The beautiful seaside town that’s so deprived locals have struggled to buy food

The socially deprived seaside town of Fleetwood in Lancashire saw a “food crisis” develop during the pandemic, with increasing levels of free school meal eligibility.

This is the conclusion of researchers from Lancaster University who have been working with the local community and authorities to see how COVID-19 impacted the coastal population.

They analysed data on free school meal eligibility, community mental health referrals and hospital admissions between late March 2016 and the end of December 2021.

The team identified emerging food insecurity in those areas of Fleetwood with better housing and income, but higher levels of health and disability deprivation.

In Lancashire, children in Year 3 and above are eligible for free school meals if, for example, their household is on Universal Credit and has an income of less than £7,400 per annum, or is on Income-Based Jobseekers’ or Employment and Support Allowance.

According to the NHS Confederation, preventing food insecurity is key to curbing rising cases of mental and physical health conditions caused by deprivation, hunger and unhealthy diets — the effects of which harm children and add to the NHS’ financial burden.

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The study was undertaken by epidemiologists Drs Russell Cain, Maddy French and Luigi Sedda of Lancaster University.

Dr Cain said: “We show the community of Fleetwood not only continued to bear the burden of poor health typical of neglected coastal areas during the COVID-19 pandemic…

“But those living in areas of better housing and income, who might otherwise be considered immune to the impacts of the pandemic, showed the greatest increase in food insecurity.”

This effect was particularly evident, he added, among those residents with disabilities.

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During a crisis like COVID-19, the researchers explained, all groups are affected. However, not as much consideration tends to be given to those already bordering on deprivation who can be catapulted into the greatest distress by the emergency.

For this reason, the team say that decision makers and practitioners should regard them as at risk groups, and provide support and preparedness accordingly.

Dr Sedda added: “While Fleetwood experienced the worst of the pandemic effects, its community developed interventions to restore some of its health and socio-economic indicators — providing an example of resilience for other coastal communities.

“In fact, this is only due to the strong community spirit and initiative that Fleetwood is lucky to have.”

Dr French said: “It is important to recognise there is a social gradient to most health outcomes and design interventions accordingly.

“Interventions should help those in the most disadvantaged position but also those living precarious and insecure lives who are at risk of sliding into greater material and financial deprivation.”

She concluded: “Everyone in society benefits when those with the greatest social need are taken care of.”

The full findings of the study were published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.

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