Navigating access to food and social isolation might be relatively new concepts for some, as the pandemic brought both to the fore with shortages, supermarket queues and lockdown conditions.
But one charity knows better than most just how many people live with these challenges on an everyday basis, with lockdown shutting down some of their only routes to nutritious food and companionship.
Food charity FoodCycle works in local communities to collect surplus food from businesses, before cooking and hosting nutritious meals for anyone who feels they need it.
As such, guests come from a broad range of backgrounds, including low-income families, rough sleepers, those receiving Universal Credit or those with physical or mental health disabilities. Around half live alone, and many make new friendships with other guests or volunteers, who pre-Covid, would prep and cook the food, before sitting down to eat next to guests.
Before lockdown, 40 local FoodCycle teams hosted these weekly meals across the UK, before new rules meant they had to close. Undeterred, and like countless others in hospitality, they pivoted to begin an entirely new food parcel delivery service, continuing to reach those who were most vulnerable, as well as some who had never expected to find themselves in need.
Florist Amy Joynes, a single mother of three from Birmingham, was volunteering at FoodCycle before lockdown, when she began relying on weekly food parcels herself when her shop was forced to close. “Without the food parcels I wouldn’t be able to cook the meals that I can cook for the children,” she explains. “I didn’t want to end up spending money that I don’t have on things like chicken nuggets to feed the children when I can feed them proper, healthy meals. They’ve been an absolute life saver.”
From the beginning of lockdown to date, FoodCycle has now delivered over 58,000 food parcels delivered to vulnerable people in communities across the country, equivalent to 346,000 meals and using 145,625 kg of surplus food.
“We used other charities and councils as a referral system and built up a network of people to deliver to. With the help of a donated delivery app, and volunteer delivery drivers and bag packers, we used local community centres to collect and distribute food from,” explains Victoria Meier, FoodCycle’s head of fundraising.
One of the challenges the team faced under these new conditions was the quality of donated food. When surplus food was immediately cooked, shelf-life was less of an issue, but for delivery to homes the quality needed to be fresher. Good quality surplus fruit and veg from organic veg box company Riverford helped meet this need, as well as local food businesses and supermarkets like Lidl.
“With our deliveries, it was really important to think about the kind of equipment that our guests have in their kitchen. They might not have an oven, and be relying only on a microwave, for example,” says Jess Phillimore, FoodCycle’s fundraising and corporate partnerships manager.
The result of such careful planning is clear. In a recent survey done among recipients of the parcels, feedback ranged from mothers grateful for the chance to feed their children with healthy, fresh vegetables, to people simply grateful for the human contact.
Along with access to healthy food, one of the key issues faced by FoodCycle guests is isolation, whether through physical or mental disabilities, or other issues, meaning they would be hit even harder by new social isolation rules.
To tackle this, the organisation set up a new ‘check in and chat’ call service, where volunteers would ring to ask how the food parcel had been received, chat about meal ideas and check in on a broader wellbeing level.
The survey also showed a growing range of people who were using the service, according to Meier, who says: “A lot of people found themselves in need, who wouldn’t normally. So we had a different profile [of recipients].” And with new local lockdowns and businesses again facing closures, the team fears there will be longer-term effects on people’s livelihoods once the effect of the recession, end of furlough, and unemployment takes hold.
“Food banks are an incredible resource, but you do have to be referred and there is a stigma attached. At FoodCycle, we’re accessible to all and guests feel that they’re not challenged by us, and they don’t have to prove that they need the service,” adds Phillimore.
It’s this broader human understanding of how social issues are connected with food that was also picked up by Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, which specifically highlighted the link between inequality and poor diet. “The power of sitting down together over food – the government is coming round to that” says Phillimore. Lobbying to tackle more systemic and root causes of food poverty and inequality is also part of FoodCycle’s work, on top of the public-facing day job, helped this summer by the exposure and campaigning done by footballer Marcus Rashford.
For now, the FoodCycle teams are edging back to something of their own ‘normal’, moving away from deliveries to a takeaway cooked meal service, although they’re planning to build the calls into their long-term model as they have been so well received. They hope that public experience of the issues like social isolation during the pandemic will raise awareness, as well as funds, to help them continue their work.
“People’s understanding of social isolation is much stronger now, because we’ve all of us had a little taste of what it’s like to be housebound and cut off from people,” says Meier. “These issues have come to the fore, and that can only be a good thing. A community is kind of magic in terms of what it can achieve.”
World Food Day
To mark World Food Day 2020, which takes place today (16 October), FoodCycle is hosting a range of activities around food, including a fundraising raffle, with prizes including a personal online cooking session with food writer and chef Melissa Hemsley, and a month’s worth of Riverford veg boxes.
The charity is also hosting the UK’s first ‘World Food Insta Cookbook’, collecting and sharing recipes from around the world through the Instagram and the hashtag #FoodCycleWorldFoodDay, with people urged to cook, and photograph their favourite world food dish, preferably vegetarian and from any country in the world.