The COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on the world’s food systems. In the space of a week or two in March 2020, panic buying, the sudden closure of most restaurants, the frantic adaptation of food banks, agricultural labour shortages, and border closures put pressure on the global food supply. At the same time, job losses and school closures led to spikes in demand, which community organizations have scrambled to absorb. The following non-exhaustive list presents a few innovative ways that sharing is keeping people fed during this crisis.
The Organic Soup Kitchen, Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara’s Organic Soup Kitchen made its first batch of soup in 2009, and has been formulating, making and delivering organic soups for people recovering from cancer in the Santa Barbara area for more than a decade. When lockdown first hit in March 2020, the small company’s phone “started ringing off the hook” with inquiries from community members who were scared to leave their homes, Chief Operating Officer Andrea Carroccio recalls. “In the beginning, there was a lot of food scarcity, because [shoppers] were buying everything up to feed their families. We are dealing with low-income people, including seniors, who have some food insecurity, and our soups are often the only good meal they get in a week.” Carroccio and her team now deliver meals to 600 elderly or vulnerable people per week around Santa Barbara, who pay on a sliding scale.
Montreal Botanical Garden, Montreal, Quebec
When lockdown hit Montreal, the horticulturists at the Montreal Botanical Garden lost precious time that would ordinarily be used to plant ornamental gardens. Conscious of residents’ concerns about the food supply, they scaled up their vegetable garden instead, planting a hectare of cabbage, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, melons, beans, root vegetables and carrots. More than 500 cases of fresh vegetables were delivered to four local nonprofits working with food-insecure people, according to garden director Anne Charpentier. “We normally do a demonstration garden, so people can see different kinds of peppers and how a pepper grows,” she says. “This year, the emphasis was on productivity, not variety, and there was much more work involved in the harvest — more like farming than gardening!” When restrictions on gatherings relaxed during the summer, the garden held socially distanced vegetable-growing workshops. “A lot of people discovered the joy of growing [their] own vegetables this year,” Charpentier says. “Whenever we get past the pandemic, we plan to go back to our mission of showing off plant diversity, but maybe we’ll find a happy medium.”
Olio, London, UK (and around Europe)
Olio is a food-sharing app that was launched in London in 2015. Its original goal was to prevent food waste by connecting people who had small amounts of food to give away with people who needed extra food. “Obviously, good food shouldn’t be going to waste when there’s someone nearby who would love to have it,” says founder Saasha Celestial-One. She clarifies that Olio’s mission is mainly one of waste reduction. However, “We’re quietly very proud of the impact we’re having in the lives of [food-insecure] people,” she says. “The pandemic has significantly increased the number of people who need food because they lost their job or their children aren’t getting free school meals.” At the same time, Celestial-One believes that, as the pace of life has slowed down during the pandemic, people have become more aware of food waste. “We’ve seen more sharing in the past five months than in the [previous] five years,” she says. Users report that the free, anonymous app removes the stigma and bureaucracy around requesting free food. “Almost everyone can make incremental improvements to their lifestyle which seem small, but at scale can make a massive difference” for the climate and for food security, she observes. “We’re all part of the problem, but we can fix it together.”
Essential-FAM, Oakland, California
Before the pandemic, AshEL Seasunz Eldridge was a musician and Xochitl Bernadette Moreno was studying herbal medicine. Now, the nonprofit they cofounded, Essential-FAM, connects Oakland, California residents living in homeless encampments with healthy food and natural health products.The two friends met in the early days of the pandemic, distributing leftover food from the Oakland Unified School District to people living in tent encampments in Oakland. When schools closed, they distributed food donated by local gardeners, farmers and community groups. “We had restaurant suppliers who were just sitting on food; we would get no food one week and tons of food the next week and we had to be present to use that supply,” says Eldridge. The needs for food and sanitation also became more acute, as gyms, cafés and churches closed and events where free food was usually handed out were cancelled. Amid the crisis, though, Moreno and Eldridge witnessed an encouraging convergence of efforts. “We saw mutual aid networks spring up [among] people who had been working in the camps for years, and it was through those networks that we were able to set up distribution for different things,” Moreno adds. A Michelin-starred chef and a massage therapist have also pitched in to help camp residents. “The pandemic did have a huge impact on food security, and for a while people were living on peanut butter, but now they’re eating really well,” says Moreno. “The level of care we have been able to provide is amazing.”
