The prospect of facing weeks, possibly months, with children off school due to the coronavirus outbreak is daunting for most parents. But for those struggling financially, the future looks particularly stark.
With schools across the UK closed to all students apart from those from families of key workers, parents are suddenly having to provide extra food for their youngsters who are now at home all day.
And they face another challenge too: trying to simply access food and essentials, after stockpiling emptied shelves in supermarkets and shops.
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, figures showed almost one in every three children in the UK to be living in poverty, but the escalating situation is forcing desperate families to choose between feeding their children and paying their bills.
Single mum Hannah Graham revealed to HuffPost UK how she is planning to give herself meal replacements in a bid to have enough money to feed her hungry children.
Hannah, 45, who lives in Northwich, Cheshire and has nine-year-old Charlotte and Matthew, six, was given an insight into the coming weeks, as her family had to go into self-isolation the week before schools shut.
She was “staggered” by how much food her children managed to consume while being off school.
“I have already discovered how hard it is going to be to provide food for my children during lockdown.” she told HuffPost UK. “I knew we would get through a lot more food as there would be an extra 10 meals to provide during the week.
“But the sheer volume of what they had eaten by Tuesday was staggering. They emptied the cupboards and there was nothing left as they had eaten all the snacks and food.”
Hannah, who is the local coordinator for Northwich Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parents, says it made her realise how hard it would be to stay financially afloat during the outbreak.
Hannah would normally keep stocked with snacks like toast, crumpets, crisps, biscuits, savoury eggs and fruit. However, when her children are at school, they usually only have a snack in the evening before bed and would eat a hot meal and snacks at school.
“Suddenly being stuck at home all day for five days, my children were eating a lot more.” she said. “They were bored and when you are bored, you tend to eat more.”
As a result, Hannah has taken out all the food she has in her cupboards and done an inventory of it and has now planned all the children’s meals until the end of March.
For herself, she is planning to do a meal replacement plan with shakes and packaged meals so she can spend money on feeding the children instead.
She had to sit her children down and explain the harsh realities of their situation and how they can no longer take food for granted.
““Suddenly being stuck at home all day, my children were eating a lot more. They were bored and when you are bored, you tend to eat more.””
“We don’t have the luxury of rejecting a meal or throwing food away as there won’t be a snack or an alternative option.”
One of the biggest problems Hannah is facing is the struggle to access affordable food due to other people panic buying and stockpiling. She is finding herself having to fork out for premium and more expensive brands as that is all that is available.
She does her weekly shopping online at Asda and says she is glad she has a delivery saver slot as without that, she would be stuck as many supermarkets are booked up for weeks.
But this week, she found that every time she tried to add items to her basket, they were out of stock or she was forced to pay more for more expensive brands.
“I managed to get some toilet rolls this week, but I had to buy Andrex quilted as that’s all there was. But I usually buy the own brand.
“Even simple things like frozen potato products and tomato ketchup weren’t in stock and the only option was to pay more for brands like Bird’s Eye and Heinz.
“Then when my shopping was delivered, there were numerous substitutions, but they end up being more expensive.
“Some things, you can’t get at all such as pasta, pesto, meatballs and a lot of tinned food.”
Being on her own, Hannah is also worried about how she will keep her children occupied at home. Her son Matthew has an education, health and care (EHC) plan at school and receives extra support.
He suffered seizures at the age of two to three which have affected his social and emotional development. At school, he has a teaching assistant sitting with him to keep him calm and focus and in the afternoons, he is in a small nurture group as the full classroom is too overwhelming.
Although Hannah is entitled to send Matthew to school due to his needs, she has chosen not to as she knows schools are under pressure. But she says she is now living in a “constant frenetic state”.
“I am worried about having the children at home for maybe three months or even more and how that is going to pan out.
“When you’re on your own, what do you do with your children for so many weeks? The bickering and squabbling when they are cooped up is hard and the house gets trashed as they are like typhoons.
“I am also very worried about how I will afford to feed them. I am planning each week at a time and trying not to think beyond that as it is too overwhelming.”
Hannah says as a single parent counting every penny, she has never bought more than one week of shopping at a time – not even at Christmas.
“When you are a single parent and struggling for money, you cannot afford to stockpile and buy a couple of weeks of food at a time.
“But if I could afford it, I would buy extra now. With the way everyone is panic buying, you never know if you are going to get what you need.”
