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How are London councils responding to rising food insecurity during lockdown and as it lifts?

Maddie Guerlain looks at trends across the city, what local authorities are planning for the summer and four areas of best practice. 

Over the last few months London councils have been supporting residents who are struggling to access food, whether due to shielding, self-isolation or financial hardship. As lockdown begins to ease and re-deployed council staff return to other work, many local authorities are questioning what their role should be moving forward. This presents a particular challenge given stretched resources alongside rising need.  

Through conversations with council officers, residents and members of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) over the last month, a number of emerging trends and areas of best practice have come to the forefront, followed by eight case studies

Four emerging trends 

  1. Most councils have taken a humanitarian approach to their local food response. Eligibility criteria to access emergency food has been loose so that people with a variety of circumstances can get support including medical shielding, self-isolation or financial hardship. For example, in Southwark their ethos is ‘no wrong front door’ so that anyone who called the support line would be signposted to the most appropriate support. Whilst this meant that council resources were focused on quickly establishing the much-needed food hubs, it also meant that clarity around which budget they were supported by was not always in place, making them hard to sustain indefinitely.  

  2. Balancing increasing need from residents with stretched council resources is going to be a major challenge in the coming months. On the one hand, running the hubs is resource intensive (labor, food, premises) and many council staff and premises are beginning to return to their usual jobs. They can’t run solely on donations or volunteers and national financial support to date has not been sufficient. On the other hand, councils are simultaneously seeing more people struggling financially and often needing short-term food aid. While no councils have set firm closing dates for their hubs, they are all consulting with their VCS to see what the next best steps are given this situation. 

  3. Many council officers who have already been working on improving food accessibility and health report that there is now positive increased awareness about these issues, particularly food poverty. Having a wider variety and higher number of organisations join food partnerships and food poverty alliances has been welcome. Rapid increased membership has, however, caused some worry about keeping up a balanced approach to these issues, for example maintaining nutritional standards. 

  4. For the upcoming summer holidays, councils are trying to plan for multiple scenarios to meet the needs of children who would typically benefit from free meals and activities. Working with Kitchen Social and community organisations, in the first scenario children will receive hot meals and activities on site with social distancing, and in the second scenario, takeaway meals will be available along with online activities. This requires very different food procurement and planning so boroughs are trying to be nimble as social distancing guidelines evolve week to week. (NB: Conversations with councils took place before the government’s decision to extend free school meal vouchers through the summer.) 

Areas of best practice 

  • Economic Development and Regeneration teams are key to offering specific support for food businesses. For example, helping cafés or restaurants get up to speed with standards for food delivery services like UberEats or Deliveroo, as well as to prepare for re-opening as lockdown measures ease.  

  • Establishing effective triage systems for support phoneline helps reach families with complex needs and higher vulnerability. For example, in Greenwich flagging requests for infant nutrition or nappies has proved to be an important pathway to reaching these families and ensuring that their needs are fully met. This has included the child’s wellbeing as well as broader support for local welfare, benefits advice, immigration, housing and more. 

  • Tapping into a borough’s VCS to both develop a rapid and effective response to the community’s food needs as well as plan for the coming transitional months has been a key strength in many councils. In the best scenarios this has meant that harder to reach communities were not left out nor the local businesses that support them. They have also helped councils to identify community assets and where there may be gaps. For example, if food aid providers need increased refrigeration capacity in order to provide a more nutritional food parcel. In some cases, councils have worked well with existing food (poverty) alliances or partnerships, whilst in others their leadership and collaboration is forming the foundations for a potential future alliance locally.    

Case studies

The following case studies are brief snapshots from June andJuly 2020 that focus on some of the ways eight London local authorities have responded to food needs during Covid-19 lockdown, and what they are planning for the near future. They are not a comprehensive assessment of council action, but have been written to offer a few perspectives on what's been happening and upcoming direction of travel.

In Greenwich, the community hub has been delivering a food box scheme for residents, with no immediate plans to change (see full case study). In order to maintain a high nutritional standard in the parcels, the food has been bought from local greengrocers, butchers and Lidl UK.  The council is now reviewing options for the future as this is a significant expense. For the long-term, they are in discussion with local food banks about how the support they provide might evolve to meet similar nutritional standards, for example by bringing in refrigeration in order to be able to give families more fresh fruit and vegetables. Over the last few weeks, the council has noticed a shift in people who are accessing the food hub, with more and more suffering from financial hardship rather than only medically shielding or self-isolating. 

As there has been particular concern about infant nutrition during lockdown, any time a resident specifically requests infant formula, baby food or nappies it must be approved by Public Health or infant feeding team member within health visiting. While these requests have been relatively infrequent, they’ve found that in most instances a much broader level of support is needed for these families who are often in complex situations. This has proved an effective way to connect children’s and health services with families who have typically been harder to reach. 

