Starving Kids, Tories Making Quids: Examining the role of ‘stigma’ in providing free school meals to impoverished families during covid-19

By: Emma Collins, BSc Criminology and Sociology student

“Could you let me know when we’re close to £18? I’m not sure I’ve got enough in my account for all this.”

I have worked in a supermarket throughout the entirety of Covid-19, and phrases similar to this one are only becoming increasingly frequent. During my break, I open twitter hoping for some light-hearted entertainment, but instead I am bombarded by images of miscellaneous tins, halved vegetables, and bags of unknown foods. Upon a closer look it becomes apparent that these are images of food parcels, delivered to some of the most impoverished families in England, to replace the free school meals they would have otherwise been provided at school if it were not for England’s third national lockdown. The decision to move schools to remote learning was announced in the form of yet another U-turn by the Conservative government (Cabinet Office, 2021), which gave schools little time to prepare as Boris Johnson insisted schools were safe just one day prior (Johnson, 2021).

Ensuring that children who are eligible for free school meals are fed during lockdown is not a new phenomenon. After mounting public pressure, the Department for Education (2020) introduced a national voucher scheme, which provided £15 supermarket vouchers per week, per child eligible for free school meals. However, it was clear from the contents of the food parcels on my timeline that £15 worth of food had not been delivered, leaving many angry tweeters and tax-payers wondering where their money was going – because it clearly wasn’t being spent on hungry children. Whilst the majority of my timeline agreed that the food parcels were insufficient and should not replace the national voucher scheme, others seized the opportunity to blame, shame, and stigmatise food parcel recipients.

Stigmatising the Scrounger

Goffman (1963, p.3) defines stigma as an ‘attribute which is deeply discrediting’; he states that a person who is stigmatised is viewed as ‘not quite human’ (Goffman, 1963, p.5). Stigma can therefore be seen as a distinguishing trait which an individual should be ashamed of; branding them as different from the rest of ‘us’. A group in society that has been highly stigmatised and shamed are those who are, or at least perceived to be, from a lower social class. Tyler (2008) explores the stigmatisation of social class, she claims that social class is maintained by a continual level of disgust towards people from a lower social class. This disgust is repeatedly expressed towards the benefit system, where claimants are frowned upon for relying on state support. Often, people who are eligible for welfare support (irrespective of whether they choose to claim the support or not) are considered the ‘undeserving poor’, due to their so-called moral characteristics, such as behaviour or health (Romano, 2018). Those who are considered the ‘undeserving poor’ are deemed not worthy of welfare support, as they are often branded as responsible for their financial situation. The lifestyle and financial choices of those on low-income are constantly ridiculed, and they are represented as ‘lazy, criminal, violent, undisciplined and shameless’ (Garthwaite, 2016, p. 137). In sum, lower class people are viewed as scroungers of the system.

Booze, Baccy and Blame

Stigma changes the way poverty is viewed, people become desensitised to their hardship (Tyler, 2020). You only need to take a quick glance at the tweets attached to any of the images of food parcels to see the level of disgust and dehumanisation that exists towards those on low income and whom are eligible for food parcels. In response to a picture posted by a mother who had received an inadequate food parcel, Twitter User (2021a) stated:

‘Part of the problem is likely that some parents would use the voucher to buy fags and lager’.

It is clear that some have become hardened to the financial struggles that many parents are facing, implying that low-income parents are not to be trusted with the supermarket voucher scheme, blaming them for reckless spending. Moreover, opinions arose similar to findings from Garthwaite’s (2016, p. 141) research on the stigmatisation of food-bank users, where ‘drugs, alcohol, poor cooking skills and poor financial management’ were to blame for individuals who rely on foodbanks. A similar debate was raised surrounding the profiles of food parcel recipients, Twitter User (2021b) tweeted:

‘How come these women who moan that taxpayer funded free school meals are not substantial enough seem to be on the north side of 15 stone and nearly always have an iPhone perched permanently to the side of their head.’

Garthwaite highlights how people often forgotten that these material goods may have been purchased at a time where they were not experiencing financial hardship.

Tories Taking Taxes?

Tyler (2020, p. 20) redefined the way stigma is understood, she states that whilst it is experienced individually, through degrading comments and judgemental glares, stigma is intertwined in a much larger capitalist agenda of power. She goes on to claim that to truly understand stigma, we must not only ‘look back’ through history at the policies and institutions which produced inequalities, but we must also ‘look up’ at the creators of stigma whom use it to govern and benefit. It is clear that food parcel recipients did not benefit from the food parcels in comparison to the national voucher scheme, so it is important to question – who does benefit? The catering company ‘Chartwells’, owned by Conservative Party donor Paul Walsh, was privately outsourced to provide the food parcels (Peat, 2021). I argue that the government attempted to utilise the stigmatisation of the lower class by introducing a scheme they assumed would be supported due to the perceived public opinion of the ‘undeserving poor’, allowing them to financially benefit. Tyler (2020) also discusses the relationship between stigma and austerity, she states that stigma is used as a form of consent for austerity, especially when aimed at children who would typically be considered deserving. It is possible to link this idea of consent to the government’s decision to scrap the national voucher scheme; the stigmatisation of the lower class allowed for an option that is economically beneficial, even when it was targeted at children.

Some Food for Thought

It is clear that Covid-19 has highlighted food insecurity in England, sparking debates and pointing fingers of blame. Barker and Russell (2020) note that the government’s response to food insecurity during Covid-19 has been an attempt to adhere to populist opinion and a response to pressure groups and charities. It is crucial that the government take some responsibility and provide support for impoverished children that will fill their stomachs, not Tories’ pockets.

Reference list:

  • Barker, M. and Russell, J. (2020) ‘Feeding the food insecure in Britain: learning from the 2020 COVID-19 crisis’, Food Security, 12, pp. 865-870. Available at: (Accessed: 27 January 2021).
  • Cabinet Office (2021) National Lockdown: Stay at Home. Available at: (Accessed: 9 January 2021).
  • Department for Education (2020) Voucher scheme launches for schools providing free school meals. [press release]. 31 March. Available at: (Accessed 20 January 2021).
  • Garthwaite, K. (2016) Hunger Pains: Life inside Foodbank Britain. Policy Press: Bristol.
  • Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon and Schuster: New York.
  • Johnson, B. (2021) The Andrew Marr Show. BBC One Television, 3 January. 09:00.
  • Peat, J. (2021) ‘‘Tory corruption’ trends as MPs ask “is nothing spared from their greed?”’, The London Economic, 12 January. Available at: (Accessed: 14 January 2021).
  • Romano, S. (2018) Moralising Poverty: The ‘UndeservingPoor in the Public Gaze. Routledge: Abingdon.
  • [Twitter User] (2021a) Part of the problem is likely that some parents would use the voucher to buy fags and lager [Twitter] 12 January.
  • [Twitter User] (2021b) How come these women who moan that taxpayer funded free school meals are not substantial enough seem to be on the north side of 15 stone and nearly always have an iPhone perched permanently to the side of their head [Twitter] 13 January.
  • Tyler, I. (2008) ‘Chav Mum Chav Scum’, Feminist Studies, 8(1), pp. 17-34. Available at: (Accessed: 12 January 2021).
  • Tyler, I. (2020) Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality. London: Zed Books Ltd.


Dr Susie Atherton says:

Great blog, Covid has highlighted a perennial problem with Conservatives, they revert to type after making promises to improve things, and that type is to help donors get richer, and let the poor suffer. Really informative and well written!

Phil Edwards says:

Very interesting perspective. Conjures so many divisive policies In a divided country. Great piece. Thank you.

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