The coronavirus pandemic has revealed just how much we depend on easy access to food. The beginning of the UK’s lockdown saw the closure of restaurants and pubs, and empty supermarket shelves. The number of people who are struggling to access food because of financial difficulties has dramatically swelled. Amid this turmoil, there has been an incredible response from the social, public and commercial sectors to provide food to people in need. But we need government to support their efforts.
According to FareShare data, approximately two thirds of the UK’s community organisations have remained open through lockdown, although often in new ways and with new collaborations. These organisations are mobilising the social economy to provide avenues for mutual aid that prioritise social values such as sharing and empathy over commercial profit.
The Bread and Butter Thing social enterprise, for example, is currently operating a surplus food delivery scheme to more than 7,000 households in low-income communities in Greater Manchester and Teesside. While its community drop-off service continues, it has started a delivery service with The Modern Milkman. With funding support from Manchester City Council, it is distributing food to Manchester’s most vulnerable people who must remain at home.
In Sheffield, meanwhile, the FoodWorks social enterprise is offering a food box and a selection of prepared meals to take home. It now operates every day and is providing food to approximately 600 families per week; double what it was before the virus. FoodWorks also collaborates with local community organisations, the NHS, housing associations, and local support groups to deliver food into communities where the struggle is greatest.
On a smaller scale, we are also seeing how those in community organisations are working to help each other. In Doncaster, the Edlington Community Organisation is continuing to offer free emergency food and a low-cost food pantry for those who are struggling and volunteers to deliver food to those who cannot get out. In Stafford, House of Bread is cooking meals and providing food bags seven days a week. And in Sheffield, FoodHall has crowdsourced more than £4,000, enabling it to offer food packs that can be collected or delivered via a helpline.
New collaborations are extending the reach of these organisations, often facilitated by local government. For example, Barnsley Council is coordinating a collaboration with FareShare Yorkshire, food banks, and Community Shop to provide local support.
The food industry
Much of this community activity is enabled by access to surplus food. The closure of cafes, restaurants and pubs in March created an abundance of this food. The charity, FareShare UK, told me that it has seen donations from the catering supply chain increase by 220%. While catering supply may tail off as the lockdown extends, FareShare also reports that supermarket supply chains have stabilised, and the charity is seeing a return to normal volumes of food.
Supermarkets, food producers and distributors are stepping in with food, financial and technical support. The supermarket chain Co-op was early to rise to this challenge, but it has been quickly followed by most of the major supermarket chains. Morrisons, one of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, has increased production of fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods and tinned food to be donated to the community sector.
Logistics companies are also providing support and furloughed workers are helping to distribute food to people in need.
While this effort is inspiring and much needed, we still need further commitment from central government.
Funding to councils must be increased. During austerity, those councils with the most financially vulnerable populations also experienced the harshest cuts. Rene Meijer, from FoodWorks, has said:
With each new service partner we have to redesign and reconfigure our systems. If I have to do that twenty times, our response is twenty times longer. What is expensive now is time, and time is being wasted.
Where the councils can help to streamline these relationships, food will move more quickly to those who need it. But councils need money to do this.
We also need to reduce barriers so surplus organisations, both large and small, can access food from manufacturers. Currently, surplus organisations must negotiate approval from each brand holder. For example, Greencore makes convenience foods for supermarket brands. If Greencore wants to donate food, the surplus organisation must go to each of the supermarket chains and get permission to use their branded products. In practice, this means undergoing multiple inspections, each with different requirements.
In contrast, commercial food has a centralised system that allows food retailers to share inspections and audits. According to Mark Game of the Bread and Butter Thing, we need legislation which creates a centralised audit procedure that ensures surplus organisations conform to the FSA’s safer food better business standards and that recall procedures are in place. A single audit certification would reduce the time it takes for food donations to reach the people who need it.
Central government also should provide greater clarity about what the support offer is for voluntary, community and social enterprises. Many community organisations are experiencing financial hardship and are working with fewer staff and volunteers to meet a greater need. Not only are we more resilient because of what these organisations were doing before COVID-I9, they are demonstrating how much we need them now. These organisations have the trust and local knowledge to be able to deliver responses that meet local needs. When this has finished, we will need community organisations to help us reconnect and overcome the mental cost that social distancing and isolation extracts.
Finally, we must end the five-week wait associated with Universal Credit. Prior to COVID-19, there were approximately eight million people in the UK struggling to access food as a result of low income. Since the lockdown, an additional million have applied for Universal Credit, with a further unknown number still trying. Those who qualify today will not see their first bi-weekly payment until late May.