demand on Hastings Foodbank has increased by 118%, and each month we see more and more people desperate for help,” she said.
A disorderly Brexit would likely only exacerbate that situation. Jubilee+ has been advising its partners to anticipate an increase in need should Brexit happen. “We are actively encouraging churches across the country to massively step up their operations in order to prepare for a potential rise in demand,” Williams said. “Whether it’s a soup kitchen, a foodbank, whatever, we are putting out the message that we can’t just wait around to see if it’ll be a no-deal Brexit, because, if it is, by the time we know it’ll already be too late.”
Still, she said, even these efforts may fail to meet demand. “Rising prices are going to hit the poorest in our society the hardest,” she said, “and preparations so far just aren’t sufficient to meet the level of need we could potentially see.”
Part of the worry is that a no-deal Brexit will cause donations to dry up, as families who might otherwise afford to help those in need start being more conservative with their spending. Williams said that so far the Hastings community has been “amazing” in their response to the increased demand on the foodbank, but she is concerned the support won’t last post-Brexit. “We still have people ordering full shops to the foodbank – whole trolleys of food,” she told HuffPost UK, “but if we start seeing shortages or significant price increases, that could unfortunately all change.”
In the East Midlands, the trustee for the food bank said that she is already seeing this dynamic take shape. “We used to hire a van each week which drove around from supermarket to supermarket collecting donations from the in-store baskets,” she said, “but it got to a point where there was so little in them that it just wasn’t worth doing anymore.
“Families in these ‘low income groups’ are living right on the edge here,” she added. “There’s a real feeling of there being very little money, and as a result people seem to be holding on to every penny they can.”
“There is already a feeling up here that these are tough times,” she said.
Despite part of the Yellowhammer report stating that “certain types of fresh food supply will decrease”, the government has repeatedly said it is prepared for potential delays at the border in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
A spokesperson for the Department of Exiting the EU said: “We have stepped up preparations and will be ready for Brexit on 31 October, whatever the circumstances. We have the funds necessary to accelerate preparations at the border, support business readiness and ensure the supply of critical medicines.
“We want to reassure the public that we are working closely with partners across the health and care system and have robust plans in place to help ensure the supply of medicines remains uninterrupted.
“The UK has a high level of food security built upon a diverse range of sources, including strong domestic production and imports from other countries. Consumers already have access to a wide range of food, and this will not change post-Brexit.”
As fears of a no-deal Brexit have risen in recent months, some people have taken it upon themselves to stock up on essentials, just in case. Joanna Elgarf, an administrator of one of Facebook’s largest no-deal Brexit preparation groups, said more than 10,000 members joined the group in just over a year. Her advice to anyone concerned about potential shortages is not to panic, however, and instead to prepare as one would for a heavy snow storm. She recommended that people with specific dietary requirements buy enough to last them for a few days or a week, in case supermarkets run low. But she urged people to resist the temptation to hoard months’ worth of supplies in garages and secret bunkers.
“It’s about making sure we’re taking the strain off of the supply chain as much as it’s about being as prepared as possible,” she said. “For every person who has been able to build up a good larder’s worth of stuff there are families who are already struggling to pay for a weekly shop.”
“I would recommend people thinking carefully about the things they couldn’t do without, and sticking to gathering supplies of that, rather than going all out.”
Garry Lemon of the Trussell Trust said that the ultimate responsibility for maintaining adequate supplies of food, medicine and other essentials lies with the government. In order to prevent people from slipping into poverty as Brexit unfolds, the organisation has called on the government to ensure that protective measures such as a dedicated hardship fund are in place and to ensure that benefits are able to match a potential cost of living increase alongside a five-week wait for Universal Credit payments.
“The responsibility to prevent more people being pulled into poverty lies with our government,” Lemon said. “We cannot and should not rely on support driven by volunteers and food donations to pick up the pieces, particularly in the event of no-deal.”
When HuffPost UK asked the Department for Work and Pensions how it would be supporting families from low-income communities in the instance of a no-deal Brexit, a spokesperson said the government was “committed” to helping vulnerable people.
They said: “We’re helping parents to move into work to give families the best opportunity to move out of poverty.
“And it’s working – employment is at a record high and children growing up in working households are five times less likely to be in relative poverty.
“We are committed to ensuring that vulnerable people get the support they need and leaving the EU on October 31 will not change that.”