The council’s Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development teams have also played a crucial role supporting food businesses, acting quickly at the beginning of lock down. For example, they helped more retailers register to accept Healthy Start vouchers and worked with convenience stores to set up online or telephone payment systems. In addition, Environmental Health officers helped foodservice providers meet standards required to sign up for delivery aggregators (e.g. UberEats or Deliveroo). Now the Economic Development team is putting together a package for all food businesses on how to re-open safely. 

In Haringey, the Council’s Covid food hub has increased their weekly deliveries from 600 per week at the start of lockdown to an average 2,000 per week currently, based from two hubs at Alexandra Palace and Spurs stadium. While some people are shielding or self-isolating for medical reasons, the majority of people are getting in touch due to financial insecurity, whether new or ongoing. The council’s approach has been to treat this like a humanitarian response, prioritising residents’ immediate needs first and foremost with follow up support when appropriate to address longer term concerns such as the need for good employment. Working with the Regeneration team, Haringey has mapped and signposted to local food businesses that deliver via the council website and Covid support phoneline, thereby supporting both local retailers and the specific communities they serve.

As demand for crisis support reduces and in line with the humanitarian response ethos, the Council is winding down direct delivery whilst continuing to support and develop community-based solutions. For next steps, Haringey has set up a Food Alliance; seizing on the Covid spirit of collaboration to bring together established VCS organisations, supplier and local initiatives to help coordinate future food distribution across the borough and develop a long-term food strategy for the council. This will potentially include support for community food growing, community/social supermarkets, intergenerational activities, buying clubs and other ways of building more resilient supply chains among local communities. Their aim is to build food security solutions that are interwoven with the council’s regeneration and community wealth building strategies.

In Hillingdon, the council has been coordinating emergency food support with H4All CIC, a pre-existing group made up of five local charities who have a strong track record of delivery in the borough. Together they have been providing emergency food parcels as well as bespoke shopping services for residents. However, as the system is reliant on re-deployed council staff, borrowed premises and runs at a significant cost, keeping it going over the long-term is not sustainable. There are no firm plans yet, but next steps are being discussed internally. In the first instance, they will probably migrate people seeking shopping support to online supermarkets. The council is also in discussion with local food banks on how to bolster their capacity in order to meet demand (estimated at perhaps 300-400 parcels/week), and trying to learn more about responses from smaller organisations, start-ups and faith groups to see what models have been effective. 

In Lambeth, outdoor markets shrunk over the last few months as some stallholders decided not to participate during lockdown, but many more are returning as lockdown regulations are eased. The council has also been running their own emergency food service, which consists of parcels made up of fruit and vegetables, breakfast and store cupboard items, as well as toiletries. These are available for anyone presenting with need, such as those shielding or struggling financially. If requested, they can also provide up to three days worth of microwavable or frozen food. This has been run via two food hubs, with 15,000 emergency food crates sent out to residents so far and each hub sending 800-1,000 parcels each week, although this has decreased recently. 

The council has been pro-active in reaching out to the VCS sector to find out what’s the best way to support local organisations. For example, although the above mentioned council-run emergency food service is continuing to run, as it begins to look at scaling back in the future it has asked community organisations and businesses that are currently involved in providing food to put forth ideas and plans of how might the council might best move forward. The council is also supporting voluntary and community organisations in preparing food and activities for the upcoming holidays, such as in libraries and via the London-wide Kitchen Social programme. 

In Merton, during the first few weeks of lockdown there was a significant response from the voluntary sector and mutual aid groups in helping ensure emergency food was reaching people in need. Since then, the council has also set up a food hub to distribute surplus, based at a college kitchen that’s typically used for catering courses. Merton’s food poverty group, which was formed a few years ago, has now seen a much wider group of organisations engage with them, as well as with each other.  

They are now looking at next steps for the council’s food response as the kitchen will be returned in August and re-deployed council staff are phasing back into their previous roles. They are planning to maintain ‘Merton’s Community Fridge Network’ over the longer term, and are also sending out a survey to VCS groups to map capacity, which will be followed by a meeting with partners. The council is working on a wider report on health inequalities for BAME people in the borough, which is very important for ensuring that those who have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 are also receiving the most support. There are also plans to review the council’s food poverty action plan in order to reflect the changed landscape. 

In Southwark, when residents call the Covid-19 helpline, they are offered advice around welfare, safeguarding, mental health and medication access, as well as food parcels if needed. The council is committed to keeping this service running until September and has taken a “no wrong front door” approach to supporting residents. The community hub has been distributing around 1,500 food parcels per week to families in need. Given the vibrant community and voluntary sector in the borough, the council has established a hub/spoke model to ensure effective distribution, organisational involvement and reach to many communities. The council’s depot distributes its own parcels, but also refers out to eight other food banks or hubs, who each then link into their own wider communities and with smaller organisations working locally.  

