Pairing Pandemic with Available Food Sources

My first article for York Vision dealt with the importance of supporting food-sharing websites. In a slightly cringe worthy note, I believe I said Too Good to Go, the company spreading across university campus bars, was Too Good to Miss.

It remains true that these companies, sharing restaurants’ food left over after customers are finished, are essential parts in tackling the food waste crisis in Great Britain. I also looked into OLIO – a company that connects neighbors and local businesses, sharing surplus food. This also includes food nearing its sell-by date home grown vegetables and extra non-food household items.

Currently 1/3 of all food produced is wasted, making up 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is unacceptable, and these companies are an essential part of our developing and increasingly environmentally conscious societies.

However, with COVID-19 closing restaurants, and the sharing of food becoming increasingly dangerous, these companies have had to develop their ways of working to continue.

Too Good to Go for one have launched a not-for-profit scheme: Too Good to Go: SupportLocal. This is a change of pace from their ‘magic bags’. Instead, they are providing a takeaway service over their app for businesses without other systems already in place.

According to Too Good to Go: “The idea of this is to give small businesses a platform from which they can keep serving delicious food, with an automated payment structure – and a customer base – all ready to go. Apart from mandatory transactional fees required for payment services, SupportLocal is completely free for businesses to use.

They have also introduced a series: Too Good to Go: Virtual Restaurants. Slightly bizarrely, this gives the user the opportunity to download a virtual restaurant scene as your background as you eat your meals with family or friends over video call. While it may be nice to see yourself in a Greek tavern, or a suave Thai diner while you miss actual restaurant quality food, I ask the question – why there? Sure, these venues may be lovely nights out, but when you are not actually experiencing them yourself why stop there? Why not take them on trips to bizarre and terrifying places? The moon, the Vision offices during prod week, the actual room you’ve been quarantined in for what feels like (and looks like, from your piles of failed ‘projects’) several eternities of essay plans and paint.

However, to compensate in a way for this deficit, they have also published a number of recipes to work alongside these backdrops. Vegetarian bolognese, moussaka, sausage casserole – all while being reminded of a place that would not have made your mistakes in the cooking process.

All restaurant-withdrawal grumpiness aside, I do like the effort Too Good to Go is making. Of course, with a system designed to operate alongside bustling restaurants, there is little room to continue. However, in supporting local businesses and providing a novelty way of encouraging continued interaction, Too Good to Go have adapted their existing infrastructure to help the local community and support struggling businesses.

OLIO, rather, has come into its own. In compliance with government guidance, its users continue to share their surplus of essential items. In a situation where shortages have extended beyond mere toilet roll to vegetables and other essentials, through “no contact pickups”, and recommending thorough hygiene guidance OLIOers have been able to continue requesting and sharing food.

In the midst of the coronavirus, OLIO have also launched a drastic new scheme: Cook4Kids. This admirable campaign suggests the idea of neighbours cooking meals for local families whose children are missing out on access to school meals. While this may be undermined by local government’s successful campaign to extend food vouchers over the Easter holidays, this is particularly focused on supporting the children of essential workers during lockdown, and has attracted support and suggestions of recipes from famous chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, James Martin, and Thomasina Miers, owner of Wahaca.

Indeed, nutritionist Sarah Ann Macklin says: “Community is more important than ever before. We have seen people unite together and support their community in many ways during times of crisis, and helping keep our children healthy and focused whilst learning from home is of vital importance. Nutrition can hugely impact a children’s concentration and learning ability and its during these unprecedented times that we support #Cook4Kids to make sure no kid goes hungry and help to support learning their learning abilities”.

However, in response to a question about the possible spreading of covid-19 through contact between one and the other, and whether you can know if another OLIOer has symptoms, they said: “You can ask other OLIOers if they are feeling unwell. Please understand this may be a sensitive subject and should be approached with compassion. If you are still concerned, we recommend collecting or leaving food outside, in accordance with the measures outlined [on their website].

If anyone develops symptoms having used OLIO, the app only allows them to ask for food rather than deliver it, and are advised to contact any users you have shared with in the previous two days.

While it is a valuable resource in this time, this does seem an unadvisable strategy, particularly as an estimated 25% of contagious people remain asymptomatic, but the virus can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours.

This is echoed by York foodbank Carecent. A volunteer approached for comment stated that: “pre-prepared food from apps such as Olio wouldn’t be hygienic in these times, nor would any food at all from those displaying covid symptoms”

It therefore seems slightly bizarre that they continue in this manner – of course this is a valuable service, particularly in this time, but it does seem an irresponsible practice to maintain.

It is interesting to see this in comparison with a smaller scale, with local projects appearing to be more eager to take serious precautions.

York’s Carecent is a breakfast centre for homeless, unemployed and socially excluded members of society. Covid-19 have stripped them to a skeleton staff, who have continued their work by delivering food and talking with their visitors, at either their accommodation or the hotels they have been put up in.

However, unlike companies like OLIO, they have moved away from hot meals to serve only food that can be wrapped, minimising contact. Donations from local sources have also continued – Co-op, M&S, and bakeries have continued to support them, and a volunteer has confirmed that there is a “huge supply of tins I can’t see running out soon”.

With the Trussel Trust observing the steepest increase in emergency food parcel hand-outs in the six months leading up to their December report, there is no choice for them but to remain open. Bold letters scar a statement on their website: “Until we are sure that adequate government protection against poverty is in place, food banks provide an essential community service to people unable to afford food and we will do everything we can to help them continue that role during this crisis.

When asked for comment, food shortage experts at the University of York Madeline Power and Kate Pybus directed us to their recent article: ‘How Covid-19 has exposed inequalities in the UK food system’. In this, they stated that the pandemic has “exposed the extreme precarity of large segments of the UK population”, leading to “sharp increases in demand” (over 400,000 increase in applicants from 25 March – 3 April). This has been combined with food shortages brought about by panic buying and food banks having to reduce numbers of volunteers due to the tendency for them to be older.

While they may have to put stringent measures in place to minimise risk, such as having pre-packed food waiting for people as they arrive to minimise queuing time, and enabling the space for proper social distancing, these centres are completely essential, and have no choice but to remain open.

So is this a space that sites like OLIO can fill? While certainly flawed, is this an opportunity for them to slow the pressure on these organisations? With communities coming together through symbolic actions such as the weekly clap for the NHS, is it possible for this to spread to our food services? Can OLIO safely pull off the reverse of panic buying; a redistribution of our resources to the most vulnerable and deserving?

An admirable idea, for certain, but only time will tell if they can pull it off.