9 inspiring food-aid projects

Emergency relief can be done in ways that go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. Frideswide O’Neill and Hazel Healy profile nine groups doing things differently…

Food aid has become a lifeline for millions across the rich-world. Driven by dynamic restauranteurs or staff and compassionate volunteers at now-ubiquitous food banks or stop-gap meal programmes, relief has kept families fed over the school holidays and helped to plug the welfare gap. Yet despite providers’ best efforts, charity can be short-term, disempowering and often lack an exit strategy.

Many groups are trying to do things differently. Some are trying to create a more dignified shopping-style experience, giving out fresh food vouchers or running anti-poverty campaigns. Below are nine examples of groups – collectives, restaurants and foodbanks – that are exploring ways to feed people that either challenge deeper injustices or work towards transformative solutions to hunger. This is just a fraction of what is out there.

A giveaway food box from Co-operation Town. Credit: Shiri Shalmy
A giveaway food box from Co-operation Town. Credit: Shiri Shalmy

1 Co-operative buying power

The watchword of Co-operation Town is ‘solidarity not charity’. A mutual-aid movement born in Kentish Town in 2019, its founders believe nationwide food co-ops can offer a scalable framework for tackling food poverty. Via online resources, they encourage people to set up their own co-ops – places where members collectively buy and distribute food in bulk, making healthy food cheaper for everyone. Donations mean they can also gift food as emergency aid. Co-founder Shiri Shalmy says this isn’t just about access to affordable food, it’s about ‘building a community-led movement of resistance and strength’. Already rooted in disadvantaged communities in Camden, in response to Covid-19, Co-operation Town dished out 25,000 food parcels during the first UK lockdown.

2 A National Food Service

Social-eating spaces’ have been popping up from Glasgow, Scotland to Falmouth, Cornwall, with networks like the Super Kitchen cooking up communal meals out of surplus food. Some groups are developing a plan to ‘bring back the state-subsidized “national restaurants”' of war-time eras under the banner of the emotively named National Food Service (NFS). Isaac Tendler, Volunteer Manager of NFS-affiliate the Foodhall, in Sheffield, northern England, champions shared meals as something that ‘brings us together’ despite differences in diners’ identity, circumstances or social class.Via community-managed, state-supported backed kitchens, dining spaces and cafes, the NFS aims to tackle the interconnected issues of food poverty, food waste and social isolation.

Credit: Southern Solidarity

3 Challenging power dynamics

When lockdown hit New Orleans, artist Jasmine Araujo founded and mobilized the ‘emancipatory mutual aid group’ Southern Solidarity. The team now distribute up to 500 meals daily and have recently expanded into New York. Their work is guided by the belief that all involved – those who eat and those who feed – must tackle the underlying reasons for hunger, dispossession and poverty. Mistrustful of aid models that rely on outsiders parachuting in, Roar magazine reports that key organizers in the group include the homeless and formerly imprisoned alongside trans activists and organizers. 

Inspired by the Black Panthers’ consciousness-raising breakfast clubs, Southern Solidarity encourages members to join reading groups, attend training and assert their rights.

4 Solidarity price

Last month Granville Community Kitchen (GCK) launched a Good Food Box with a tiered pricing system; a ‘start’ price and a ‘solidarity’ price. ‘The solidarity comes in where people who can afford it pay more, which supports people who can’t afford a share’ says veteran food activist Dee Woods, co-founder of GCK, speaking on the Farmerama podcast. Organizers also make sure food is culturally appropriate, with options for yams, plantain and African ginger.

GCK is anxious to avoid stigma, so for the purposes of their veg box scheme ‘level of need’ is self-determined – unlike food bank referrals – an important consideration where they operate in Brent, a London borough where a third of people officially live in poverty. The tiered pricing system is rooted in a collective acknowledgement of structural inequality and a commitment to address it.

