The sudden increase in requests for emergency food could have put a strain on the capacity of food support providers to successfully meet the surge in demand. Table 1 shows, however, that during the first and most problematic weeks of the crisis, very few organizations had to turn eligible people away for any of the reasons listed. More than 80% of the respondents declared that they have never turned eligible people away on account of a lack of food stocks or organizational resources (volunteers and staff). Interestingly, almost no one responded that people were turned away due to a lack of valid food vouchers (92.7%). Studies before COVID-19 illustrated that people in need had to face bureaucratic hurdles and racialised calculations of deservingness in order to become eligible (de Souza 2019; May et al. 2019). During the crisis, however, it is possible that most providers renounced or reduced eligibility checks and procedures to streamline the distribution. Crucially, when forced to turn people away, users were often redirected to other providers with greater capacity, so that at no point during the crisis has there been an overall lack of food.
Two concomitant factors contributed to this outcome. On one hand, repeated calls on the generosity of individuals and businesses (especially food retailers), as well as the UK government fund for food redistribution, injected the resources necessary to keep the food support system running. In fact, many organizations experienced an increase in donations of food (76.4% of sample) or money (67.3%) (see Table 2), with 85.5% (47 cases) reporting one of the two and more than half reporting both (32 cases, 58.2%). Interestingly, only four participants reported a fall in the nutritional value of the food distributed, whilst the majority (65.5%) reported no change. Surprisingly, 15 organizations saw an increase: while urgency could have resulted in a lower concern for food quality, it is likely that the rise in food and monetary donations had positive side effects on the heterogeneity of the food supplied to some providers and, in turn, on the overall quality of the groceries distributed.
On the other hand, providers demonstrated great resilience, with 89.2% of participants believing that the organization could recover and adapt quickly (Table 3). In fact, as soon as the lockdown was introduced by the government on 23 March 2020, organizations found ways to maintain existing food support channels. In some cases, as the following quotations from a food bank and a warm meal provider show, the transition was relatively smooth:
The first change was that we stopped doing hot drinks and we were still making the parcels as needed, but we were just minimising all the extra stuff that went around it. Then we changed to… people would just come to the front door, they wouldn’t come in to the building. And all of the parcels would be pre-made. And we would just distribute those, just take the voucher, give them a bag. So it was really… the contact was really minimal. And that was through maybe the end of March and the beginning of April. And then I think the first day that we decided... or the first day that we started doing deliveries, I think it was the 13th of April. Or it was, like, that week. So we started doing three days of deliveries per week… I think, to be honest, so far things have gone relatively smoothly. Which feels a little bit suspicious, it feels a little bit... we kind of haven’t really... I think we’re at a massive advantage because we have three of us [Young people. Ed.], which means we've been able to respond to everything a lot more quickly. Annie, Trussell Trust food bank
So, once we became aware it was an issue, we sort of planned very quickly that we wouldn’t be able to carry on doing our normal sit-down meals with people. That’s before the lockdown came in or anything like that, we just knew that wasn’t going to happen so we did plan to be, to cook at the venue still and then for people to come and collect takeaways. We did that for one week and then we realised that that wasn’t really going to work very well and then the following week, after they introduced the lockdown bit anyway, so we wouldn’t have been able to carry on doing that anyway… We use the upstairs space that’s empty to sort it and bag it and we have delivery drivers going out to deliver it around to the people who have been referred to us. Bill, Warm meal provider
Most food support providers were very agile in responding to the new necessities. As Annie’s words illustrate, the possibility of working with young colleagues who were not at high risk of COVID-19 complications, allowed one food bank to quickly modulate the service to respond to needs, to an extent that felt ‘a bit suspicious’, given the times. Similarly, many other food banks and smaller providers immediately set up points for picking up food and often temporary, door-to-door delivery services, while most food pantries remained open by making users observe the ‘same physical distancing’ and hygiene measures required in supermarkets. Some warm meal providers started to deliver cooked food or temporarily began distributing food parcels, using premises to accommodate food stocks, as Bill indicates. This transition was not always easy, for instance when providers were mainly people in their 60 s and 70 s. Even in such cases, however, some were able to find informal and ‘personal’ ways to remain open:
The two big problems that I’ve got with COVID is, first of all, my volunteers are all over 70. So they can’t continue. You know, they’ve got to... I’m healthy, I’m healthy as anything, as is my wife. But the simple statistic that says, if somebody over 70 gets it they’re 200 times more likely to die than if somebody at 50 gets it… So I’m guiding myself and my wife, and wonderful that my children are servicing us, and we’re getting the Tesco deliveries. That’s how we’re dealing with it personally… Now it’s just an odd... I’ve done a food bank thing with him. Somebody was critical for some food, I just sent my son to the shop to buy some food and then he got... well, he delivered that. Chris, Independent food bank
Like many other food support providers run by elderly volunteers, Chris’s food bank would have interrupted the service if not for his son, who took care of the delivery service and kept providing food for those in need. This illustrates the social commitment and dedication brought even to smaller and more informal food support providers, who probably explored all the alternatives to ceasing activity.
