The global Covid-19 pandemic is affecting countries across the world. In this context, along with the enormous health challenges it brings, we are also facing significant economic and social impacts. Early indications are that crisis has already had a dramatic impact on levels of household food insecurity in the UK and governments and charities across Europe are working out ways to meet increasing needs in local communities.

During these unprecedented times our new book, The Rise of Food Charity in Europe provides insight on the role of food charity in recent years in seven European countries: Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and the UK.

What is the nature of these food-aid support systems and what is the role of public policy in shaping them?

In looking at the rise of food charity across Europe in the last few decades, the evidence highlights the enormous amount of solidarity in local communities. In studying the charitable food systems which have developed, the scale of care and informal welfare provision is striking. Members of communities – including individuals and organisations – are pulling together across the continent to support people in need. These systems will continue to be a vital lifeline in the current crisis: in the UK food aid charities have been designated as essential services.

Food charity provision across Europe is ultimately difficult to quantify. The data which are currently available are not comprehensive and can be problematic, most notably where there is over-reliance on data from redistribution organisations. This means that it is hard to track trends and spikes or dips in need and food supply. Despite food aid charities working at the front line of responses to the pandemic we may never be able to fully quantify the role that they played during these unprecedented times.

Food charity across all the countries clearly shares some commonalities: the provision is primarily charitable and, for the most part, run by volunteers, though there may be some funded staff. This could have particular implications in the coming months. In the UK, researchers and practitioners have already noted how social distancing and the lockdown are likely to exacerbate pressures on food bank staff and volunteers. News reports in Germany, for example, report on the pressures of an elderly volunteer workforce with Tafel Deutschland (the German food bank association) calling for a ’wave of solidarity’ to assist food banks as they face increased demand.

To access food, recipients usually have to be assessed to confirm that they are in need – either by the providers themselves (for example, Caritas, Tafel and operators in Slovenia) or through referral processes (the UK, Germany, Slovenia and the Netherlands). How these processes are working now and in the context of the future socio-economic ramifications of the crisis will be important to understand and its viability has already been questioned.

The case studies in the book also clearly highlight the importance of supply-side factors in the shape and capacity of emergency food provision. In the UK, food aid charities are reporting significant impacts on their food supply. In response, several corporations have announced financial and food support for UK food charities, including FareShare, the largest surplus food redistribution organisation in the UK, Tesco, Asda, Co-op and Morrisons.

In all cases except the UK, surplus food redistribution is the most common method for food charity projects to secure food. In countries including Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Finland, receipt of food stuffs supported by the EU FEAD scheme are important in food charity systems, as are mid-layer surplus food redistribution organisations which appear to be an important determinant of the capacity of food charity systems to meet need. Looking back on how these different supply sources across countries supported food aid charities during the pandemic may further highlight the vulnerabilities of high dependence on surplus and donated food.

As social and economic policies emerge in response to the Covid-19 health crisis, there are potentially longstanding impacts on the nature of social security and wider social policy across Europe. Over the last few decades, the rise of food charity indicates that charities are now playing different and more prominent roles in the provision of care, whether in place of support traditionally provided by the state or the family. In some countries (Germany, the Netherlands and the UK) charities are assuming responsibility for support and provision that the state would previously have been expected to provide. In others (Spain) charities are playing ever more important roles as the usual role of family support is being exhausted.

In recent years there has been a significant shift away from welfare practices based on systems underpinned by universality and entitlements, towards systems of ad hoc provision that are vulnerable and unreliable. As the Covid-19 crisis unfolds, the realization of social rights is becoming an essential issue. Food aid is not a universal right that is equally available to all people. Charities can voluntarily assume responsibilities from the public sector to protect the vulnerable, but they have no legal obligation to do so. Nor does a person in need of food have a legal right to food aid.

Charity can in no way replace statutory social security and, ultimately, Covid-19 will highlight the vulnerabilities of a system in which charities have responsibility for the food security of people in need.

This blog was originally posted by Policy Press.