As Britain went into lockdown, millions of people across the country lost their jobs and the ability to access nutritious food. With the government and other organisations struggling to meet the need, community food groups have stepped forward providing emergency resources and services where others could not.
The elderly man outside The Larder in Preston looked very confused when Kay Johnson approached him on Easter Monday. Kay was just going into work, a community cafe she set up five years ago and then changed overnight to an emergency meal service provider when Covid-19 crisis reached the UK.
“It still makes me cry to talk about it” she says. “He asked if the cafe was opening and I explained it was closed to customers but I could get him a hot meal if he needed it. He told me he hadn’t eaten anything but chocolate biscuits all weekend.”
Like three million other people in this country this month, the man was hungry and had no money to buy food. Kay doesn’t know why he had ended up in this situation – “we never ask people why they need food” – but she has seen many, many people in similar situations since mid March when the country went into lockdown. People who have lost their jobs and have to wait five weeks for benefits to come through, families who are shielding and can’t get to the shops, homeless people who have been taken off the streets but not given any food provision.
A YouGov poll commissioned by the Food Foundation and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and published earlier this month found that 1.5 million people have gone a whole day without eating since the lockdown came into effect and 7.1 million say someone in their household has had to reduce or skip meals because they could not access or afford sufficient sustenance.
“I think a lot of people are slipping through the cracks and are not signed up with organisations that can refer them to food aid like the Housing Association, the Church and Age Concern. This is forcing people into food poverty and will do so for a long time. I didn’t ever imagine we’d be cooking emergency food parcels but we had all the resources and I know Preston really well. We held an emergency meeting of 15 local groups and decided we were just going to do it.”
Kay and her team are now delivering anything from 50 to 100 meals a day but they’re starting to scale up. A lot of the food is donated locally and the rest they buy in with donations and grants. “Early on, veggie shops were turning up with big bags of apples and tomatoes and we were turning them into whatever we could make from the ingredients. Last week, we made Butter Pie which is a Preston delicacy. All the meals are vegetarian as we have a large Muslim community and we also wanted to make everything as healthy and accessible as possible.”
Further south in Brighton, Helen Starr-Keddle has put her work with the Landworkers’ Alliance on hold to focus on her other role as the Development Officer for the Brighton and Hove Partnership, which is now co-ordinating 46 organisations and 18 new food hubs across the area.
“The demand for emergency food parcels in the Brighton area has tripled in the last month” says Helen. “We’re now spending £10,000 a week on extra provisions whereas before we just relied on food donations. We’ve also had to completely change the way we do things as people are desperate. By the time they ring us they usually haven’t eaten for a few days and we can’t just add them to a list. Now we make sure they receive a food parcel the same day.”
In London, Dierdre Woods who runs The Granville Community Kitchen, is facing the same issues. Dee has also turned her Kilburn-based cafe into an emergency food provision centre, serving up meals to 150 meals either to people who come in to collect them or for volunteers to deliver to people’s homes.
“My phone starts at 5.30 every morning with people saying ‘I haven’t eaten in several days. I have no food, I have no electricity’. One mother with four kids rang and said ‘I have no money but I can’t get to the shops anyway’. Meanwhile the price of food in the shops has doubled – in some instances – and household bills have gone up because everybody is at home all the time.”
Like many others working in the same area, one of Dee’s biggest concerns is the nutritional value of the food people are getting. The Granville Community Kitchen sends out food parcels of milk, bread, fruit, fresh vegetables, cooked meals, meat and fish and cheese but a lot of people aren’t getting such a variety.
“The NHS food parcels the government handed out to people who were shielding really weren’t appropriate” says Dee. “A lot of people tried to give them back as they didn’t even eat the things they put in them. They were either not culturally appropriate or they were full of food and drink with little nutrition, like biscuits, white rice and pasta.”
Clare Horrell from The Real Farming Trust works with a number of the community food groups who have stepped up to help during the crisis. She was horrified to talk to one woman in the government’s sheltered programme who had received a box containing five litres of orange squash, two angel delights, four apples and a tin of corned beef.
“It’s not good enough” says Clare. “It’s not just about sending out a box, it’s about what’s in that box and if the box doesn’t have nutritional value at its core, then it’s not worth sending. Giving people 5 litres of orange squash is not feeding people. If anything, it will making things worse and will only exacerbate health problems.”
While the government struggles to work out how to provide food for people who are either unable to shop for themselves or cannot afford to do so, the community food sector has risen to the challenge and turned itself into emergency food providers in a matter of days.
“The range and scale of the projects is amazing” says Simon Shaw who works with food poverty projects at Sustain. “There are community kitchens that are delivering up to 500 meals a day to people who are self isolating or struggling in other ways and there are projects like the Family Gateway in Newcastle that are delivering meals to people who are struggling but are also now delivering meals to older people who can afford to pay and letting those subsidise other meals for families who are struggling.”
School catering kitchens across the country have re-purposed their work to provide meals for young and old in their communities while vegetable box schemes and market gardens are donating fresh fruit and cooking ingredients to schools to distribute to their more vulnerable families. A co-ordinator catch up of some of these projects can be heard in detail here.
“The community food sector can play a really important role in the current crisis because nutrition is at the core of what they do” says Clare Horrell. “This could be an opportunity to bring in a model that could survive post-covid. It might not be free but it could be key to feeding people in the future with nutritious food.”
Simon Shaw agrees. “Community Food Providers are filling the gaps where government and councils aren’t able to meet the need and the types of projects and people we work with are very much alive to the nutritional value of food, whether it’s delivering prepared meals or packages to people in need. Of course, it’s important for people not to go hungry, full stop, but it shouldn’t really be enough in one of the richest countries in the world for it just to be giving calories.”
However, the long term health implications of this crisis is very much on everyone’s mind who works with food poverty. As Helen Starr-Keddle says, “My biggest fear is that malnutrition is going to have worse effects on our health than the effects of the virus.” Community food organisations may be in the best position to monitor and help with this but they need proper funding, rather than one-off grants from councils and public crowdfunding campaigns to keep their work going on any long term basis.
“There is clearly money there if the government wants to get behind this” says Simon Shaw. “Community Food Organisations might be the right delivery organisation but the funding has to be there for them to do that.”
If you wish to donate money to help with emergency food aid during the coronavirus, please go to the following websites: