Leeds assesses food security

City’s impressive pandemic response provides lessons

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In March 2020, many of us were only just starting to digest what was happening with Covid. But in Leeds, the city council and community organisations were already planning how they were going to provide food to those who needed it during a global pandemic. By the time schools closed the network was already able to organise lunch bags for parents to pick up.

Leeds Food Aid Network (LAFN), which has been working with food aid providers and distributors as well as the city council since 2014, opened a warehouse so that food organisations Fareshare Yorkshire and Rethink Food could rescue surplus food from the supply chain and pump it around the city via 27 hubs.

LAFN emailed its 350-strong network and the food parcel referrals came flooding in. Helplines were set up, run by the council, and every referral was categorised red (urgent direct delivery of food), amber (people who could collect a food parcel from a hub) or green (those who could afford food but were self-isolating and needed food they paid for delivered).


Agencies met regularly to iron out issues as they arose. When it became apparent that culturally appropriate food for African, Caribbean, South Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European communities was difficult to source, the council worked with agencies including an ethnic minority community organisation to provide the hubs with culturally appropriate food.

Over 23 weeks in spring and summer of 2020 alone, more than 19,000 people rang the helplines, and there were 25,000 referrals for services, including food parcels.

LAFN’s Dave Paterson believes the key to the city’s success was strong existing relationships between all the organisations that needed to be involved.


“As soon as lockdown came, we were able to hit the ground running because everyone already knew each other. We immediately set up a delivery scheme and a bigger welfare support scheme,” he said.

But for Leeds – and the rest of the UK –  the work is far from over. The pandemic showed the scale of the problem of food insecurity in the UK according to Bob Doherty, Dean of the School for Business and Society at the University of York.

“Food security should be a given in Western democracies, but the pandemic exposed the vulnerability and precarity facing the UK population,” Doherty said.

And there’s a lot going on to exacerbate the problem, he adds, including Brexit, which has slowed the speedy movement of goods we’ve become accustomed to in the UK.

Healthy food

As a consequence, the LAFN’s work continues. Many food aid providers feel overwhelmed by the situation at the moment, Paterson says – but the city is better able to respond than ever before.

“Having a network that meets regularly, including big and small organisations and the council, coming together and looking at practical ways to support each other, means we can respond properly,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean we’ve sorted out everyone’s problems. We recognise the hardship. I hope we’ll see a day when things don’t just plateau but start to go down. Since 2008, every year has seemed to get harder.”

Doherty agrees, and says there are various ways other cities can help provide food aid than just traditional food banks. While the LAFN’s food welfare included fresh surplus food, many of the UK’s food banks rely on tinned and packaged goods only, he points out.

“There are different ways of rescuing and redistributing surplus food. Food banks aren’t the best way to help, because of the stigma around them. The number of people using them isn’t the whole story. Mothers are also skipping meals and children are going to school hungry.

“It’s not the ideal system – it’s a sticking plaster. People need to be able to afford healthy food,” he said.

Photo: Food banks are important but only a sticking plaster, say experts. (Maureen McLean/Shutterstock)

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