The City Council-led food distribution during the pandemic was inevitably inadequate and inefficient

What story should we tell about emergency food distribution during the pandemic?

That it was inadequate and inefficient?

Inevitably so because the local government and the voluntary sector simply didn’t have the resources or the capability to meet the scale of the demand (see last section)?

This is what the numbers show in the Food Cities 2022 Learning Partnership case study about Birmingham’s voluntary sector mobilization for efficient food distribution in Birmingham, UK.

It’s the first case study in the Food Cities 2022 report: Tactics to Try for Emergency Food Planning.

What do the numbers in the case study reveal?

  • At the peak of the response in the summer of 2020, it states that 60 tonnes of food was distributed per week.
  • 60 tonnes is 0.375% of what is eaten in a week in the city, (1) assuming that each person needs 2kg a day. (2)
  • The case study indicates considerable costs involved, though none quantified here.

Of course, not everyone in the city needed extra food, or for it to be delivered to them. So how many did? For that, see the table below:

These percentages are taken from the case study. It cites  2.3% of adults in the city reported experiencing hunger, 11.8% had struggled to access food, and 12.4%  had worried about food security. (3)

Take the adults who reported experiencing hunger: 60 tonnes of food is 16% of what they need. A food parcel is a help to them, sure. But nowhere near what they need, 84% less. Where did the rest of what they needed, the 84% come from, and what quality food were they able to access?

And take a closer look at the contents of the food parcel next to the table above. It’s not good grub, is it? And it wouldn’t last long, far less than a week. (4) (5)

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Efficient food distribution?
The case study also states that to distribute approximately 15 tonnes of food per week, 6-10 drivers and about 8 packers per day were needed.

That means those 60 tonnes needed the services of 24-40 drivers and 32 packers for the week. All volunteers, so no money paid to them for their work. We need add in, though, the costs involved in recruitment and vetting of them, the call centre, the management of volunteers and paid employees, other resources including storage facilities, plus logistics support.

This is a lot of effort for 0.375% of the city’s food for a few weeks. There has to be a better way of organising food distribution.

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Why is it important to tell this story?
The vital lesson to learn is the role of national Government:

Covid taught us a lot about collective resilience, about communities, about neighbourliness. But the Government cannot depend on that. What’s needed is ‘a state that scaffolds self-organisation’. (6) And that doesn’t come cheap.

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All of the above is is not to undermine what City Council and the voluntary sector did. The sheer hard work and great good will generated was admirable. And for sure, much better than nothing. But the results were woefully inadequate given the scale of the problem. Nor was it an efficient operation.

And finally, emergency planning is a strategic matter, not a tactical one. Here in the UK, that’s currently a matter for national, not local government.

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  1. The population of the city: The ONS 2019 figure was 1,140,525; the 2021 Census indicated there were 1,144,900; I’ve split the difference, and added half of that (2188) to the first figure. note: The case study cites 1.2m for the population of the city, a significant over-estimation.
  2. I’ve assumed each adult eats 2kg ppd. It’s s a reasonable assumption.
    notes: Although tonnage is an easy way to measure food, it’s not always useful. Dry weight? (Roughly 70% of fruit is water.) With or without packaging? With or without inedible parts removed (bones, stones, stalks, peel, etc)?
    fwiw: I weighed what I ate over two days; it was just over 2kg on one day, and 2.5kg the other; I learned I eat 1.7-1.8kg/day fresh fruit’n’veg/day. Unlike Pete (see (4) below.
  3. The % data is from analytical work by Dr Megan Blake and colleagues ar Sheffield University based a Food Foundation YouGov national survey.
  4. Two tins of cheap baked beans. Lentils, a small tin of peas and a small tin of fish. No, that’s nowhere near enough protein; Pete requires some 700g in a week.
    A nod to fruit, tinned compote, no doubt mushy, and some orange juice. Two tins of soup. Two jars of sauce. 200g or so of cous-cous, a 500g packet of pasta. Cereal. Cheap chocolate biscuits. Tea bags. Jam and honey. Cheese biscuits (no cheese, obvs.)
    And what’s all that damn sugar there for?
    This image was taken by peterlovespurple, taken in 2017, and reproduced here under a creative commons licence.
  5. See here for an image and info about a Trussell Trust food parcel.
  6. We witnessed the power of communities to respond to food shortages and scarcities during the pandemic. This is what people do when faced by a crisis, as Reicher and Bauld point out in their illuminating paper about what human psychology has taught us about the Covid-19 pandemic and what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about human psychology. But, as Reicher and Bauld also say, relying on communities to respond isn’t [good] enough:

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