Hannah admitted she is not scared of catching coronavirus – and is actually more frightened by the prospect of not being able to feed her children.
““I am not worried about catching the virus ... personally, that is not what is scaring me right now. I am more frightened about how I am going to feed my family.”
“I am not worried about catching the virus ourselves as I don’t think we will end up in hospital with it.
“We don’t have underlying health problems so we would probably have a week of feeling like hell with bad flu, but come through it.
“But personally, that is not what is scaring me right now. I am more frightened about how I am going to feed my family.
’However, I feel like that’s something I can’t voice as people think you are being disrespectful to the vulnerable population.
“If people stopped panic buying, it would take away a lot of the stress.”
Action For Children has launched an emergency coronavirus appeal to provide essentials to vulnerable families.
The charity has reported families being most worried about affording food, electricity and gas and nappies.
Sonia James, who lives in Norfolk, is married to Peter and has children Oliver, four and Amelia, 18 months.
She says that while her husband is still working as he delivers parcels, the future is uncertain and they are still having to pay for their daughter’s nursery fees even though she is not going.
She told HuffPost UK that with her children being so young, it is difficult for them to understand the situation.
“Oliver only started school in September and had only been there for six months before all this happened.
“Now he is at home, I am trying to carry on with his education but he thinks it is a holiday and doesn’t understand. All he knows is that there is a “bad virus” but is too young to realise what is going on.
“But it is difficult to try to get Oliver to do his home working packs as with Amelia being 18 months, she constantly wants my full attention.
“My concern is that the hard work of the last six months will decline and when he goes back to school, it will be like starting from scratch.
“When it comes to food, Oliver wants to eat everything in sight because he is at home. So we have had to limit his snacks.”
Sonia is worried about the extra costs of food and paying the bills but has welcomed the lockdown. “We need this lockdown so we can get through this quicker and get out of it quicker.”
“Feeding them an extra meal and snacks every day is going to affect me a lot financially. Even people with two-parent families with both working will be hit hard as most people live week-to-week.””
Becky Lane, who lives in Bristol, is single mum to Lexi, six and Lily, two. She says when her children are in the house at weekends and school holidays, they eat a lot more and the period of lockdown and being off school is going to hit her and other families hard.
“My children get up at 6am and have their breakfast at 7am. By 9am, they want something else and by 11am, they are hungry for their dinner.
“If they were at school, they would get a hot meal and a snack and with being so busy, they wouldn’t think about food all the time.
“Feeding them an extra meal and snacks every day is going to affect me a lot financially. Even people with two-parent families with both working will be hit hard as most people live week-to-week.”
The government has stated that children who were on free school meals will be eligible for supermarket vouchers. But Becky says while this is a good idea, it will be “pointless” if people can’t get out to the shops to spend them or if the shops don’t have what they need due to people panic buying.
Helen Baker, 49, who lives in Devon, is a full-time carer for her seven-year-old son Sam who is autistic.
She is concerned about their financial predicament and how they will afford to put food on the table as her husband Chris is a self employed taxi driver and the impact of coronavirus is already hitting their income hard.
“Now we are on lockdown, my husband is getting no taxi work at all.” she told HuffPost UK. “The measures in place for self employed people at the moment are abysmal as all they can access is Universal Credit.
“My husband is trying to look for other ways of earning but we live in an economically deprived area and everyone is in the same position.
“I am worried about buying food and putting gas and electricity on the meter. We’re literally living hand-to-mouth and I am worried about running out of money and not being able to put food on the table or how long it will be before we get Universal Credit.
“I am struggling mentally and trying not to panic. But it’s difficult when you get up in the morning and worry about whether we’ll be able to buy bread or milk.”
Helen says she’d welcome a “rationing” system. “At least we would all know what we would get and it would be fair and we could stretch it out.” she said.
Her son’s autism also presents extra issues and he is particularly picky and fussy about what he eats. Routine is also essential to him and Helen says it is difficult to get him to cope with doing schoolwork at home as it is not the routine he is used to.
“When Sam is at school and in a structured routine, he is fine. But at home, he just wants snacks all the time. I don’t know if it is a comfort thing or part of him being on the spectrum.
“I am trying to take each day as it comes and focus on what we can do and not think about what we can’t otherwise I would just be sat in the house in tears.”
- To support Action For Children’s emergency coronavirus appeal to help families cover the cost of basics, visit: actionforchildren.org.uk, call 0300 123 2112 or text CHILDREN to 70175 to donate £5.