As COVID-19 has swept the globe, panic buying and empty supermarket shelves has raised concerns about the availability of basic necessities, even as food banks like those run by the UK’s Trussell Trust reported sharply rising demand.
However, with thousands of hospitality outlets closing for the foreseeable future, there is the potential to redirect unused stock from these outlets to supply much needed food surplus into food distribution systems.
Panic Buying Impacts Food Banks
Here in the UK, as in other countries, the fear and reality of disrupted supermarket supply chains and the closure of cafes and restaurants, as well as the potential necessity of self-isolation for long periods of time, has prompted panic buying.
This change in buying patterns has severely affected food banks, which have received fewer donations as shoppers choose instead to build up their own household supplies. In addition, less of certain food types are available at supermarkets which reduces the quantity of food that can be bought to be donated.
Food Relief Charities Face the Perfect Storm
Food redistribution charities such as FareShare and anti-poverty charity Trussell Trust have quickly felt the direct impact of the Coronavirus pandemic: at the same time that these organisations have seen food donations fall, they have also experienced a steep increase in people coming to them for help. In 2019, the Trussell Trust network gave out 1.6 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis; this is a 23% increase on the previous year. And now, the pandemic presents a huge additional pressure to their already overstretched network of food banks, with more people than ever needing the charity’s essential support.
This has multiple causes. As with other organisations, charity operations are constrained by the number and availability of their volunteers. Food relief charities need more volunteers throughout this pandemic not only to cope with increased demand, but also because the retainment and recruitment of volunteers has dropped due to childcare responsibilities, sickness and the necessity of self-isolation. Volunteers at these charities are often senior members of society, many of whom are now self-isolating to protect their health.
Many people are being pushed into financial hardship through lost or reduced income due to job losses, pay reductions, illness or self-isolation. Moreover, new claimants for Universal credit face a five week wait for their first payment, creating financial hardship for even more people. The recent closure of schools in the UK has also increased demand – a similar increase is seen every year during the school holidays as some families struggle to provide enough food without the availability of free school meals.
Is Saving Stranded Food Surplus the Solution?
On 20 March, the UK government announced that all bars, cafes and restaurants must close to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
These sudden closures brought with them the issue of surplus food left within food service outlets. Items with short shelf lives will likely have to be collected as food waste. However, longer shelf life items provide an opportunity to increase donations to food banks at this time of critical need. So, what can be done?
The necessary infrastructure and logistics are already in place. Backhauling food from larger food service outlets to their distribution centres would make it easier for food relief charities to collect surplus food, compared to collecting it from multiple individual outlets.
Food businesses should issue targeted offers to charities. This would avoid overpromising food supplies, as can happen with widespread callouts and first-come-first-served systems. It also recognises the limited help available to charities from volunteers.
Encouragingly, there has already been a large amount of support seen from retailers who are offering money and donations to ensure support for food relief charities, and continuous conversations are in place to navigate these unprecedented times. For example, Tesco has confirmed that it will be providing a top up food donation (ambient and fresh) worth £15 million to FareShare and the Trussell Trust, as well donating £1 million between the two organisations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a more flexible and communicative food redistribution system in the UK that can adapt to the disruption of food supply chains. Ultimately, it seems a real-time, shared communication platform is what is needed to connect all food donors with the full range of food redistribution charities, to better match supply with demand.