Food for thought – supporting sustainable community food projects through coronavirus and beyond
Nick Gardner, Head of Climate Action at the National Lottery Community Fund, summarises and reflects on a recent convening event on the community response to food distribution challenges during COVID-19. With summary of the event by Isobel Roberts.
When I think about the coronavirus, and the impacts it has had, I can’t help but think about the impact it’s had on food. It has affected all our lives in one way or another and is one of the most tangible impacts the crisis has had on our daily lifestyles.
From the very early impacts of panic-buying at shops and supermarkets, to the present day when stocks of certain items still aren’t back to normal.
Lockdown has many new experiences that we have been navigating: we're all preparing food at home; no-one is popping out for a lunchtime sandwich to the local café near work; parents are thinking about what to give their children for lunch on a school day; we’ve all had to adapt to having larger shopping lists & stocks available at home.
But, the challenges to our food distribution system run much deeper than that. The COVID-19 pandemic has served to deepen inequalities in our society. The elderly and vulnerable have had to rely on others to bring them food. Many others have lost their jobs and livelihoods and are having to rely increasingly on informal support such as food banks and newly-established community mechanisms. All of this can be particularly difficult for people without established support networks.
Charities and community organisations across the country were already working to prevent food poverty, to make food healthier, more environmentally sustainable and to reduce food waste. They’re now bringing these skills to the present pandemic.
Our recent event on food and COVID-19 posed some really searching questions about food poverty. It is clear that the pandemic has revealed things that we ought to have known, but weren’t at the forefront of our minds in relation to social inequalities in the UK.
Food as a topic is so much more deeply entrenched than just what might be termed the food sector. In response to the current crisis, food availability and distribution is being tackled by a wide range of non-food organisations. As it’s such a key part of our lives, a well-functioning food distribution mechanism is incredibly important to the basic functioning of local communities.
We need to be considering how we respond to all these issues, and how we as a funder can best deploy our money and our knowledge through community organisations to help our communities to be as resilient as they can be to future shocks, wherever they may come from.
Our food policy discussion
At our event in early June, hosted for the community food sector to explore the impact that lockdown has had on how we think about food, we discussed how food-focused community organisations have adapted and changed, and how communities have come together to support each other during the crisis.
We were joined by Sarah Bentley and Nynke Brett from Made in Hackney, and Clare Horrell from the Real Farming Trust (RFT) who spoke about how their community food projects had adapted to the context of coronavirus lockdown.
Rapid shifting of priorities
We heard that community-based food projects have had to change their service offer drastically to fit the new needs of their communities and lockdown-related restrictions. Many projects have gone from providing a range of activities, some of which would be income generating, to a more targeted provision focused entirely on emergency response.
One of RFT’s new programmes that started in March was originally planned to involve training members of the community in catering skills, in order to provide nutritious meals to vulnerable people locally, but the training element had to be scrapped once social distancing restrictions were announced. The programme was redirected to focus on providing meals to those in need.
Wider impact of community food projects
Local community food projects have stepped up to provide meals on a massive scale. Nynke described how Made in Hackney moved quickly to set up an emergency service, and - just 11 days after lockdown was announced - were providing 300 meals per day. By early June, they had provided 27,000 meals to those in need. Clare told us how RFT’s partners are delivering 1200 meals and 250 food boxes and bags every day, but that this is just scratching the surface of the level of need.
Community food projects have been well-positioned to make use of their local knowledge and networks to identify the people most at risk, and work in partnership across sectors to deliver emergency food packages. But, the true value of these efforts goes beyond the food itself.
Clare highlighted the power of little moments of contact between those delivering food and people who are socially isolated. Nynke described an incident when a courier from Made in Hackney raised the alarm when a food package recipient did not answer their door. The resident had fallen ill and, as a result of the alarm being raised, they were able to receive crucially-needed medical care.
Many community food projects have lost income from their normal revenue-raising activities, and as a result their financial future looks increasingly uncertain. The panellists were grateful to funders who have shown flexibility at this time and allowed them to redirect previously ringfenced funding, and they are beginning to think about alternative revenue streams.
For example, Nynke described how Made in Hackney is considering developing a social enterprise element around a juicing subscription service.
The emergency food provision that organisations are providing needs to be sustainable in the longer term, as lockdown will be lifted at different times for different people and, for many, food insecurity will be an ongoing issue. All our speakers felt uncertain about what level of support they would be able to provide in the longer term, and this was a key concern for them at this time.
Attendees also heard from two colleagues from The National Lottery Community Fund about what we have learnt to date.
Zoe Anderson from our knowledge and learning team shared some of our insights on food, which can be found in full on our COVID-19 Insights page. Zoe described how Covid-19 has made people more aware of how food gets to our tables, and highlighted the challenges faced by food banks which have fewer donations and volunteers but significantly greater demand at this time.
We have seen how community organisations which have not previously worked with food have quickly adapted to fit the needs of their communities, with new projects being established to fill gaps at all levels of the food system.
For example, in just five days, the Monkstown Boxing Club in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, changed from a sports and education venue to a community soup kitchen, preparing and distributing up to 90 portions of soup and food packages for people who are self-isolating or otherwise vulnerable.
In response to the crisis, many thousands of people have been forthcoming as willing volunteers, new partnerships have formed between sectors, and we have witnessed a really positive attitude towards sharing learning about what works. However, there are still big questions around what service users will need as time goes on.
Emma Robinson from our UK portfolio team discussed the actions we have taken as a Fund to support food projects during this time. We have been flexible with our current grant holders to reallocate budgets. We have set up a food learning forum with 15 grant holders and are looking to keep the conversation about food going, as we have with education and health.
Greater public awareness of food may provide opportunities for diverse food systems to be developed at a greater scale. However, we’re hearing from grant holders that they are concerned that this is just the start of an increasing level of challenge around food distribution, which the COVID-19 crisis has simply served to put a spotlight on.
In the short term, food insecurity is likely to increase in some communities over the next few months, while volunteers become less available as some people return to their jobs.
In the longer term, certain groups are more likely to be affected by food insecurity, such as people with disabilities and people of colour. A big question we have as a funder is how best we can support the ‘new normal’ to support people from across our communities, and we are actively listening to those working ‘on the front line’.
Find out more about our upcoming online events on our COVID-19 Events page.