Food support provision in Covid-19 times: Preliminary results from a study based in GM
30 June 2020
In June a mixed-method study was launched to understand the obstacles, the needs, and the prospects of the food support providers active in Greater Manchester  immediately after the Covid-19 peak.
Food support providers were invited to fill out a questionnaire and to participate in a longer interview online. 106 organisations were reached, 55 completed the questionnaire and 33 agreed to a follow-up conversation. 5 additional interviews were conducted with experts of the sector not primarily involved in frontline support, to gain additional insight on some of the findings. Although the sample is mostly composed of independent and Trussell Trust food banks (38), the study also comprises several responses from food pantries, food clubs and meal providers. Preliminary analyses of the data should be taken with a pinch of salt, as respondents are likely to be self-selected on certain characteristics of the organisations, which may produce biased responses. Nonetheless these data are useful as a starting point to reflect on the emergency responses put in place, the most common difficulties and the expectations food providers have for the near future.
Let us start with some good news: respondents have not been turning eligible people away due to lack of volunteer and staff capacity, or because of a shortage of food in stock. Despite most organisations declaring that the number of volunteers has decreased during the crisis, the capacity to improvise and quickly adapt to the new circumstances, coupled with the great generosity shown by individuals and companies, has allowed them to respond promptly to the increasing requests of people in need. For instance, many of them shifted logistics operations from food pick up to food delivery to help people that were shielding. It is not by chance that a striking majority claimed to be resilient against the challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis, talking about a rise in monetary and food donations. Interestingly, despite many food support providers being forced to shut down after the lockdown due to a lack of volunteers and/or funds, the “parallel welfare” provided by the charities and by mutual aid groups (MAGs) apparently absorbed many needs that emerged after the lockdown.
Yet the necessity to maintain the supply of food at all costs came with some drawbacks. The lockdown measures that followed Covid-19 not only affected the financial stability and the management of the organisations, but actually undermined the influential ways in which food support providers used to operate – i.e. the “social atmosphere”. Before the lockdown, around food support used to gravitate a whole series of services that were as important as the donation of food parcels itself. Yet due to physical distance measures and to the increasing number of service users, other forms of support such as financial advice, empathic listening and human connection were partially or totally lost, just when they were likely to be needed the most.
This leads us to another consideration. The exceptional nature of the first Covid-19 wave provoked the exceptional response of charities and public services alike. The sudden growth of MAGs all over the country is probably the most evident sign of this collective effort. Yet many food providers do not know how to project food poverty relief in the future. Especially during the interviews, respondents wondered whether food and monetary donations would increase again should a second lockdown occur, and stressed that the end of the furlough scheme, winter hardships, and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, will exacerbate the situation for many people that already struggle to make ends meet and increase the number of people in need of food aid. This, in turn, could affect the response capacity of many organisations, some of which have less than two months’ worth of food or cash reserves at current levels of demands. Hence request of food support providers is the conception of a strategy at both the national and the local level that considers the potential scenarios and responses to a second crisis, to keep the sector afloat regardless of the severity of the upcoming crisis.
While highlighting the fragility of the UK welfare system, the Covid-19 crisis has also shed light on the resilience of many food support providers, as well as on their complementarity. From more formal organisations, to less structured and extremely agile ones, food support providers have played a central role in the first phase of this major crisis. Yet the solidity of a social contract between the state, businesses and social groups cannot rely on a sector of the economy, no matter how well organised, intentioned and funded, for shielding the most vulnerable from poverty, precisely because food aid should be a very last resort, and not the central backbone of the social welfare.
by Filippo Oncini, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester
Filippo Oncini is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester, August 2020.
 This project has received funding from the H2020-MSCA-IF-2018 under grant agreement n. 838965