Blog | Foodscapes in times of uncertainty #3 | The resilience of food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic

Members of the foodscapes cluster supervise a number of students who are looking at changing foodscapes in times of corona. We therefore introduce a blog series in which these students can share their work. This third blog is written by Paulien Dekkinga.

Currently, the world faces a COVID-19 pandemic with many consequences in all parts of society. COVID-19 also impacted my MSc thesis: it became part of my thesis subject but also determined my thesis process. At the end of 2019, I did not expect to write my thesis during a pandemic or to write a thesis in which a pandemic was part of the subject. However, I did. Even though it was different than expected, it also was delightful to write a thesis about such a present-day topic combined with my interest in food security and food banks.

As we all know, the pandemic and the associated measures have large impacts on businesses, personal wellbeing, and vulnerable groups (Vieira et al., 2020; WHO, 2020). Many businesses have closed (temporarily) to adhere to social distancing and health measures. This has decreased or even completely cut the income of many people, who may now find themselves struggling to pay their grocery bills. In the Netherlands, food banks are the most common form of food assistance (Hebinck & Oostindie, 2018). Due to COVID-19 and the consequential income drop for many people, more people turn to food banks for food assistance (Voedselbanken Nederland, 2020b).

The need for more food assistance can put pressure on food banks, as they see their number of clients increase. Besides more clients, it has been noticed that some food banks also deal with other issues such as fewer donations and less availability of volunteers, causing some food banks to close their doors (Power et al., 2020; Voedselbanken Nederland, 2020a). When food banks face challenges and the food assistance is under stress, this also puts people depending on food banks under more stress. Therefore, understanding how these circumstances influence food bank resilience is relevant, also to understand how food security can be ensured.

In my thesis, I further investigated the resilience of food banks in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic by looking at the challenges food banks faced and how they adapted to those challenges. Resilience is here defined as the ability of the food bank system to absorb shocks and adapt to situations while continuing food assistance, either in the same way as before or transformed to food assistance in a different manner. I structured my thesis based on the four elements of food assistance described by Galli et al. (2018): (i) actors, (ii) resources, (iii) functions, and (iv) processes. Between late May 2020 and late June 2020, I conducted 18 interviews of which one with the national association of Voedselbanken Nederland, six with regional distribution centres, and eleven with local food banks. At the time of the interviews, the food banks were able to reflect on the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the situation changed over time.

Firstly, a substantial change was seen in the availability of volunteers, who are important actors of the food bank system. As food banks fully rely on volunteers, the availability of volunteers is crucial to food banks. However, most volunteers are 65 years or older. During this pandemic, people with co-morbidities and older people have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill when catching COVID-19 (Rezaeetalab et al., 2020). As a result, many volunteers at food banks stayed home to minimise the risk of catching COVID-19. This was even a reason for some food banks to close. However, the loss of volunteers was only temporary, as all food banks attracted new volunteers with relative ease. This was explained by Voedselbanken Nederland through the reputation of food banks as a ‘cuddly organisation’ which people like to help.

Secondly, food banks noticed changes in their resources due to COVID-19. Food banks experienced a decrease in food supply due to stockpiling behaviour and the loss of fundraising events. However, through publicising their need for donations, food banks were able to attract food and monetary donations. The monetary donations were used for an alternative form of food assistance. Instead of distributing food parcels, multiple food banks switched to handing out supermarket gift cards. These gift cards were a way to continue food assistance in a time of reduced volunteers and food supply.

Thirdly, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the functions at food banks. The COVID-19 pandemic had a massive impact on the social interaction in general and at food banks. Besides providing food assistance, a function of food banks is provide a space for social interaction during a coffee moment where clients meet people who are in a similar situation. However, during COVID-19, the social interaction was limited due to COVID-19 regulations such as the limited number of people inside and the 1.5 metre distance between people. Food banks struggled to find a solution to the loss of social function as the COVID-19 measures still limit the number of people allowed together.

Lastly, food banks changed their processes to adhere to the COVID-19 measures. The processes include the distribution of food parcels from donors to food banks and from food banks to clients, the guarding of food safety, and food recovery. Food banks adjusted their processes to fit their availability of actors and resources. The main change in processes happened in the food distribution in which food banks switched to supermarket gift cards, delivery of food parcels, or food distribution in time blocks. Regarding distribution, food banks were used to hand out parcels one day or afternoon a week. During the COVID-19 outbreak, food banks switched to distributing in set time blocks to prevent queues and too many people in the same place.

Overall, when understanding the food bank system as highly entangled with other societal institutions rather than a single operating system, the Dutch food bank system can be understood as considerably resilient during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, it is important to note that not all food banks faced the same challenges or handled the situation similarly. For instance, some food banks noticed a decrease in food supply, while others were flooded by food donations. Moreover, some food banks already noticed an increase in the number of clients, while others did not see an increase in clients. Even though food banks faced various challenges during the pandemic, most food banks quickly continued food assistance in some form. This is likely because of the reputation food banks have as a ‘cuddly organisation’ which makes it possible for food banks to attract new volunteers and donations in times of crisis. However, not all elements are affected the same way during the COVID-19 crisis. While some elements are severely negatively affected, causing continuance issues such as the loss of volunteers, other elements such as resources can be positively affected contributing to the resilience of food banks. All elements interact with each other, creating a relative resilient food bank system. Especially the actors and resources interact with each other to ensure the continuance of food assistance. The actors and resources determine the ability of food banks to perform their functions through the processes, in which food assistance is the main aim.

All in all, writing my thesis was an intriguing process during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am grateful I could do my thesis without having too many disruptions. For me, it was a great way to dig deeper into a topic related to food security during these challenging COVID-19 times. When the country went into lockdown, my thesis made me more aware of ways to obtain food when one doesn’t have enough money to buy food at the local supermarket. I realised that especially in times of crisis it is important to keep food banks running. You never know in what financial situation you end up yourself.

References

Galli, F., Hebinck, A., & Carroll, B. (2018). Addressing food poverty in systems: governance of food assistance in three European countries. Food Security, 10, 1353–1370. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-018-0850-z

Hebinck, P., & Oostindie, H. (2018). Performing food and nutritional security in Europe: claims, promises and limitations. Food Security, 10, 1311–1324. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-018-0853-9

Power, M., Doherty, B., Pybus, K., & Pickett, K. (2020). How Covid-19 has exposed inequalities in the UK food system: The case of UK food and poverty [version 1; peer review: 1 approved, 2 approved with reservations]. Emerald Open Research, 2(11), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.35241/emeraldopenres.13539.1

Rezaeetalab, F., Mozdourian, M., Amini, M., Javidarabshahi, Z., & Akbari, F. (2020). COVID-19: A New Virus as a Potential Rapidly Spreading in the Worldwide. Journal of Cardio-Thoracic Medicine, 8(1), 563–564. https://doi.org/10.22038/jctm.2020.46924.1264

Vieira, C. M., Franco, O. H., Restrepo, C. G. ́mez, & Abel, T. (2020). COVID-19: The forgotten priorities of the pandemic. Maturitas. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.07.019

Voedselbanken Nederland. (2020a). Corona: voor klanten van de voedselbank. https://www.voedselbankennederland.nl/corona-voor-klanten-van-de-voedselbank/

Voedselbanken Nederland. (2020b). Voedselbanken bereiden zich voor op flinke groei. https://voedselbankennederland.nl/voedselbanken-bereiden-zich-voor-op-flinke-groei/

WHO. (2020). COVID-19 Strategy Update (Issue April). https://www.who.int/publications-detail/covid-19-strategy-update—14-april-2020