The COVID- 19 crisis is exposing deep underlying fragilities in our economic and social systems. At the same time, as evidenced in SURF’s series of special bulletins, many under resourced communities and their organisations have responded effectively to meeting immediate local challenges. Policy makers are increasingly interested in how it might be possible to sustain raised levels of collaborative community action, in a way that could rebalance local regeneration power, resources and decision making.
SURF is using its community focused, cross sector role and networks to better inform those considerations. One aspect of SURF’s broader contribution to building back better is a series of articles here in the SURF Journal.
During the COVID pandemic, a majority of SURF’s network of frontline delivery organisations have adapted existing programmes and created new ones to deliver food to those who would otherwise be hungry.
SURF’s Christopher Murray, spoke to a cross section of food delivery projects about how COVID had shaped their work this summer – and their hopes for a better way forward.
Food and Communities – A Menu for Change
One of the most immediate and obvious impacts of the COVID-19 crisis has been the rise in food insecurity. The Trussell Trust, which runs 83% of Scotland’s food banks, has reported an 81% increase in emergency food parcels being distributed. While the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), a UK wide network of independent food organisations, has reported an average 59% increase in provision from February to March 2020, seventeen times higher than the equivalent period in 2019. Early research has found, that those already experiencing poverty and food insecurity have been most adversely affected by the pandemic, while others have been pushed into economic hardship due to loss of earnings and isolation. Concurrently, a shortage of food in shops and restrictions on people’s ability to access it have added new dimensions to food insecurity in the UK.
We know that food insecurity is not only an issue of emergency food aid and poverty; it is also about supply chains, the quality and price of the food that is available, and about environmental sustainability. The Scottish Government committed to bringing forward a Good Food Nation Bill in the 2019-20 parliamentary session, but this has been delayed due to COVID-19. As part of our examination of the impact of the pandemic SURF spoke to four organisations working with food in different contexts across Scotland, looking at how their experiences during the pandemic may help us build back better.
Local Responses to Food Insecurity
The Edinburgh based charity Cyrenians has been at the heart of dignified approaches to food insecurity in the capital. Their usual work is split into two strands: a social enterprise that works with asylum seekers and refugees to run supper clubs, and a charitable arm focused on responses to food insecurity in the city.
The latter takes two primary forms: cooking classes funded by Edinburgh Council that work with individuals who have experienced, or are at risk of, homelessness, and community cook clubs which take food, from FareShare, out into the community- creating a communal space to cook and eat together. The latter has been particularly successful with fourteen clubs now running across the city. Alongside this outreach work they also run community pantries, offering people a choice of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish.
Creating a welcoming social space around the provision of food is a vital element of the work that Cyrenians do. When the pandemic hit, all of this work had to stop. Immediate concerns were how to keep up a supply of food to the people they work with, many of whom were vulnerable and shielding. Sue O’Neill-Berest, Cyrenian’s Food Education Manager, impression was that: “It took a good while for government to actually mobilise – there was a couple of weeks lag, they just kind of shut everything and then later realised they needed to feed people”. From an initial 348 meals delivered in the first week of lockdown, numbers quickly rose as word spread, and schools and nurseries became distribution points around the city. A few weeks into lockdown they were delivering over 5000 meals a week all across the city. By the end of June, they had delivered their 60,000th meal.
For Sue the main successes of the pandemic, beyond the obvious practical achievements, have been the relationships they have been able to develop with furloughed professional chefs who have worked in the kitchens and with the people they have been feeding. She is hopeful that their work during the pandemic will lead to more people coming along to a cooking class or a community cook club in the future.
This social interaction around food is most important to Cyrenians. Their experience is that this kind of approach combats loneliness and builds community through food:
“ The cook clubs are often the only time in the week where people get to come along and enjoy a meal with someone – to actually talk to another human being and to interact and to share their problems. When you sit around a table people tend to open up about their problems in a way they wouldn’t do if they had to knock on the door of the job centre or knock on the door of the doctor.”
Social distancing has made this human interaction impossible and Sue worries that the good work in Scotland over the past four years, moving towards more dignified responses to food insecurity, will be undone. Sue and her team have looked at the possibility of doing ‘cook-a-longs’ on Zoom, as one way of maintaining this social connection. However, many of the people they work with cannot afford the necessary technology to take part remotely. As she observes: “a large section of society are excluded by social distancing – a part of the population, who had very limited choices pre-COVID, have had them diminished even more”.
While Cyrenians hope to return to some form of in person contact over the next few months, it will be challenging to maintain service at pre-pandemic levels while social distancing continues. Funding is another issue. The community cook clubs were initially funded by the Fair Food Transformation Fund, but funding was lost when this was amalgamated with other funds in 2019. Money was found to keep the project going, providing research and information to aid the development of the Good Food Nation Bill, but Sue believes that to avoid an already critical situation worsening, there needs to be dedicated sustained investment in addressing inequalities in access to food.
In developing this article, SURF also spoke to a small community organisation working in a deprived former mining community in Fife. The organisation is a Development Trust (DT) which works on a range of projects relating to community growing, landscaping and food supply. One part of that initiative had been running a community fridge, offering a choice of both grown and bought food to the local community.
