Hunger, Community, and COVID-19: Addressing food insecurity in London

By
Rachel Parsons
MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development


It’s a grey, nippy London day on a grey sidewalk on the edge of Bloomsbury, but Jennie Matthias is dancing; her mass of fire-engine-red curls exploding from under her knit cap. She and a group of volunteers are buzzing around several folding tables in front of the St Giles Hotel that are groaning under the weight of freshly cooked curries, heaps of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and pastries. “What time is it?” Matthias, the food hub manager, hollered. “Twelve? Let’s go! Let’s do this!” 

She bustles over to the start of a queue of people waiting not far from the tables. By noon the line is about 20 people deep and they will keep coming. Matthias can’t say for sure, but she estimates her Food For All meal distribution hub – one of six – will serve free meals to hundreds of people today, as it does six days a week. During an average year, the organisation collectively serves about 2,000 people a day in London. 

“We were doing 5,000 earlier [last] year,” says Peter “Para” O’Grady, director of Food For All (FFA). It has “ticked down a bit” since the first lockdown, but not by much. 

The operation that O’Grady started in London in 1988 has “expanded massively” because of the pandemic, according to Lawrence Speelman, the organisation’s volunteer coordinator. For years, the group served hot meals to anyone who needed them from mobile hubs, tricycle rickshaws, and a main kitchen. Suddenly, other local charities, mutual aid groups and local councils were knocking on the door, all needing help with hunger relief. The increased demand has been a boon to FFA’s secondary concern: keeping tonnes of usable food out of landfills and incinerators. 

Volunteers set up one of Food For All’s distribution “hubs” in front of the St Giles Hotel in Bloomsbury. There are half a dozen hubs scattered throughout the city that operate five or six days per week. The organisation has seen demand for food shoot up in 2020 due to COVID but has also seen the numbers of those wanting to volunteer increase by the hundreds as well. Photo by Rachel Parsons, 2020

The Edible Redistribution Ecosystem

If one didn’t know better, it would be easy to think that FFA was an environmental organisation. While Speelman stresses that it is “first and foremost about food relief,” he acknowledges that “the environmental aspect of what Food For All does is obviously a very important part of the organisation’s principles.”

“We divert 10 tonnes of good food from going to landfill every week,” says O’Grady. “A lot of fruit and veg is thrown out like, [for] usually cosmetic reasons, like the apple is too big or small, the bananas got spots, you know.” 

The group collects surplus food donated from supermarkets and other large-scale redistribution nonprofit organisations committed to combatting food waste. O’Grady says he sometimes sees things like whole bags of usable food such as potatoes thrown out because one potato was bad. 

A report from January 2020 found that post-farm food waste in the UK amounted to about 9.5 million tonnes in 2018, valued at millions of pounds. This comes from throughout the food industry chain from manufacturers to processors, retailers and restaurants. Charities such as FoodShare, the nation’s largest food redistribution organisation take surplus food in wholesale quantities that would otherwise go to waste out of this chain and move it along to Food For All and almost 11,000 other charity and community groups in the UK who use it to combat hunger.  

“Sometimes it can be simplest things,” says O’Grady. “Like the muesli. It’s supposed to be organic, but the apricots are not organic so [a market] threw out three van-loads of muesli.”

By repurposing vast amounts of surplus food, FFA is committed to several of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, the goals of ending hunger, developing sustainable consumption practices, and mitigating climate change. 

“So by eating the meals, you’re helping the environment,” says O’Grady. “It’s a delicious way to save the planet.” 

Software developer Val loads packages of curry and fresh fruit and vegetables into his bicycles saddle bags. Val is one of a core of bike delivery volunteers who take meals directly to vulnerable recipients’ homes. Home delivery began this year as a response to COVID-19. Photo by Rachel Parsons, 2020

Communitas and COVID-19

While more than half a dozen volunteers at the St Giles hub make ready to load meals and fresh produce into bags for the day’s recipients, several others arrive on bicycles to load curries into their saddle bags. The group began home delivery to vulnerable people in lockdown due to COVID earlier this year – the first time FFA has ever done so. Bicycle delivery helps FFA work toward that third sustainability goal of mitigating climate change and makes delivery inside London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone workable. 

“I really like the sustainability part of it,” says Val, a bicycle delivery volunteer. As a vegan, he also likes that the curries are vegan, but it was a sense of gratitude that brought him to volunteer for FFA to begin with. “I was really looking for something to do to feel a bit more like I was contributing a bit to what’s happening,” he says, “because I feel like I’m really lucky at the moment. I have no problems at all with my job … I just feel very privileged.” 