Southwark Council is working with Kitchen Social to prepare for the summer holidays. Their challenge is to develop plans that are flexible for changing social distancing scenarios, including in-person and/or online activities as well as food to be provided on site or for takeaway, which has major implications for sourcing, cooking, packaging, etc. They are aiming to run 40 hubs around the borough, and have been working with the Education Team in order to ensure children newly eligible for Free Schools Meals are included.  

Throughout lockdown, Borough Market primarily stayed open for local residents and while East Street Market closed initially, it then re-opened due to it being used for Rose Vouchers. Fruit and vegetable stalls that accepted the vouchers were prioritised and spaced out with new barriers to ensure safety for staff and customers. Now, all markets are re-opening as national guidance has suggested.  

In Bermondsey, The Blue, a local Business Improvement District, has been working with Rice Retail Marketing to help small businesses become more sustainable during lockdown. For example, helping them set up online or phone shopping systems, partner with affordable food delivery options and develop links among local stores, for example, combining corner shop food delivery with launderette services for people shielding.

In Tower Hamlets, they have been providing a few different services to help people access food during the Covid-19 outbreak. For people who are medically shielding and struggling financially, the council provides a box of food that lasts a week to help them until the government parcels begin to arrive. At it’s peak in April, they were delivering 150 boxes per day, but this has dropped down to below 50 boxes per day so the council is now investigating what their next steps will be to support this group. The contents of the box include a mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, bread and tinned goods, as have been recommended by public health to provide a healthy diet for various family sizes. This service is also available to people who have been directed to self-isolate for 7-14 days, for which the council will deliver up to two boxes, each with a week’s worth of food.  

After this service was up and running, the council learned two important things that have influenced the other services they’ve since developed. First, there are a small number of people who have called repeatedly to request food boxes but aren’t shielding or needing to continuously self-isolate. In this case, no more than two food boxes have been sent and instead the outreach team has gotten directly in touch to find out what other support may be most useful. This can include running through income maximisation options and considering if the resident support (grant) scheme would be useful, which can be used to buy food among other things. In some instances, the outreach team may help the person put in a claim for benefits they have been missing out on, and then may also refer them to a food bank for help in the short term.  

The second thing they’ve learned is that there are many people who can afford their shopping, but aren’t able to go out. Therefore, the council worked with the volunteer centre to set up a system whereby a resident can buy their own food at a store of their choice by phone or online, and a volunteer will then pick up and deliver directly to their door. Residents can access this service via the website or helpline, and it’s been running for 3 weeks with no plans to wind down, as long as volunteers are still available. One of the initial obstacles was working with local shops to set up phone orders and payment, but now more retailers are able to take part and they hope to see this this customer-driven method become more popular. 

Hot meal delivery is run by the voluntary sector in the borough, but the council helps coordinate and distribute large food donations from the London Food Alliance. In the last five weeks 30 tonnes have been delivered and distributed to 24 organisations, reaching an estimated 5,000 residents. These organisations, which include food banks, are providing hot meals as well as food parcels. This service will continue but it is unclear for how long as it’s being run from a building with large fridge and freezer space that is not owned by the council. It is also being run by re-deployed council staff and volunteers, which will also be a factor in its long-term viability. It has been positively received and the council hopes to continue to support the VCS by playing an intermediary role with the large food surplus distribution charities like Felix and Fareshare.  

Finally, to support children over the Easter holidays the council worked with A Plate for London to distribute over 15,000 meals, and last half-term they partnered with Felix Project to give out 5,000 freshly made frozen meals. In both instances, meals were delivered to strategically chosen community centres where parents could pick them up. For the summer holidays, they are accepting applications from community groups to run activities and provide food. However, with social distancing guidelines being updated regularly, it is still unclear precisely what form these will take. Ideally, this will include some activities being run on-site for small groups of children, as well as meals for parents to take away when not all children can be accommodated. 

In Wandsworth, the council has been running a food hub to help distribute surplus food provided by the London Food Alliance. There are now plans to start to scale back this work, including moving the hub out of the civic suite, with the aim that surplus food distributions will go directly to the voluntary and community sector as needed in the future. The council’s phone lines for support will still be open, but provision of staff for this and other emergency related services will be assessed as council officers begin to return to their regular roles. Indoor markets are now beginning to re-open after the change in national guidance at the start of May, but this will take place slowly as stallholders individually decide how best to manage health and safety. The council also ran a small grant scheme to support organisations and businesses providing food during the emergency period. The total pot was £100,000 and each applicant could request up to £10,000, but due to very high demand most grants were £750-£2,000 and were distributed to a higher number of applicants.

Published Monday 29 June 2020

London Food Link: London Food Link brings together community food enterprises and projects that are working to make good food accessible to everyone in London to help create a healthy, sustainable and ethical food system for all.

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Maddie is Economic Policy Coordinator, leading on Sustain's mission to ensure the sustainable food and farming sector is a priority within national policy and investment linked to UK-wide efforts to stimulate a green economic recovery. She also founded and manages Roots to Work, a platform for job opportunities in the field of good food. 

Maddie Guerlain
Economic Policy Coordinator

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