The start of the pandemic found them at a lull in terms of project activity. They were down to four paid staff compared to twelve working in 2019, but were still active three days a week, and still running the community fridge.
The immediate challenges following lockdown were the impact of the pandemic on the organisation’s capacity and some concerns about ongoing funding. The DT has a strong and active group of volunteers, but staff and volunteers capable of making decisions and running services tended to be older, and were therefore more likely to be shielding.
The DT’s overarching goal has been for the regeneration of an area which has seen concentrated deprivation over many years and where there are few other active community groups.
Even before lockdown there were concerns that supplying food through the community fridge was taking up an increasing amount of time and subsidy, and distracting from longer-term projects focussed on regeneration, growing and landscaping.
The additional pressures produced by COVID increased the difficulties of maintaining the fridge. Discussions about setting up a delivery service were abandoned as impractical when it became apparent that only a few volunteers had access to vehicles which could be used for the deliveries. It became increasingly apparent that the fridge could not be sustained and the remaining staff reluctantly took the decision to close it at the end of April.
In view of the reduced availability of staff and volunteers, the organisation was left with no viable alternative to closing the fridge, but nonetheless were left feeling guilty about their failure to be able to find a way to ‘step-up’ and provide relief at a time of acute need. Concerns that the fridge closure would leave some of their more regular users vulnerable, were addressed by supplying details of those most at risk to other emergency food projects in the area – being run by the local authority and rotary club.
As with many other community groups and charities across the country, the pandemic had exacerbated the pressures they were already under – pushing them to adapt their original missions in the face of increasing basic need within their communities. While examples like this reflect an admirable community response to need, the experience of the DT highlights wider pre-existing issues around community capacity and risk, which have been made more acute by conditions during the pandemic.
Local Supply Chains
The Lido Community Shop is a small newsagent and post office in Innellan, a village on the Firth of Clyde, four miles south of Dunoon. The shop was taken into community ownership in November 2019, following two years of campaigning and fundraising, including a community share offer, as a way to preserve a vital asset for the community.
Food supply chains were placed under a great deal of strain at the outset of the pandemic, with empty shelves becoming one of the early defining images of COVID-19. This issue was particularly acute for shops in rural areas, often at the end of long supply chains and with wholesalers prioritising bigger urban retailers. This was the case for the Lido, with its Glasgow based suppliers suddenly unable to reliably deliver goods. For Hannah Clinch, the project manager responsible for the shop, and the rest of the staff, this presented an immediate challenge, at a time when the shop had become even more essential to the community.
However, they found that local producers and suppliers were eager to help, and were quickly able to provide a wide range of produce. Locals have greeted this high quality local produce enthusiastically despite its higher cost. The work during the pandemic has shown what is possible, in a relatively short time, in terms of setting up local supply chains. There are also environmental advantages in that these new connections with local suppliers have allowed coordinated delivery runs and for bottles and packaging to be recycled.
The pandemic has provoked fruitful discussion on how to further develop the Lido and about what more can be done towards better connecting rural suppliers and retailers in the region. These local connections bring benefits in terms of carbon reduction and improved food security, while helping to sustain local businesses and protect jobs in the area. In the longer term, Hannah is keen to find a way to provide local food that is affordable to all the people in the area, emphasising the need for economic, as well as environmental, sustainability:
“I would prefer to know that, someone was making a good income out of this locally […] I think I would score and save time and keep someone in a job. I think a lot of this stuff – community growing – has grown out of volunteerism and I don’t necessarily think, for rural communities, that is a good thing – if you want a working age population to be sustained here”
For Greenheart Growers, a social enterprise in the East End of Glasgow, the onset of the pandemic saw a collapse in demand for their produce. Under normal conditions they supply some of city’s best restaurants with a range of salad, herbs, vegetables, edible flowers and microgreens. With many businesses shutting or switching to new delivery arrangements and unable to commit to orders, they found themselves with a large amount of excess crops. In response, they decided to set up a veg box scheme and advertised this to the local community, offering two sizes and a wide range of produce.
The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive with most slots quickly filled and a waiting list now being run. For many in the community this has been the first time they have been able to access such high quality produce locally. For the team at Green Heart, the challenges have been how to grow enough over the season to meet this demand and how to adapt and develop their planting to supply a wider range of items for veg box customers. Now that businesses are re-opening they are juggling domestic and commercial demand.
Ideally, they would like to continue to develop both strands of their business – the veg box scheme and meeting the demands of their commercial customers – but the biggest obstacle to doing so is a shortage of space. They need more land. Andrew McGovern, one of the businesses owners, believes that further urban land development for food may be increasingly important as a way of supplying good quality food for local people, especially in the face of predicted food shortages.
This reflects the experience of many urban growers across Scotland, even in those places where there is a large amount of vacant and derelict land. Urban land prices tend to be higher, and land is often contaminated by previous industrial uses. COVID has again amplified a pre-existing challenge.
