Response, Resilience and Recovery: London's Food Response to COVID-19

This report, funded by Trust For London and the Mayor of London, merges two of London Food Link's annual reports 'Beyond the Food Bank' and 'Good Food for London' to examine London councils' food response to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.

Using data provided by councils, the Response Resilience and Recovery report assesses action taken by London’s local authorities to address food poverty and enhance a good food environment and economy locally. The report looks holistically at the foundations that councils had in place before the pandemic, how councils built on these to coordinate the local emergency response, and whether councils are ensuring greater food resilience as part of their recovery plan.

Key findings

Where councils had strong foundations prior to Covid-19, they were able to build on these to quickly develop sound emergency responses. In particular, where councils had any of the following in place, they were able to build on these quickly and ‘slot in’ new support:

  • existing relationships with the local voluntary and community sector (VCS)
  • food poverty action plans or other planning work relating to addressing long-term food poverty
  • cash-first approaches that prioritised maximising household incomes amongst poorer residents.

Many councils forged new ways of working during Covid-19, and this is informing the recovery phase. As a result of the emergency situation, many councils started working intensively with the local VCS for the first time to deliver food and support, and some even started new forms of direct financial support to residents. In these cases, councils are building this new work into the recovery phase, for example by working collaboratively with partners to decide next steps, funding new partners, or in some cases establishing new alliances or partnerships as the framework for future local action on food.

Some councils are so stretched that they are having to rely too much on the voluntary and community sector, which is itself under severe strain. Local voluntary and community sector groups have done brilliant and essential work throughout this crisis. Whilst this is vital in an immediate sense, in some cases it enables local government to roll back direct provision where what is needed is publicly funded, consistent support. For example, several meals on wheels services have recently closed, in part because similar services are being run by voluntary groups at lower cost. This VCS provision is often difficult to sustain and sometimes lacks the capacity to meet the scale of need and may also struggle with vital risk management or quality control.

Councils have realised the importance of a diverse and resilient food supply. From local food growing, through to smaller shops, catering services, markets and other food enterprises, all have played their part in ensuring that food got to those in need. Many were already starting to recognise the role of neighbourhood shops and markets in providing access to healthy and affordable food, but during the crisis this has become more pertinent. Community food growing, while not always seen as a part of food production, has also shown its value in reaching those in need. More action is needed to ensure food is integrated in green recovery plans, which would also have co-benefits for climate and nature, which are vital considerations for all of us.

Key recommendations

  1. Support and invest in a food poverty alliance or food partnership locally, ensuring that local voluntary and community sector groups are included as equal partners, whilst the council invests staff time in coordination and oversight of the group. Ensure new relationships formed during the crisis are continued and strengthened.
  2. Jointly write a food poverty action plan that focuses on building more resilient local food systems and emergency support in the aftermath of COVID-19, and ensure the plan’s aims are carried out collaboratively with partners. Where a plan is in place, collaboratively update this in light of COVID-19 and its aftermath.
  3. Centre a ‘cash-first’ approach to tackling food poverty by drawing on any mechanisms available to the local authority which maximise household incomes for poorer residents. This should include welfare assistance funds, low Council Tax payments and the integration of wraparound services with emergency financial and food support.
  4. Map and invest in access to healthy food for residents, including encouraging existing or new retailers to sell fresh, affordable, culturally appropriate and local produce in areas that lack physical access to food.
  5. Fund and support food services for older and disabled people, including meals on wheels services.
  6. Promote the Healthy Start scheme, free school meals, breakfast clubs and holiday provision with food for all potentially eligible families. Allocate staff time and funding to the coordination and promotion of these.
  7. Set targets to increase capacity of local food production and distribution and related skills, utilising community interest.
  8. Target additional business and economic support to smaller retailers and fresh-produce markets and stalls to increase sales and access of healthy, sustainable food, helping to boost the local economy and improve health.
  9. Include action on food waste, healthy and sustainable food procurement and land use and planning in climate and nature action plans. Engage citizens, businesses and council partners in these processes.
  10. Join the Healthier Catering Commitment scheme or initiate independent efforts to encourage caterers and food businesses to make simple, healthy improvements to their food.