Securing food budgets and protecting purchasing power: Social vouchers as a tool to shield the most deprived

Simon Guérin-Sanz, European Project Manager, & Delphine Chilese-Lemarinier, Head of EU Affairs, Edenred

The war in Ukraine and the subsequent economic and energetic crisis are affecting all levels of society, bringing special harm to low-income households. Regardless of the country, inflation is rising, hitting over 40% last August, with prices breaking historical records. This is exacerbated by the price rise of several basic food products. Wheat and sunflower oil, food products at the core of our diet, were massively imported from Ukraine and Russia before the war. As the incomprehensible expenses are skyrocketing (energy bills, rent, credits), thus households’ purchasing power is threatened.

In this context, citizens, and especially the most vulnerable, see their food budget worryingly decreasing. Among them, low-income workers and pensioners, students, young adults, multi-child families and single parents, as well as disadvantaged groups, including persons with disabilities, older persons and migrants. Therefore, policy responses must secure access to meals and avoid negative social and economic consequences that food insecurity and the shift towards cheaper and less healthy alternatives could bring.

Several EU actors are already calling for concrete and quick action. “Member States must ensure that the most vulnerable are not left without support. Direct financial support and social policies should be in place to mitigate the negative effects of price increases on the most vulnerable groups. Direct assistance to those in need must be targeted,”  warned the European Economic and Social Committee in a recent opinion and call to action.

Social vouchers are targeted instruments that can be used by public authorities to distribute welfare to their citizens as an alternative to allowances in cash or in kind. In the context of the implementation of the European Fund for the most Deprived (FEAD), social vouchers can be deployed as a tool to support poor populations and notably facilitate their access to food. It has been the case in Romania within three FEAD programmes since 2021. Firstly, social vouchers under the form of cards have been distributed to 300,000 elderly people living in rural areas to access hot meals. Romanian public authorities again chose social vouchers to help disadvantaged children and deprived populations for the implementation of new FEAD projects in 2022. More than 2,5 million Romanian citizens in a situation of precarity have received social vouchers in this context. 

The Romanian experience proves that social vouchers are efficient and adaptable tools to distribute FEAD to multiple citizens with diverse needs.

Moreover, social vouchers have the advantages of cash, in that they are flexible and ensure beneficiaries’ dignity, whilst also providing the transparency and traceability of in-kind benefits that public authorities require. Employing a voucher solution for social programmes ensures significant gains for beneficiaries, governments and public authorities, distributing agencies, and also for local suppliers.

On the one hand, social vouchers can efficiently achieve their main objective and provide immediate targeted support to the most deprived. On the other hand, social vouchers bring long-term benefits and provide an economic boost to targeted economic sectors. Benefiting from their efficiency, adaptability and ability to ensure choice and dignity of the end-user, social vouchers remain an essential solution to governments’ pressing concern – keeping their most vulnerable citizens fed.

Watch this film to know more about the FEAD programme – Hot meals for the most deprived – implemented in Romania in 2021.