The Union of Land Workers (UTT) bringing vegetables to the plazas of Buenos Aires, Argentina in March, 2020. Credit: Carol Smiljan/NurPhoto

5 Direct supply

In Argentina, the Land Workers Union (UTT), a grassroots organization of small-scale farmers, have continued to stage what have become known as ‘verdurazos’ or ‘mega-veg’ events. Farmers descend on the cities to give away fruits and vegetables such as lettuce, aubergine and peppers, and sell directly to the public, cutting out the intermediaries that drive up prices. Rosalía Pellegrini, spokeswoman for the UTT, insists that access to good food is a human right calling out companies that ‘sell us…ultra-processed foods and large-scale industrial scrap’. The UTT and their allies regularly protest government policies that have seen large landholders expand planting crops for export while hunger grows at home.

Food Cycle turning surplus into nutritious meals in Byker, Newcastle. Credit: Tessa Bunney

6 From charity to justice

According to Why Hunger, the US has the most efficient emergency food system in the world and yet hunger persists with close to 12 per cent of the population considered food insecure. Why? ‘Private charity will not end hunger and should never be the main response’ argue Closing the Hunger Gap (CTHG), a US-network of 185 food-access organizations – including food banks – which call for a move beyond charity alone to begin to address the social, economic and environmental causes of hunger.

In their latest statement, CTHG commits to helping food-relief organizations shift from a charity model to one of social justice and political solutions, asserting that food justice will not happen without first achieving ‘racial and economic justice’. Meanwhile, UK food distribution giants such as the Trussell Trust are increasingly campaigning against poverty and austerity; the international Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health and Social Justice has put out a set of demands for food philanthropists to consider if they want to go beyond charity.

A volunteer pictured at Byker Pantry, which allows for points-based shopping, in Newcastle, UK. Credit:Tessa Bunney

7 Building a regional food economy

A ‘hand up not a handout’ is how the Knowsley Kitchen in Merseyside describe their food-focused project, which is dedicated to supporting people in the UK’s third-most deprived local council area to access good, healthy food even when ‘plans go awry, jobs are lost, relationships break down or people fall ill.’ Better-off households in Liverpool and Merseyside have the chance to ‘pay it forward’: buying grocery boxes or a child’s packed lunch for families that are struggling. The Kitchen also hands out ingredients, recipes and cooking equipment and tries to maximize autonomy and choice. To bolster the regional economy, it teams up with independent businesses like co-operative bakery HomeBaked Anfield, which supply bread and pies for boxes of groceries, and the social enterprise Alchemic Kitchen that turns surplus food into edibles, linking environmental and social justice.

8 Holiday hunger

Since the Covid-19 pandemic 900,000 children have registered for free school meals in Britain, adding to the 1.4 million already eligible. Yet it took a sustained campaign headed up young Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford – who experienced hunger as a child – to force the UK’s Conservative government into agreeing to providing for children over the winter holidays in early November.

Along with the petition launched by Rashford and allies to end child food poverty that collected over 1 million signatures, over 2,000 restaurants, cafes and chip-shops made a point of stepping in to show that food business owners were prepared to feed children over the October half-term break, even if the government wasn’t. As Alice Bane co-owner of a Refill Store in Cornwall, which delivered over 70 parcels put it simply to The Guardian. ‘It really did make us angry’. Meanwhile Vittles editor Jonathan Nunn has urged restaurants not to turn their backs on ‘their newfound social commitments’.

9 Seeding food sovereignty

South Africa saw neighbours mobilize to keep everyone fed as lockdown unemployment soared in Johannesburg. The Ubuntu Project delivers fresh produce boxes but also seedlings and compost to enable people to grow their own. While recent years have seen growing attention to cities as places to produce as well as consume, the pandemic has intensified these collective efforts to create and maintain urban food spaces. Organizers provide education and business support for budding farmers, observing that ‘food sovereignty means so much more than putting food on the table. It touches the core of human dignity’. Ubuntu loosely means ‘I am because you are’: mutual aid implies not a distant or top-down interventionism but action rooted in recognition of shared needs.

Frideswide O’Neill is a writer and doughnut maker.

Hazel Healy is a co-editor at New Internationalist magazine

With thanks to Charlie Spring, a researcher and campaigner for fairer food systems.

This article is part of New Internationalist’s Food Justice filesa year-long series dedicated to understanding how to make our food systems better serve the world’s hungriest people. 

This work was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme, a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.