The extraordinary success of food aid services in tackling the crisis did not come without its challenges. Although, as we have seen, many providers just switched mode of provision overnight to guarantee an adequate and timely supply of food, the pressure overload on the whole system created three main complications. First, many participants reported experiencing some shortage of staff members, and especially in volunteers. Only 52.7% declared that lack of staff had not been an issue and 40.0% that lack of volunteers was not an issue (Table 4). This is not surprising, as before the pandemic most independent food banks relied on five or more volunteers (Loopstra et al. 2019c). Although very few reported that shortage was a major issue, this may have implied a higher workload on the personnel at work during the crisis. As Delia, from an independent food bank, states:
The amount of food that we get donated has increased. People are aware of us now. We get a lot of publicity on Facebook, a lot of fundraising. But you know, the downside is that we’re getting a lot more people that need our service. We’re working with a lot of different agencies now. People come and collect emergency parcels for people and things like that. And we’ve had to change how we work, because we only ever used to attend the food bank on a Monday and a Friday, whereas because now a lot of our volunteers have had to self-isolate, we’ve had to spread the work out that we do over the whole week. Because there’s so much to do now with so few volunteers. Delia, Independent food bank
Second, the fact that there was enough food to feed everyone does not mean that providers did not experience food shortages. As Table 4 indicates, only 32.7% stated that the organization experienced no problem of any sort, while more than 16% reported high levels of shortages. Figure 2 summarizes the items lacking from providers’ shelves: unsurprisingly, canned items are among the ones mentioned most often, probably because of the high demand for them, given their shelf-life. Interestingly however, lack of fresh products such as meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables were also reported, probably owing to short supply and/or costs and challenges in transportation (e.g. maintaining the cold chain).
Third, and connected, the higher pressure on the resources available to the providers has increased the uncertainty around their capacity to survive in the longer term—especially in view of a second wave. As Table 5 illustrates, 38.2% of food support providers reported that food stocks would last for four weeks or less (and 14.5% reported that cash reserves would last four weeks or less), while 5–8 weeks’ stock was reported by 7.3% and 5–8 weeks’ cash reserves by 9.1%.
Thus, although managing to address food poverty, providers have entered a precarious phase, especially the smallest organizations, often needing new venues to operate safely. The open-ended question in the survey ‘What are the immediate needs of the food provider?’ prompted these fears to be voiced:
Probably the funding to come in continuously. As far as the needs of food, we are purchasing as we go. There are other places like churches and community centres that are supporting us with constant donations. At the moment it is continuous support. That means donations and financial donations. Both are important right now, but it is very difficult to get things in bulk as there are shortages of things. Eric, Food pantry
Finance; the government money hasn’t come anywhere near us and even if we have written a bid for it the people reading it don’t understand charity finance. Also, the funding from central government was odd, large amounts were given to national organizations which don’t have the means to distribute locally and then other funders won’t fund the same areas even if you haven’t been successful. Which has meant very little money has come down for basic stuff like buying food. Fiona, Independent food bank
Immediate needs would be finance, I suppose. For staff and resources to reach our services, like PPE [Personal protective equipment. Ed.] and perspex stuff. We need funding for the charity to pay our staff and get them off furlough. Geraldine, Independent food bank
What we need is a permanent base of operations. We are using someone else’s premises that they have closed due to COVID and they have given to us. When they reopen we will have to move out. It is all space, we have just reviewed what we are doing, we are rethinking our overall strategy. Harry, Warm meal provider
This corresponds with several independent reports that came out during the same period, highlighting the risk of bankruptcy and that many UK charities expect income to reduce (Butler, 2020b) despite the £750 million package of support offered by the government in April (UK Government 2020b).
