Amidst the chaos, innovation can emerge. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the fragility of our food systems, but it is also showing the light through the cracks. Much can be learned from the major shifts we have been experiencing, as long as we know where to look.

When looking at food ‘first respondents’, we can turn to emergency food aid providers. If the challenges they faced before 2020 were significant, these have become particularly acute since the lockdown. In July 2020, the Food Ethics Council convened a group of these organisations to gather and share how these past few months have been for them.

From the discussions, three particular challenges faced by emergency food aid organisations have emerged since the lockdown:

A. Temporary surge in resources and opportunities, and a need to scale up and adapt quickly. 

From “swimming upstream” to “swimming downstream”, there has been a surge in new and more members, new team and power structures, new roles, new and more skills, more time to connect with other organisations, both within their cities and beyond, better access to land for food growing, easier to share resources between organisations, more emergency parcels being distributed (and needed) and a huge spike in demand for growing kits. The list is long.

The challenge emergency food aid providers have in the face of this ‘mushrooming’ of activities is what can they do to further adapt, as things continue to change over the next 6 months and beyond? What has made them resilient until now that can help them adapt again in the future? What will this future look like? What are they seeing as potentially useful to build community resilience going forward?

B. Different levels of engagement by community members and volunteers

There has been a big shift in who can do what for the community, from people suddenly needed to shield themselves, or single parents unable to participate as they did before, to new volunteers joining under different circumstances and with potentially different needs and expectations.With it, the distinction between those providing support and those receiving support is unfortunately growing, when we would ideally hope everyone was able to participate in whichever ways they can.

The challenges here are figuring out (1) how emergency food aid providers not lose previously engaged community members and (2) how they engage with new participants, all framed as equal participants. How are they engaging with different members to make them feel part of the food community? What are they seeing that may help give people more of a sense of dignity and belonging?

C. Designing community spaces (physical and digital)

There are many physical and digital spaces that we shape: from land for growing food and community gardens, to long dedicated phone calls with individual community members. With COVID-19, we’ve seen a (needed) emphasis on getting as much food as possible to people as efficiently as possible, with spaces designed for speed and efficiency rather than building community per se.That being said, there has been a shift to how spaces are being used. Buildings that had to shut down their activities found themselves revived as food pantries, collection points, or new offices to coordinate the growing level of activity. Community members have swooped in and are already shaping these new spaces. Sometimes, this can be as simple as adding a few (physically distanced) chairs outside a collection point. This simple act attracts people, and when people come together, that’s when change can happen.

The challenge going forward is how can emergency food aid providers move away from spaces that prioritise efficiency of distribution, and move towards spaces that encourage and nurture social interactions, building on the idea of food as community? What design elements are they testing or implementing to encourage social interactions?

And what about you? How is your organisation experiencing these shifts? How have your community members adapted and changed? How has your operational space evolved since the lockdown? Do you resonate with these points above, or have you been experiencing something completely different?

Let us know and hear others share their experiences!

Follow our ongoing work with emergency food providers on community food resilience on the Food Citizenship website.