This part of the symposium featured a video and presentation of research on community food organisation’s experience of the pandemic. This was followed by a presentation by Simone Connolly, Director of Fareshare Midlands and Hannah Gallimore, Corporate Responsibility Manager at Central England Co-op, and accompanying discussion.
Opening with a short film, viewers were reminded of how the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a surge in food insecurity in the UK. The causes of this were wide reaching. Household incomes fell due to furlough, schools closed and people had to shield meaning working became challenging. Many families experienced food insecurity for the first time.
Community organisations, supported by local, regional and central government and the private sector became a lifeline. The remarkable response of such organisations to feed those in need was detailed in Nottingham in the video. In just three months 60,000 food parcels were distributed by a single community network in Nottingham, 740 tonnes of food in one month representing a 68% increase over the previous year. The pandemic further entrenched food insecurity as a problem in the UK. However there are vital lessons to be learn in how social and physical infrastructures can be strengthened to improve the resilience of national food system support.
Marsha Smith, doctoral researcher at the Centre for Business in Society and founder of Nottingham Social Eating Network presented the findings of a study looking into community food organisations response over this period. The study gave a behind the scenes look at how these organisations fosters connections and utilised resources to meet the unprecedented rise for requests for help.
Community organisations in Nottingham were already playing a key role in ensuring that citizens were well feed and cared for. Over the pandemic they become a vital face-to-face contact method. Despite this, little of their work has been formally reported or acknowledged. There is a significant gap here in academic and practitioner circles. The study undertaken engaged with organisations across Nottingham as well as the Central England Co-op and local authority, supported by the research partner Fareshare. Fareshare’s Midlands operation provides the majority of food to community organisations in Nottingham. The study focused on what enabled and constrained community food groups and utilised film and photography alongside interviews.
Marsha emphasized that the response of community organisations in providing food over this period is a form of invisible infrastructure that actually delivers more than food. These organisations participated in a set of caring practices that were a vital but often unseen, undisclosed support method at neighbourhood level. Community organisations transformed their services from providing food in-person to providing food via delivery.
Their activities were heavily supported by the city council in Nottingham. The city council set up referral channels such as a centralised help line to local area, ward level managers to target food donations to those in need. The city council also facilitated the redistribute of food surpluses from catering businesses, as well as the redistribution of ambient food via central government funding. Overall, in Nottingham the local authority worked to ensure they met their statutory commitments to provide food to those in need.
Marsha explained that Fareshare Midland were the key organisation that enabled this significant expansion of community food support. Fareshare worked rapidly and pro-actively to capture and distribute surplus and ambient food stocks. A new depot opened in Nottingham. Fareshare played an important role in authenticating community groups to access further support, such as providing evidence of groups working to health and safety standards. Furthermore the highly autonomous way in which they operate allowed culturally specific dietary requests.
Overall this was a picture of a community food sector mobilising by drawing upon pre-existing assets and resources, such as well-build community links, to deliver an effective response. New partnerships were made such as linking with taxi services to deliver meals. Staff and volunteers went above and beyond, working longer hours. Marsha gave some great quotes to illustrate this.
In terms of what constrained community groups, often they lacked the ability to collect intelligence on the ground. There were challenges in understanding who exactly needed support with records or registered unreliable as they were not always up to date. The short dated, perishable nature of food presented a challenge in ensuring that food reaches those who needed in with a sufficient amount of shelf life. Community groups experiences problems in accessing cooking spaces with kitchens in council run buildings shut in some cases during the pandemic. The availability of staff was a continuing issue given shielding and isolation requirements. The whole community food provision sector suffered from a lack of guidance from the government, with the rules and procedures unclear in certain instances. All those providing food were in constant fear of contracting COVID-19 and staff even faced abuse in some circumstances. Looking forward, whilst food provision operators received government funding over this period they now face a funding cliff edge in needing support to return to-face-to face food service operations.
Following Marsha, Simone Connolly, Director of Fareshare Midlands, presented. Simone revealed some incredible figures of their response. Between April 2020 and April 2021, Fareshare Midlands distributed more than 7,000 tonnes of good food, twice the previous year. This was equal to 18.5 million meals distributed to more than 600 charity and community groups. Their current operations span across the midlands of England from the east coast to the welsh border. Fareshare Midlands operate 6 warehouses and receive 6 lorry loads of food each week which is redistributed to charities by 26 vehicles. Their volunteer numbers increased from 130 to 200 over the last year with Fareshare now employing 60 staff members.
