Advocates for food justice often talk about “food poverty”, but sometimes in our efforts to highlight how crucial tackling hunger is, we can miss how other forms of deprivation can undermine access to food. In particular, the “digital divide” between those with and without access to computers, high-speed broadband or even just a printer can be the difference between eating and not eating. As Marcus Rashford aptly highlighted in a recent call to the Prime Minster on Free School Meal vouchers, “If families can’t access food consistently, likelihood is they do not have access to a printer to print the vouchers at home.”

Access to some of the key food poverty prevention schemes can be difficult for those who are digitally excluded. For example, the Healthy Start scheme supplies vouchers to eligible pregnant women and parents of children under four to buy healthy food items such as milk, fruit and vegetables. However, the application form requires downloading and printing, and many of the vulnerable families the scheme targets don’t own or have access to a printer. The Government have pledged to switch to a digital application system which removes this requirement by October 2021, but even if that project is delivered on time, the rates of take up on the scheme are already plummeting – meaning many pregnant women, babies and toddlers will spend months missing out on the fresh healthy food they are entitled to.

Lack of access to digital services has been compounded by the pandemic, as we’ve seen from the unequal rollout of virtual learning for schoolchildren. But the digital divide can have other consequences which can go unnoticed. For example, many vulnerable families rely on local libraries to access a computer or printer, but most have either been closed or had their access limited during the pandemic. Even if a parent can access a library computer, there is no guarantee they will have the digital literacy to navigate the often byzantine library IT systems. A library worker in a viral Twitter thread heartbreakingly recalled how, because of social distancing rules, she was not able to physically show vulnerable people applying for benefits how to use the printer and photocopier.

Digital access issues aren’t just a problem at the service user end: poor use of data by the Government also makes implementing these lifechanging programmes harder than they should be. Prior to the pandemic, a parent applying for Healthy Start vouchers needed a health worker to sign their application to confirm the age of the child – despite this being basic identifying information the Government should already have. Similarly, the data on which women and children are eligible for Health Start vouchers doesn’t seem to be shared by the Government with local authorities by default, so they cannot target applications or advertising for these helpful schemes at those who we know need it most.

This underlines that we need a joined-up approach to tackling food poverty, both at a local and national level. Locally, we have advocated for each local council to have a “Food Champion” who can join-up work happening to alleviate food insecurity across a council and community, and Food Partnerships with bring together the local council and local organisations to tackle poverty in the community. Nationally, we need to see Government action on the roots of food poverty, from the five-week Universal Credit wait to a legal Right to Food, and on related issues like the digital divide. Only then will we see real progress in eliminating hunger in the UK.