In March 2020, like many people, we, as researchers with an interest in food insecurity in the UK, were hugely concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdown on households’ access to food. It was clear from the outset of the pandemic that need for support with food access was rising and frontline responses were having to make major adaptations to their operations and working practices, all in the face of significant disruptions to the food supply chain. Governments, charities and businesses were all working to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances and to put different solutions and systems of support in place.
About the study
In this context a collaboration of researchers and NGOs, applied for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), through the UKRI ‘Ideas to Address COVID-19’ grant call, for an 18 month research project to map and monitor these responses to risks of rising food insecurity during the pandemic. The project is led by Hannah Lambie-Mumford from the University of Sheffield and Rachel Loopstra from Kings College London, in partnership with Sustain and Church Action on Poverty. I, Katy Gordon, have also been working on the project from the start.
The project aimed to capture the interventions put in place across sectors but also to provide a source of data and analysis from which lessons for the future could be learned. The research project was designed to explore three aspects: one to look at responses at national level, one looking at a local level, and a participatory policy panel. The latter, in partnership with Church Action on Poverty, comprises a panel of people who have direct experience of a broad range of support to access food.
In July 2021 we published the first outputs from the local level work package. This part of the research is done in collaboration with the Food Power team at Sustain. The reports drew on data collected from case studies undertaken in 14 local authority areas across the UK, covering the time period (loosely defined) as the first national lockdown (March – August 2020). The reports published include individual write ups of eight local authority areas (Argyll and Bute, Belfast, Cardiff, Derry City and Strabane, Herefordshire, Moray, Swansea, West Berkshire) as well as a comparative report drawing on data from these areas and six more (Bradford, Edinburgh, Greenwich, Glasgow, Leeds and Merton). Across these areas a combination of interviews and online workshops allowed us to hear from 131 participants with frontline experience of responding to food access issues in their local area. Participants included people working in local councils, public health teams, third sector community food providers, and others. We are extremely grateful to all these participants for taking the time to contribute to the project, particularly when they were experiencing significant demands on their time.
Main research findings
The research looked at responses in the initial UK lockdown (March – August 2020). Corroborating what I’m sure many readers will know, the research highlighted the key role that existing third sector community food providers played in supporting people with food access during the first national lockdown. Participants described how the third sector responded quickly, despite the challenges they faced, many making major adaptations and significant overhauls to their operations to ensure they could continue to provide support to households. Some of the perceived benefits of having existing community food providers heavily involved in the response were that these organisations were already known in the community, people may have felt more comfortable accessing this form of support than that provided by statutory agencies, and such organisations were able to identify people’s needs and respond in a tailored and supportive way. However, it is important to note that at the outset of the pandemic response, these significant efforts were underpinned by concern about the sustainability of this work and there were ongoing concerns for the continuing increase in need as the longer term consequences of the pandemic unfolded. (Data from the Food Foundation shows levels of food insecurity continue to be higher than pre pandemic).
Scottish case study- Moray
As well as existing community food providers a number of other actors started supporting people with food access in response to the pandemic. Across the case study areas local councils played a significant role in the response although the form of support provided varied considerably. For example, Moray Council created a ‘flexible food fund’ that provided cash grants to households experiencing financial barriers to accessing food. The fund was managed by the Council’s money advice team and households were provided with two cash payments, once a month for two months. Recipients were also offered a wider suite of support to address the underlying financial difficulties, and receipt of the second payment was conditional on the recipients engaging with this wider suite of support offered. This response exemplifies a ‘cash first’ approach. The money advice team and the local food bank, run by Moray Food Plus, continued to signpost and refer households to each of their services.
Scottish case study- Argyll and Bute
Due to significant concerns about food supply shortages in the area, exacerbated by the rural geography, Argyll and Bute Council operationalised a large scale food box delivery scheme. Eligible households, including people experiencing financial access barriers, physical access barriers and families eligible for free school meals, were provided weekly delivery of both fresh and ambient food parcels. As well as providing this support to households the scheme was designed to support local food businesses. Wherever possible the food for the food boxes was sourced from local suppliers. Our research participant described this as being ‘for Argyll from Argyll’, exemplifying an approach that sought to support the local economy as well as local households. Other councils across the case study areas adopted different responses but these two alone highlight the range of responses put in place and the range of factors considered in designing such responses.
The benefits of existing networks and partnerships
Across case studies we heard of the key role that partnership working and collaboration played in responding to food access issues during this time. Participants considered this a key enabler of providing responses. Many areas already had existing food alliances or partnerships in place and these were quick to operationalise. In other areas new partnerships were formed. In the face of adversity this partnership working provided a source of celebration and participants hoped that new, strengthened and better partnership working across sectors would be one of the positive legacies from the pandemic.
Future research plans
As we move into the final six months of the project, we hope to provide an opportunity for local practitioners to reflect on some of the lessons learned as well as to look ahead. The next phase of the research will explore questions such as the legacy of the pandemic on the charitable food aid landscape, the key characteristics of successful partnership working, and the plans of local councils to support food access in the longer term. We hope the outputs from this further work will help to inform future responses and post-pandemic policy and practice.
The full reports from the local case study work packages including writes ups of Moray, Argyll and Bute, six other areas and the cross case comparison are available here.
Further details and outputs from the three work packages are available here. We welcome any questions, comments or feedback on the project – please do get in touch!