During COVID-19, Big Local areas around the country have been on the frontline of the pandemic, meeting the urgent needs of residents for many months. In the first blog in a series exploring the impact of coronavirus on these communities, Dannie Grufferty from our policy team takes a look at food access and provision.
The rise of food poverty
COVID-19 has exacerbated a food crisis that was already there. Over the past ten years, we’ve seen food poverty and food banks become a growing feature of our national life, the source for popular blogs and recipe and children’s books.
The start of lockdown saw community groups, including Big Local areas, rapidly shifting their focus to providing food in those first uncertain few weeks. Local authorities struggled to get organised – civil society quickly filled that space. We saw food distribution centres spring up; local funding for meal vouchers for struggling families; partnerships with charities to both deliver food parcels and provide bags for collection; community kitchens and cafes.
Responding to need
We have seen how in Big Local areas like Brereton, volunteers have been checking in on people and finding residents who have gone three to four days without food. In response, they started doing the shopping for those shielding. One Big Local area provided funding to a local group for hot meals for 200 people. In another, two local caterers prepare meals for the community twice a week. Big Local areas have also been providing funding to assist foodbanks in surviving the crisis; £15,000 in one instance. National schemes were simply not quick enough so there has been a wave of local support initiatives, for example, Barrowcliff Big Local in Scarborough who worked with a local headteacher to support children not eligible for free school meals via a voucher scheme.
While the U-turn following the “Rashford intervention” on free school meals is welcome, many of the communities we work with are concerned about the situation for families once furlough ends. As Marcus Rashford said during the campaign, “circumstances change”. The vice chair of Barrowcliff Big Local echoed this concern when he explained that “there seems to be a gap as regards the children of low–income families. When we talk about hunger this should apply to all children at this most difficult time.”
A year ago, the only press articles about Newington Big Local were about the fact that it has the highest child poverty rate in Kent. Since the outbreak, the Community Food Club founded by Newington Big Local has delivered more than 1,760 food bags to some 120 households.
The Big Local representative (rep) for Newington sums it up eloquently:
Now we’re reading about the community delivering food to “leafy” Westgate and ‘Turner Contemporary’ Margate, in addition to their own people, without a second thought.”
Many lent on already established networks, and those that prioritised “checking-in” alongside the delivery of food:
I was happier coming to Brereton Million Big Local because they have connected with me by knocking on my door, and making me feel I am not alone or the only one. They gave me all the details of how I could be helped and made me feel at ease about asking for help. I would never have gone to a foodbank due to the stigma and not knowing how it works or where I would get the details from.”
The crisis has exposed what we already knew: community-led responses stop people falling through the cracks. Firs & Bromford Big Local approached Birmingham City Council when they realised some of their most vulnerable residents were not on the local authority’s lists for food parcels. In other instances, Big Local areas have stepped in when local authority-provided food parcels are not appropriate to residents’ needs – for example because they don’t cook anymore or have allergies.
The shared experience of a global pandemic has brought communities together, it has even invoked a sense of nostalgia. As a volunteer in the Plymouth area said to us:
This is what Whitleigh used to be like.”
“Food has been the medium through which people have engaged” said one rep. Others have told us how food deliveries have taken significantly longer each week as connections between residents and volunteers have deepened. Some Big Local areas have offered to take on foodbanks permanently owing to capacity issues, and while one of our reps commented that they do not see their role as a “food distribution service”, ultimately, they have to “respond to need.”
Community action and the state
The Long Crisis scenarios report, produced by the Long Crisis Network and Local Trust, illustrates that when the state is unable to cope with crisis after crisis, there is a surge of innovation at the local level. In terms of what ‘winning’ looks like; mutual aid networks evolve into “essential assets in most places… providing hardship funds…. Local government is transformed.” Crucially, the public sector admits when it does not have the resources or knowledge it needs and so facilitates local action, rather than being the “sole provider”. According to the scenarios, mutual aid networks are “essential assets”. In this “new normal”, and as the government call for proposals into how to sustain the community response to COVID-19, the time for investment is now.
A Community Wealth Fund would support communities in areas where its most needed with long-term, unrestricted funding. The new normal does not need to be so radical, it can also build upon truths we already know: empowered communities make more resilient ones, where no one is left behind.
To explore this issue further, Local Trust partnered with Sustain to understand how we can build resilient local food systems in the COVID-19 recovery.