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'Blitz spirit': Britain's ethical businesses fight hunger during coronavirus outbreak

by Sarah Shearman | @shearmans | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 19 March 2020 14:10 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A shopping trolley is pushed around a supermarket in London, Britain May 19, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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As Britain introduces social distancing measures to fight coronavirus, concerns grow how isolated and vulnerable people will get their food

By Sarah Shearman

LONDON, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As an organisation with a mission to bring vulnerable communities together to eat, British charity Be Enriched has had to draw up a new plan as the coronavirus outbreak forces them apart.

Be Enriched runs cooking groups for children and elderly, homeless or mentally ill people as well as a cafe serving surplus food in south London, seeking to tackle both hunger and social isolation.

"We are really worried because they are vulnerable people. They rely on that time to meet each other and they rely on the meals," said Be Enriched chief executive Kemi Akinola.

This week Britain introduced social distancing measures, the latest in a series of countries globally that have advised or ordered citizens to stay home as much as possible and limit social interactions to help slow the spread of the virus.

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That has raised concerns about how already isolated and vulnerable people, particularly food bank users who cannot access or afford online shopping, will eat.

In response social entrepreneurs, who solve social or environmental problems through a business lens, have sprung into action to find solutions.

For now, Be Enriched's volunteers - there are about 250 a month - will continue to meet to make hot meals such as vegetable curries which locals in need will be able to take away from its south London venues.

The organisation, which fed about 850 people last year, is also considering delivering meals to the house bound, though the double-decker bus it is converting into a mobile greengrocer will not be ready until June.

"Not having food leads to bad health and being socially isolated leads to bad mental health. I feel very sad I've got to prevent people from coming together," Akinola told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.


Growing concern about the outbreak has sparked panic buying in Britain, leaving supermarket shelves empty as shoppers stockpile basics like toilet roll, dried pasta, cleaning products and long-life milk.

Donations to food banks have dwindled as a result, yet demand is expected to increase as people lose jobs and schools close, cutting off a lifeline for poor families who struggle to feed their children, charities have warned.

"People who go to food banks aren't stockpiling items like hand sanitizer, because they haven't got any food to eat," said Robin Ferris, founder of Bankuet, a London-based social enterprise.

Bankuet organises supermarket deliveries of much-needed items for food banks across the country, block-booking regular online delivery slots and paying for the groceries using monetary donations made through its online platform.

This reduces the need for people to drop off food donations in person and helps the food banks get the supplies they are short on, like pasta sauce, nappies or toiletries.

Bankuet only launched in July 2019, but has already taken more in donations this month than it did for the whole of last year due to coronavirus. Donations increased 20-fold between February and March, said Ferris.

The business is currently talking to wholesalers directly about sourcing groceries to avoid competing for delivery slots as more consumers switch to online shopping, and is also considering doing its own deliveries.

With about 2,000 food banks in Britain facing demand at an all-time high, according to the Trussell Trust charity, both users and the staff and volunteers who run them are concerned personal contact could make them vulnerable to the virus.

Getting supplies delivered to people directly, especially those who are self-isolating, has become a particular focus in recent weeks for British food waste app, OLIO.

OLIO collects unsold food from businesses and its army of 7,000 volunteers redistribute it to anyone within local communities who requests it using an app.

As the need to keep a distance from other people forces businesses to close, there has been a surplus of unsold food at restaurants and corporate canteens and OLIO volunteers are busy organising ways to deliver it to those most in need.

As such OLIO, which has shared more than three million food portions since its 2015 launch, has decided to raise awareness about its service, creating postcards that people in need can fill out with their details to start receiving supplies.

Food will be left on doorsteps to lessen the risk of contagion for both volunteers and recipients, Tessa Clarke, co-founder of OLIO, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

OLIO is recruiting more volunteers to carry on the work, should existing ones get sick.

The movement evokes the "Blitz spirit", said Clarke, when communities in Britain pulled together during World War Two.

"In very difficult times like this, humanity can go one of two ways - it can either become a very unpleasant, dog eat dog world, or it can bring out the best in humanity," she said.

"We have seen a very high level of concern for our neighbours and long may it continue."

(Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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