Participants described both obstacles overcome in, and complications stemming from, the impact the virus outbreak had on several aspects of their organizations. As Table 6 sums up, a small minority of the respondents declared that COVID-19 had no impact at all on the financial stability (12.7%), the management (14.5%) or the functioning (9.1%) of their organization, while a substantial proportion (25.5%, 38.2%, 54.5% respectively) chose the opposite response category. As we have seen, the necessity to rapidly adapt to the new conditions to respond effectively to increasing demand came at the cost of uncertainty, precarity and higher workload. Yet more critical was the cumulative effect of such a frantic rearrangement on the ‘social ingredient’ at the core of any form of support. As reported elsewhere (May et al. 2019, p. 714), food charities are ambivalent spaces, ‘characterized by complex interconnectivities between shame and gratitude, stigma and acceptance, moral judgement and emotional support.’ Critical aspects related to the ways in which food support providers evaluate eligibility and distribute foods are therefore weaved with methods of offering emotional and practical support that are often crucial for many people in need. They can offer much more than food to those in hardship: ears to listen, arms that are willing to hug, voices to offer sympathy (and recommendations and financial advice, if asked for) and people who are inclined to befriend without judging or requiring something in return. The crisis, however, meant much of this could not be offered, and some was entirely sacrificed for the entire duration of the lockdown—quite likely, when it was needed the most. In fact, 56.4% of participants said that COVID-19 had a major effect on the social atmosphere of the provider, and only three organizations (5.5%) reported no change in social atmosphere at all.
This unfortunate transformation is poignantly described by Innes, who works in a community centre that offered cooked meals and that had to provisionally transform into a takeaway service:
Whatever we had we would give away to people as they said they needed it. And then COVID happened and our doors closed. When the lockdown came about, when it was first mooted, we had to close the doors. And in that time when, before the lockdown was announced, I think was a short period of time, we decided to provide breakfast and lunch as a takeaway service… So we were dealing with isolated people across the whole range, the isolated people would come to us pre-COVID because we were a safe space, we were a welcoming space, and because they weren't allowed to go in many cases to any other places… Our clients are very touchy-feely, you know. How the hell we could stop a lot of our clients wanting to give us a cuddle or pat us on the back, or shake our hand or whatever? You know, culturally, there were four guys who came from Sudan and anything we did, they wanted to shake our hands. Anything... we gave them a coffee, they wanted to shake my hand. And you know, the difficulty in not doing that now, the difficulty in not patting somebody on the back, the difficulty when you're seeing somebody crying, not to give them a hug, you know, it's... sorry, I'm going on a bit… COVID has sucked the life out of our centre. It’s taken what we were… Innes, Mixed food provider
This touching excerpt vividly conveys what was lost during the lockdown and how much the (indispensable) measures taken to contain the contagion conditioned the operations of the community centre. Innes makes it clear that food support providers have a social function, ‘sucked away’ by COVID-19, that goes well beyond the supply of meals or parcels. To an extent, even after the end of the first lockdown, many precautionary measures still mandated the avoidance of physical contact as freely as before COVID-19, thus leaving ‘the difficulty when you’re seeing somebody crying, not to give them a hug’ intact.
This dread was evoked by other interviewees. While the UK government was relaxing the first lockdown measures, Jane discussed how her food bank could reopen safely, and akin to Innes mused on the probable loss of the social aspect:
But then it’s a question of what PPE we use for the volunteers, and also whether we will be able to have sufficient volunteers if our older and less healthy people say ‘I can’t take that risk’. So it will take a lot of working out; so we may lose the social aspect, we may have to say ‘sorry, we can’t have people coming in and relaxing and sitting down’. All we could do is provide a bag at the door, either a takeaway meal on one day and takeaway tins on the other, or something like that. Which for us will be a great shame, because like I say, for a lot of these people, it’s not just the food. It’s the social aspect, and it’s somewhere to sit. And for people who are actually literally homeless or for people who are having to live with friends and relatives where it’s a bit cramped and a bit on top of each other and a bit frictional, that space to just sit and relax and chat won’t be there. Jane, Independent food bank
In a moment of widespread generosity and gigantic effort to feed the most disadvantaged, the hidden costs weighed primarily on the most symbolic—and yet very tangible—aspects of providing food (support). Although some organizations found other ways to offer that social function, for instance through messaging platforms and group phone calls, these were rather ersatz means of community-building rather than the real thing.Footnote 12 In a sense, as ‘nutrition’ and ‘sustenance’ took precedence over ‘eating’ and ‘commensality’, physical distancing became, for many, social distancing.