Food costs in the UK are rising at an alarming rate.
One research firm predicts the average annual household shopping bill will be nearly $800 higher this year. A recent survey found half of the country’s households are purchasing fewer fruits and vegetables, and almost 10 million adults and four million children are food insecure, meaning families are skipping meals altogether.
In a bid to help those who find themselves in hardship, UK supermarket chain Iceland Foods is offering small interest-free loans to help people buy groceries.
The microloan program, called Iceland Food Club, could relieve pressure on the country’s food banks – which are unable to meet demand – and increase borrowers’ access to the fresh produce often lacking in nonperishable-focused donation boxes.
The Club is designed to help families spread out the cost of food over a few months. Microloans $30 to $120 come on pre-loaded cards that can be used in any Iceland store or its bulk shopping brand, The Food Warehouse.
The loan idea was developed in partnership with Fair for You, a charity-owned ethical lender that offers low-income Britons an alternative to predatory loans with exorbitant interest rates.
Starting in 2020, Fair for You trialed the loans over 18 months with 5,000 families in Wales, Yorkshire and northwest England. Positive results led Iceland to announce in August it would expand the program throughout the UK.
“More than 50,000 people applied to join the Iceland Food Club within seven days of its launch last August,” says Fair for You CEO Simon Dukes. “The scale of applications received is an indication that there is a strong desire for this kind of ethical credit.”
During the pilot, over 80 percent of participants said they were able to stop borrowing from high-cost loan sharks, 71 percent said it allowed them to keep up with rent and other bill payments, and as many as 92 percent said they were able to reduce or end their reliance on food banks.
Food bank usage in the UK is rising at an unprecedented rate. In October, more than 30,000 food bank workers and volunteers warned that services are at breaking point.
As a result, Shona Goudie, policy research manager at The Food Foundation, parents are having to go without food to ensure there is enough for their children. Teachers are seeing children coming to school with empty lunch boxes as their parents are struggling financially – yet they don’t qualify for free school meals.
“Shockingly, there are 800,000 children in England who aren’t eligible for a free school lunch despite living in poverty,” Goudie said.
Iceland’s primary goal was to support those children at risk of hunger, especially when schools are closed. The loans are only available during school holidays, when family finances are usually most stretched. The limitation also aims to prevent permanent dependence.
A study by the Centre for Responsible Credit found that Iceland’s pilot has more than just financial benefits. More than two-thirds of people who took part in the trials said their diet improved and over half reported a reduction in finance-related stress, anxiety and depression.
Katherine Latham writes for Reasons to be Cheerful, a nonprofit editorial project that considers itself a tonic for tumultuous times.
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