So sang the workhouse boys in Lionel Bart’s 1960s musical version of Charles Dickens’ famous book, Oliver Twist. Written and published between 1837 and 1839 (Dickens was the Netflix of his day!) the author drew on his own childhood experiences of hunger and poverty for inspiration.
Food has certainly featured highly as an issue in the present COVID-19 environment. I’m sure that we all have our “war stories” that we’ll be telling our grandchildren. For me, I suspect it will be the morning that I visited a large supermarket not long after it all started. I won’t name either the well-known retailer or the location of their store. I am, in all honesty, renowned neither for patience or forbearance (just like everyone else, I’m still a work in progress) but those characteristics in me were certainly fully tested that morning – it was stressful!
It may not be an overstatement to say that lockdown has certainly changed our relationship with food, maybe forever. This is no bad thing. Many of us seem to take the supply of food very much for granted.
For example, we’re throwing away less of our food than we were before this all started. According to the charity Hubbub, the UK wastes about 1.9 million tonnes of food each year. That’s a LOT of food! Hubbub polled 2,000 people across the UK, asking how COVID-19 had changed people’s eating habits. This is what they found.
- 44% of people are enjoying cooking more;
- 47% of people are enjoying spending more time eating with their family or housemates;
- Over a third of those polled see the situation as an opportunity to improve their cooking skills. This rises to over 50% in the 16-24 age group;
- Over half of those surveyed are valuing food more.
- 48% are throwing away less food. Of these
- 51% say they are planning meals more carefully;
- 41% are getting better at using leftovers;
- 48% are throwing away less food. Of these
- 35% are using their freezer more;
- 29% are freezing a wider range of food;
- Portion control is improving –
- 27% now give more accurate portion sizes;
- 26% are leaving less on their plate.
Shopping habits are changing too. A quarter of those surveyed said that they are buying better quality food, as they are not spending money on other things. More than a third said that they are supporting local or smaller businesses for their food purchasing. 43% said that they are buying fewer takeaway meals (mostly because of concerns over contamination). 42% said that they aren’t buying takeaways because money is tight. Amazingly, 29% said that they were using local shops for the first time!
Will all this stick once the pandemic is over? 89% of those who said that they’ve made changes to their shopping patterns say that they will continue to use at least one of their newly-experienced alternatives to supermarkets once this is all over. We shall see, but it will certainly be a good thing if it does.
But there is a downside. Trussell Trust, the organisation through whom the majority of food banks in the UK are run, reports an 81% increase in demand for food parcels in recent weeks. In the first week after the lockdown was announced on 23rd March, they distributed in excess of 50,000 food parcels nationwide. That’s almost double its normal weekly volume for the time of year. The number of children’s food parcels distributed in the last two weeks of March was more than double that of the comparable period in 2019.
To give those figures some context, here in Castle Donington 145 food parcels have been issued since the lockdown started. That’s sharply up on the 2019 figures. About half of those involved families with one or more children.
I spoke to Rebecca Wykes, our local Foodbank Manager. She told me, “A significant number of our clients since the lockdown on 23rd March found themselves either without the safety net of free school meals for their child(ren), have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 or are newly self-employed and therefore do not qualify for any Government assistance.” She added, “The wait for Universal Credit (UC) is still five weeks. Many of our clients come to us due to the difficulties of moving onto UC from other benefits, problems with applying for UC or because of the five-week wait. We are here to help the most vulnerable in our community, every week, 51 weeks a year.”
The question is, “Where do we stand as Christians on this?” Jesus plainly saw that food was important. We’re all very familiar with the story of the feeding of the 5,000 – we should be, it appears in all four Gospels. Jesus didn’t just preach and teach – He fed too (7,000 on another occasion).
Trussell Trust has a strong Christian ethos. Many Christians, both individually and communally, actively support their mission – practically and financially, in this area and across our nation. But the question now, I posit, is this, “Are there enough of us doing enough, or should more of us be doing more?”
I had the privilege of collecting this week’s contribution from the Co-Op in Kegworth this morning. As I loaded the food into my van, I had a chat with the member of staff who’d brought it out. He told me that a substantial part of the donation had come from one customer. She had discovered that she’d accrued about £60 on her membership card and there and then decided to donate it, in its entirety, to a food contribution to the food bank.
I think that’s an entirely brilliant and inspirational idea. I know that it’s annoying, locally, having two different Co-Ops that use two different membership cards – I’ve found that having them both on my phone helps in that respect. I’ve made a commitment that whatever is on either of my cards is going to be used to buy food for the food bank. Who’s with me?