Blog: How meals on wheels can improve food security during the lockdown

Published: 9 Apr 2020

Author: Simon Shaw
Blog: How meals on wheels can improve food security during the lockdown

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds in the UK, food security has emerged as a major problem. Many supermarkets are struggling to keep up with demand and food banks are under increasing pressure. As a Programme Manager for Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, I’ve been using learning from my Fellowship to find ways in which we can improve meals on wheels services to support those who are vulnerable.

"Where meals on wheels provision already exist, demand has increased during the current crisis and in some areas there has been renewed or increased support from councils to respond to this."

Across the team at Sustain, we were already aware of many of the flaws and gaps in our food system, as well as the opportunities to have a more equitable and sustainable food system. The coronavirus crisis has brought these problems into stark relief, as well as creating new ones. But the response to the pandemic has also shown ways in which we can harness existing initiatives to build community food resilience. And it has made very clear how rapid action can be taken by the Government, councils and others to ensure people can access food. While it is, of course, right to focus on the immediate response for now, there are many lessons for a better food system in the long-term. 

Sustain’s response to the pandemic is centred on supporting community food resilience in three keys areas: securing food for vulnerable people; supporting the local response; and defending our food supply. There are three themes which then cut across this work: funding and other support; learning from other places; and planning for the future. Over the last few weeks, numerous issues have flared up which have given us an opportunity to intervene and support local responses, as well as feedback issues to the Government.

One example has been the question of whether local markets could continue to operate safely, which quickly emerged as a major issue. Markets are crucial to local food economies, especially as somewhere for people on a low income to buy affordable fruit and vegetables, and they ensure that there is a diversity of outlets to prevent undue pressure on any one part of the system. Yet some councils and other landowners closed markets after the social distancing instructions were announced, while in other areas they have found ways to keep these open. We quickly learnt that while official guidance was clear that markets can stay open, the Government was not clear enough that markets should stay open for the reasons above. We are pleased that some markets are now starting to reopen under adapted conditions.

Another issue that has arisen is the home delivery of meals, especially to older people and those with long-term health conditions. The Government has prioritised the needs of those who are medically vulnerable, including many older people.  However, this has also made very clear how variable support is across different parts of the UK. This is of particular relevance to my Churchill Fellowship which focused on meals on wheels for older people and how we should support services to take an enterprising approach to maintain, enhance and expand these services.  

An example of a meal delivery Simon came across on his Fellowship travels in Korea 

Where meals on wheels provision already exist, demand has increased during the current crisis and in some areas there has been renewed or increased support from councils to respond to this. However, less than half of councils now support a meals on wheels service, so in many areas it hasn’t been possible to scale up existing services in response to the pandemic.  

Interestingly, the services I visited in Paris and Milan on my Fellowship in 2019 already had established plans to increase deliveries during periods of extreme weather; I expect this planning has served them well in the current crisis, notwithstanding the need to significantly adapt operations in the extraordinary circumstances. However, in many areas of the UK where there are no meals on wheels services, or where they are limited, there has been a remarkable response, with community organisations, councils, food businesses, caterers, suppliers and others working together to offer meal delivery services. It’s important to note that some of these ‘pop-up’ services are similar to a meals on wheels service, offering some sort of welfare check and possibly other support alongside a meal, whereas others are more like a standard takeaway delivery.  

As we move through the pandemic, I am particularly keen to capture how different models have worked, how many people they have reached and how they have still offered ‘more than a meal’. I hope to support services to develop a longer term delivery model and case for support and identify how government, councils, housing associations, caterers, social investors and others could support this. While it is early days, there is an opportunity to provide a valuable legacy from this extremely challenging period. 

Read Simon’s report