Digital inclusion and food poverty

“I’ve sent people to the library to access a computer because if they’re looking for jobs, I mean… everything’s online, they don’t accept written applications, it’s got to be online.”

Volunteer, St. Cross Church Food Bank in Middleton

People experiencing food poverty are likely to also be experiencing digital poverty. Organisations supporting people experiencing food poverty are well placed to identify digitally excluded people and signpost them to the help they need to get online.

Trussell Trust’s partnership with Vodafone on the ‘Vodafone Together’ scheme is a national example of how food banks and organisations supporting digital inclusion can come together to identify families living with digital poverty and offer them support, in this instance providing free connectivity for up to a year.

Similarly, 100% Digital Leeds has worked with Food Banks and other partners in Leeds, providing access to digital devices and training, equipping staff and volunteers to provide and signpost to digital inclusion support, and we’re keen to do more.

Understanding digital poverty

The pandemic has caused many people to use the internet in new ways. According to the Lloyds Consumer Digital Index 2020 saw 1.5 million people get online for the first time, with many others spending far longer online than in previous years. Many first time users of the internet during the crisis have been driven by need – nearly three-in-four are people now shopping online for groceries or clothing, for example.

However, the same report shows that 2.5 million people in the UK are currently without internet access, leaving millions of people cut off from engaging with the digital world. 55% of those offline earn under £20,000 and, while there are multiple barriers to digital inclusion, for those on low incomes affordability is often the biggest factor.  

29% of internet users come into the ‘very low engagement’ category, meaning they don’t go online much at all. Nearly half (44%) of this category earn less than £20,000 per year. Some of these have limited access to the internet because they are experiencing ‘data poverty’, meaning they’re not able to afford a sufficient, private and secure internet connection to meet essential needs.

For those on a low income, accessing the internet costs more and is less reliable. Many people can’t afford or don’t have a good enough credit rating to get a contract for WiFi at home, leaving them relying on mobile phones and 4G data. Those who can’t afford a high enough monthly 4G allowance may consistently run out of data and be left without the ability to get online for part of the month. Those who can’t afford (or are otherwise unable to access) a data contract at all are left paying for data on a ‘Pay As You Go’ basis – the most expensive and least reliable way to access the internet.  

Digital and data poverty means it’s much harder to apply for jobs online, manage money online, or quickly access essential services such as health and benefits. It means children can’t do school work online, or keep in touch with their friends. There’s an insightful blog post written by one of our partners, Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, about the data and cost involved when doing some things online like video calling.

As well as making it easier for people to access services and keep on top of things, being online actually saves people money – people with the most digital engagement also pay less for important bills such as utilities, saving an average of £228 per year – 2.5 times more than those internet users with low engagement.

The people who would most benefit from being online are, more often than not, those who find it hardest to get online. 100% Digital Leeds is working with partners across the city – including Food Banks – to identify people experiencing digital poverty and other forms of digital exclusion and get them the support they need. Here are some examples of our work so far:

Supporting Food Banks to provide devices and data

100% Digital Leeds has worked with Food Banks and organisations providing food parcel provision to support the connectivity of people experiencing digital poverty.

100% Digital Leeds’s partnership with Community Calling, a project by Hubbub and O2 to gift refurbished smartphones to people who need them, has meant that organisations like Woodhouse Community Centre and New Wortley Community Centre have been able to gift reconditioned devices with a year’s free 4G data, calls, and texts to those in need via food parcels as part of their role as Community Care Hubs, ensuring that the most vulnerable people in the city have had access to support during the pandemic.

As part of their development as Digital Health Hubs, in partnership with 100% Digital Leeds and Local Care Partnerships, community organisations like Hamara Healthy Living Centre and Holbeck Together are able to loan tablets with 4G data via their in-house Tablet Lending Schemes, or gift smartphones with 4G data via the Community Calling scheme to members of the community experiencing digital poverty, many of whom have been identified and supported when accessing food bank services.

Tweet from Holbeck Together

Supporting Food Banks to signpost to services

100% Digital Leeds worked with Leeds South and East Foodbank in 2019 to trial and then implement a scheme that meant their food bank volunteers have access to digital devices with data, allowing fast and efficient signposting to services as well as supporting the administration of food bank services. A similar approach has also been implemented at Hamara Healthy Living Centre, amongst others, to great success.

Say we’ve got someone who comes in with a food voucher, but he or she’s got other problems.  Say they might have a drink problem.  We don’t have a great deal of literature, but with [the iPad] we can go on and say ‘right, you need to go to Forward Leeds.’  Or look up organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau, and it means we get reliable and up-to-date information.”

Barbara, St Cross Church Food Bank in Middleton

Supporting community organisations to signpost to Food Banks

100% Digital Leeds work with a wider range of partners from across all sectors, supporting them to better understand the potential digital exclusion of their service users and put the right support in place for them.

Nurture@Kentmere are a parent-led community support group breaking down the barriers of isolation that often come with parenthood. They have created a safe, non-judgmental environment for parents and carers of young children to come together and access various support services, including helping people to get online. Having access to digital equipment has allowed the group to support members to find out about and access the services they need, including Food Banks.

“We had a member contact us as their friend had no food or warm clothes, so we were able to coordinate with our local charity shop to organise some clothing, as well as making a referral to a food bank and getting as much information as possible.  The outcome of this was that we were able to provide the person with some donated clothes to keep them warm, food, and information on next steps.”

Member, Nurture@Kentmere

Supporting access to the newly digitised NHS Healthy Start Scheme

100% Digital Leeds is working with Zest to ensure that people in Leeds are supported to access the NHS Healthy Start scheme which will be digital only from April this year. Taking the scheme online makes it difficult for those without the equipment, skills, and confidence to apply for this much needed and under-utilised support. This on-going partnership has seen organisations across the city trained to support access to the scheme, including identifying digital exclusion and signposting to further support.

Next Steps

100% Digital Leeds is pleased to partner with Leeds Food Aid Network and we look forward to working more closely with network members to support the digital inclusion of people experiencing food and digital poverty.  Read more about the 100% Digital Leeds approach.