Grow Free, Strathalbyn, South Australia (and around Australia)
In 2013, Andrew Barker started growing organic vegetables in his back garden and giving them away to people in the neighbourhood. Some of his neighbours asked to help, and Grow Free was born. Grow Free now has about 300 free food carts around Australia, mostly stocked by amateur gardeners growing their own produce. “It’s about growing our own healthy food in good soil … and giving it away so everyone eventually has access to good food,” he says. Australia has endured overlapping crises this year: the pandemic hit near the end of a catastrophic bushfire season, and travel restrictions have led to a shortage of agricultural workers, leaving some food to rot in the fields. Barker says many Australians are concerned about the future of the food supply. “You take out one little link in the supply chain and the whole thing just crumbles,” Barker says. At the same time, Grow Free has been, well, growing. “It’s been a challenge keeping track of where the new carts are popping up,” he says. “People are seeing the need for it.” Some of the carts have been emptied within minutes. “We’re just going to keep getting hit with more crises; if it’s not a pandemic it will be something else, so we have to get busy creating the solutions,” he says. “Getting back to growing our own food is part of that.”
FoodCloud, Dublin, Ireland (and around Ireland)
FoodCloud was founded in Dublin in 2013 to bridge the gap between businesses with surplus food, including supermarkets and farms, and community groups that need it, while reducing food waste. At the beginning of the pandemic, as panic buyers cleared grocery shelves, the group saw a 90 per cent drop in donations, according to CEO and co-founder Iseult Ward. During the initial lockdown, Ireland’s police and postal workers were pressed into service supplying elderly and isolated people with food and information, locating thousands of newly food insecure people. FoodCloud pivoted from a food waste prevention focus to a food security focus, distributing food around the country with support from the public sector. “Just to see the Gardai [police] vans pulling up outside our warehouses and filling up with food, that’s real,” Ward says. She believes the pandemic has exposed underlying weaknesses in food systems. “We’ve seen a spike in surplus at the same time as we’ve seen a spike in need; our food systems are set up so they’re not very flexible, and if one customer at the end of the supply chain disappears suddenly, that food can’t be diverted unless we redistribute it … our food systems aren’t able to deal with shocks. That awareness is there more than it ever has been, so as long as we don’t forget that, I think we’ll see more progress.”
Bear Clan Patrol, Winnipeg, Manitoba
The North End of Winnipeg is one of Canada’s poorest communities, and arguably one of its most close-knit. For years the Bear Clan Patrol — a volunteer community safety group founded on Indigenous principles of nonviolent conflict resolution — has maintained a presence in the area, providing safe walks and rides and running cleanups and mediation services. For the past two years, they’ve also distributed food hampers, no questions asked, to several hundred North End families. During the pandemic, they’ve turned to delivery, making 400 hampers a day with food donated by supermarkets. “What goes in the hampers is probably what goes in your cupboard: pasta, [macaroni and cheese], soup, hamburger, pork chops or fish … we’ve secured some hams for the holidays,” says board member Brian Chrupalo, a longtime police officer and North End native who speaks with the precision of a cop. “We don’t want it to be just a box of crackers and a can of soup.” Volunteer delivery drivers service 21 routes around the North End. “People have said that if we weren’t distributing this food, they would either be stealing or dumpster diving,” he says. “The need is there. Fortunately, we have great [volunteers and staff] and they’re proud to be putting food out for our elders and our community.”