Simone explained that Fareshare’s purpose is twofold, to feed those in need and to help prevent food waste. There are 8 plus million people that do not have sufficient food in the UK at the same time millions of tonnes of food is going to waste across the supply chain. Most of this is at farm level (2 million tonnes), with 190,000 tonnes wasted by retailers. This surplus food occurs because of packaging errors, food with short dates, and the difficulties in forecasting by retailers. Food is also surplus to requirements due to its seasonality. Retailers operate models were they need to keep their shelves full meaning that surpluses are part of their business model. Fareshare midlands redistribute 24,000 tonnes of this, with Simone noted how they are only just scratching the surface. Fareshare has been hugely successful at creating a solution to get this surplus food to people that are supporting communities.
Simone explained that Fareshare operate in two ways:
– Firstly Fareshare receive food from retailers and the food industry direct to their regional depot which is handled and either delivered to or picked up by community organisations.
– Secondly Fareshare have a back of store solution in retail premise. Here links are formed with local charities which collect surpluses collated by store staff. This is funded by the retailers themselves.
Simone closed her presentation by bringing to attention the social impact of Fareshare. Simone explained that 75% of charities they deliver to say the food allows them to engage better with their clients. Without Fareshare’s food donations, 1 in 5 charities they provide to would close down. They support a range of organisation with 86% of those changing their services to provide food parcels over the pandemic period, with 25% saying the will keep this change.
Hannah Gallimore from the Central England Co-op presented next by outlining their response during the pandemic. In running through the Central England Co-op’s business, Hannah explained they have 260 retail businesses. Co-op is guided by an international set of values and principles that include equality and equity that underpin equal and fare access to food. Hannah further outlined Co-op’s principles in stating that their members do not want to see good food going to waste and want to see Co-op doing all they can to mitigate the business’s environment impact. The Co-op report in accordance with WRAP’s Courtauld 2025 guidelines, are carbon trust accredited and understand that it is wrong to throw away food when there are hungry people in the community.
Hannah discussed the journey taken to reach their collaboration with Fareshare. She explained that before working with Fareshare when first starting to redistribute surplus food from co-op stores there were several problems. Firstly relying on store staff to foster local links with charities operating in their areas was difficult, stores had different levels of engagement. Secondly, charities faced issues in collecting and storing the donated food. In addition, the Central England Co-op were conscious that they, in some cases, were shifting their waste onto third sector organisations. The reason for this was that sometimes what was being donated was not sufficient for recipient groups to make a substantial meal for their members.
This lead to working with Fareshare. Hannah explained the process through which stores transfer their surpluses so they can be handled and redistributed to community groups by Fareshare Midlands. In Co-op stores at the end of the day any surpluses are bagged, collated and checked. Next this is collected by a co-op driver and taken to the Co-op distribution centre where it is checked. Once or twice a day this food is taken to the Fareshare depot. These surpluses then are delivered, as part of a just-in-time supply chain, to community groups within 24 hours.
Hannah points out that the majority of surplus food from Co-op stores is redistributed, meaning that 80% goes to human consumption. Overall this has reducde food waste of the business by 40%. This is a significant carbon saving and a better utilisation of Co-op’s logistical capacity as the empty lorries that return from stores now contain surpluses to deliver to the Fareshare depot. The financial savings from the reduction in food waste are used to offset the cost of the Fareshare partnership. Hannah discussed how the procedures undertaken sit well with Co-op’s reduce to clear process.
Hannah also highlighted the other ways through which Co-op have worked with Fareshare. For example supporting their operations with extra logistical capacity and amplifying Fareshare’s message through social media channels.
Hannah however did point out some challenges experienced, such as needing to keep colleagues safe during the pandemic and the difficulties of ensuring that procedures are followed when there were high levels of COVID related absence. In some cases returning surplus food to Farehsare does mean additional miles driven and also in the pandemic there were times when the quantity of food donated was low given the high demand for food from customers and the challenges in getting food delivered to stores.
Hannah ended her presentation by stating how the partnership model operating with Fareshare is resilient and how it has been hugely successful in delivering over 2 million meals. Hannah was quick to point out that despite Co-op only representing 0.5% of the retail market, they deliver 2% of food to the UK redistribution market.
The Fareshare event closed by considering some of the future challenges. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact and whilst Fareshare’s capacity has expanded, questions were raised over whether this is financially sustainable in the future. Brexit is having an ongoing impact on the logistical capability of surplus food redistribution. The food industry are struggling to restock their stores which at the same time is impacting how surpluses reach Fareshare depots. Brexit also is predicted to lead to waste at borders due to new food import and export regulations.
At a community level, organisations want to start to provide in-person food services again, however funding is often lacking to do this or the food is not available. Furthermore members of these organisations are tired, they have been working hard for 18 months and lack energy. This therefore is a danger to the future resilience of community food provision
Looking forward Simone talked about generating public interest in the importance of surplus food redistribution. This is important going forward to maintain volunteer support. Simone introduced us to the ‘Food on Plates’ campaign which is a campaign to stop millions of tonnes of fresh, unsold food from being wasted, when it could instead go to charities and community groups feeding families.