It’s a familiar refrain within the group of volunteers, the desire to give back, to be a part of a collective intention to help others. Like many charities, FFA has seen hundreds of new volunteers sign up last year. Lawrence Speelman attributes some of the increase to the fact that volunteers for frontline relief enjoyed key worker status during the first lockdown and were exempt from stay-at-home orders. If that’s one motivation, Para O’Grady focuses on the emotional motivation: love. 

“The pandemic, it’s been a great thing that it’s just brought out the good heart in so many people,” he says. “That’s a wonderful thing. They’re doing it out of love.”

Donated vegetables wait for a good home at the Food For All St Giles distribution hub. One of several street hubs, the food distribution centre will give free hot meals and fresh fruit and veg away to hundreds of people in need in central London five to six days a week. All of the food is donated from markets directly or is redistributed by larger wholesale partner charities. Photo by Rachel Parsons, 2020

The Stigma of Hunger

Back at the St Giles hub Jennie Matthias greets familiar faces and keeps the line moving, ensuring everyone is appropriately spaced two metres apart. She chats with everyone like an old friend, she sees some recipients every day. “And we know them. Look at this gentleman,” she says cheerfully as an elder steps to the head of the queue, “80 years old, never smoked, never drank. Look at that skin!” As a volunteer leads him to the tables he responds, “But still poor!”

Research by Purdam, Garratt, and Esmail (2015) highlighted the growing epidemic of food insecurity and poverty in the UK in the aftermath of the last recession as well as the stigma associated with food banks and charities. Amid a pandemic need has exploded and, at least temporarily, some attitudes toward food charities have changed. 

Volunteer Coordinator Lawrence Speelman, also one of the bicycle delivery crew, says while there used to be a minority of people “with a lot of power” who criticised FFA for disincentivizing impoverished people from looking for work to feed themselves, “this year,” he says, “I don’t think anyone is coming to us and saying ‘you shouldn’t be feeding anyone on benefits or vulnerable people or people on the street because that’s going to discourage them from trying to find work.’”

Para O’Grady insists the message that recipients get from the organisation has a lot to do with breaking down the stigma and making people feel comfortable accepting help. “We’re not presenting it as a charity,” he says. “We’re sharing some food … So there’s no stigma to it and that’s also with the homeless. It’s like a social thing, they’re coming together, we’re sharing a meal. It’s not ‘we are the charity and we’re helping you.”

For the bicycle delivery volunteers like Val and Lawrence Speelman who take food straight to someone’s home, interactions with people suffering food insecurity and the pandemic can be much more intense than with the highly visible population sleeping rough on the city’s streets. The isolation and loneliness are essentially a hidden epidemic. Speelman says he’s had volunteers sit with people in their homes because they were feeling suicidal, grieving the loss of a loved one. Many others just need company. “People just in really tough situations,” he says, “who, you know, are going through a lot and have nothing. And we’re doing our bit to just provide a little for them as and when we can.” 

“But yes, people do feel embarrassed,” O’Grady admits. “And we do our best not to let them feel embarrassed. You know, yeah hey, we’re just sharing a meal. We’re not a charity. And it works fine like that.”

You Can’t Really Tell with a Turkey 

In the context of hunger in the time of COVID, demand is coming from new quarters. The organisation has delivered hot meals to food banks and day centers for years (as well as to UCL, LSE and SOAS campuses via tricycle rickshaw), but it just added schools to the list. A recently finished state-of-the-art kitchen in Watford will be dedicated to turning out about 15,000 meals a day for area school children. 

Stemming from Para O’Grady’s Hare Krishna roots, the meals are vegan. One reason is practical. “You know you can tell if an apple is good or bad,” he says. “You can’t really tell with a turkey.” But it also means they typically meet Halal and often Kosher dietary requirements so as many as possible can eat them. And be happy.

For Jennie Matthias, handing out flowers that happened to be donated to her hub that morning, this is her favorite thing, “making people happy, 100%. Love is the most important thing in the world.”

Title image: Hub manager Jennie Matthias shows off an avocado at Food For All’s St Giles Hotel location. Matthias has been volunteering with the food charity for 19 years. The organisation started in 1988 in London. Photo by Rachel Parsons, 2020

  1. Parry, Andrew, Billy Harris, Karen Fisher, and Hamish Forbes (2020) UK Progress Against Courtauld 2025 Targets and Sustainable Development Goal 12.3. Banbury, UK: WRAP.
  2. Purdam, Kingsley, Elisabeth A. Garratt, and Aneez Esmail (2016) Hungry? Food Insecurity, Social Stigma and Embarrassment in the UK. Sociology 50(6):1072–88.

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