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Posted on 10th January 2023

Rethinking food banks: how the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped food aid in the UK

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This blog is written by Dr Ronald Ranta on research he has published with Dr Hilda Mulrooney, Dr Nevena Nancheva and Dr Dee Bhakta. This research reveals the dramatic changes that the Covid-19 pandemic brought to the UK food aid sector with a move away from the traditional food bank model. They found that, alongside significantly increased levels of need, the pandemic brought about greater coordination and oversight of food aid, as well as the upscaling of capabilities, infrastructure, and provisions. The team argues that if the changes and innovations are maintained, they have the potential of not only transforming the food aid sector and food aid for the better, but also help deal with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

Our focus with this research was to explore in ‘real time’ the provision of food aid focusing on two geographic regions, Southwest London and Sussex, through the lens of those involved in its provision. What we wanted to understand was how the sector and the various food aid providers responded and managed during this unprecedented crisis. Our key findings include:

1. Food aid infrastructure: The pandemic brought about a more coherent food surplus system and a clearer and more central role for surplus food providers. This shifts the UK towards a US style food aid provision system with large distribution depots supplying front line food aid providers. It also provides the UK government, as well as local authorities and food partnerships, with a direct avenue to step in and support food aid provision in case of a national crisis.

2. Increased coordination through local food partnerships: The sudden onset of the pandemic and increased need for support required a paradigmatic shift in attitude. Almost overnight, new partnerships and support networks developed among food aid providers to coordinate responses and share resources. The level of cooperation and coordination seen during the pandemic was, in comparison to the pre-pandemic period, exceptional.

3. Rethinking the food aid model: One of the most striking things we encountered was the realisation that the traditional food aid model, in particular food banks, did not work well. For some providers this was a culmination of past experiences, for others it was an eye opener brought about by the pandemic, particularly for new providers. As a result, all the providers we interviewed looked at ways to innovate, including setting up pantries and community supermarkets. In addition, all the providers we interviewed either started to provide or expanded their existing provision of additional support and resources to tackle underlying problems. These developments provide a new model and way of thinking of food aid and the purpose of providers.

4. Beyond food aid: Pre-pandemic, many of the food aid providers we spoke to wanted to address issues beyond food aid; some were already moving in that direction, while others did not have the capacity. The addition of more resources, in terms of grants, donations, and volunteers, meant providers were often more able, despite the increased demand, to consider and address these wider issues. This included support to address the drivers of food insecurity, as well as activities around nutrition, culinary skills, food waste, sustainability, and climate change.

In response to the pandemic, providers increased coordination and oversight and upscaled their capabilities and resources. We were particularly struck by the shift that is now underway within the sector to move away from the traditional food bank model and toward a more preventative model of pantries and community supermarkets. These changes leave the food aid sector better placed to manage and respond to the cost-of-living crisis if the changes are maintained. Additionally, and maybe even more importantly long-term, the manner in which providers addressed the problems they faced pre-pandemic, including moving away from the traditional food bank model, holds the possibility for a more humane and durable form of food aid provision.

You can read the full paper in the British Food Journal here.

You can also read an opinion piece from the research team here.