The experiences of these individuals and groups only represent a fraction of the community food activity in response to the pandemic. However, as some of these examples illustrate, COVID has exposed a longstanding pre-existing fragility. The food crisis was not new. It is unsurprising that a welfare system already dependent upon foodbanks and community meals was unable to cope with the added difficulties created by the pandemic. Before COVID, policymakers and funders had already recognised that the present systems were unsustainable and were exploring ways of addressing these issues.
The ongoing consultation around the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation Bill may offer some possible long-term solutions. Initial consultation has found widespread support for a ‘Right to Food’ to be contained in the legislation. Such a commitment, if properly resourced, could mark a further shift away from emergency responses to food insecurity, towards viewing food as an essential part of the wellbeing economy. As a number of our interviewees highlighted, access to food in itself is not the whole picture. The quality of the food people eat is of critical importance to health and wellbeing. Agency is also key, giving people real choices about how and what they eat. Communal cooking, eating and growing, provide opportunities for education and social connection. Another related perspective identified in the consultation has been for the bill to take a ‘whole system approach’, involving all sectors and relevant groups working together so that policies relate to all parts of the food system. Offering the opportunity for food, in the broadest possible sense, to act as a vehicle for social, environmental and economic regeneration.
At this stage, given the current circumstances, there are many details to be agreed about how any new legislation would work in practice. Campaigning groups Nourish and the Scottish Food Coalition have argued for comprehensive National Food Plans, which would place new duties on local authorities and public agencies. They cite the model that exists in France, where overarching national legislation is implemented through local food plans, aligning legislation with local producers and distribution networks, aiming to shorten supply chains and make the best use of land and other assets.
Some positive developments are already underway at a local level. Changes in policy around land-ownership and the Community Empowerment Act (2015) require all Scottish local authorities to review land ownership processes and develop a Local Food Growing Strategy. An example can be seen in Glasgow, where the local authority’s strategy is currently at its draft stage. The full strategy will require the council to publish a regularly updated map of land suitable for community growing in the city and provide details on how they will facilitate this activity. It is intended that this will free up more land for community growers like Green Heart, allowing them to scale up their businesses and become more sustainable.
A more integrated food system would be welcomed by many of these frontline food projects and others in SURF’s network. As our interviews highlight, these connections are already being made at a local level, a process which has been accelerated by the pandemic. Across our respondents, there was an identified need for development capacity – to develop these networks and deliver on these wider ambitions.
SURF’s Journal has been running several themed reviews of the way in which the COVID19 crisis is exacerbating inequalities. SURF’s unique position as Scotland’s regeneration forum allows us to access the views of frontline workers, academics, policymakers, politicians and those people living and working in the communities which are being hardest hit. Our intention is not only to record the damage that is being caused – or to rejoice in the innovative and collective creativity of those who have stepped up to meet the challenges. We also want to present ideas and processes which will encourage debate about how our many national and local partner organisations should support and sustain the most effective of these responses to collaboratively build back better.
SURF welcomes all feedback and suggestions for future articles. Please email Elaine Cooper at Elaine@surf.scot
 Trussell Trust, ‘Food Banks Report Record Spike in Need as Coalition of Anti-Poverty Charities Call for Strong Lifeline to Be Thrown to Anyone Who Needs It’, 2020 <https://www.trusselltrust.org/2020/05/01/coalition-call/>.
 Rachel Loopstra, ‘Vulnerability to Food Insecurity since the COVID-19 Lockdown Preliminary Report’, 2020 <https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Report_COVID19FoodInsecurity-final.pdf>.
 Information on the Good Food Nation Bill can be found here: https://www.gov.scot/policies/food-and-drink/good-food-nation/
 The Scottish Government, Review of the Fair Food Transformation Fund, 2019 <https://www.gov.scot/publications/review-fair-food-transformation-fund>.
 Frank Field and Heidi Allen, ‘The “Other Britain” and the Failure of the Welfare State’, 2019 <https://feedingbritain.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/The-Other-Britain-July-2019.pdf>.
 Co-op News, ‘Co-Ops and Covid-19: Supply Chain Issues for Small or Remote Stores’, 2020 <https://www.thenews.coop/147000/sector/retail/co-ops-and-covid-supply-chain-issues-for-small-or-remote-stores/>.
 Grow Your Own Working Group, Guide for Growing on Land Which May Be Contaminated, 2016 <https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=34734&p=0>.
 Scottish Government, Good Food Nation Proposals for Legislation : Analysis of Consultation Responses, 2019 <https://www.gov.scot/publications/good-food-nation-proposals-legislation-consultation-analysis-report/>.
 Scottish Food Coalition, What Does It Mean to Be a Good Food Nation?, 2018 <http://www.nourishscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/SFC-Good-Food-Nation-Bill-May-2018-final.pdf>.
 Nourish Scotland, Are There Any Good Food Nations out There?, 2017 <http://www.nourishscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Any-Good-Food-Nations-out-there.pdf>.
 Glasgow City Council, Lets Grow Together: Glasgow Food Growing Strategy 2020-2025 DRAFT, 2020 <https://www.glasgowconsult.co.uk/UploadedFiles/Food strategy draft document 3 2 19 20202.pdf>.