Bringing Food Insecurity and The Role of The Charity Sector into Sharp Focus During Times of COVID-19: Researcher Reflections.

Dr Kate Reid, 23rd April 2020.

Our 12-month commissioned research with social enterprise and charity partner ‘Food Train’, and their impact and evidence arm, ‘Eat Well Age Well’, ended in February 2020. Almost as soon as we took breath to complete our research report and plan for our parliamentary event on food insecurity, wellbeing and ageing in Scotland, the world changed.

Food Train supports older people at home to ‘age in place’, through a largely volunteer network, many of whom are themselves retired. In particular, the charity enables a food grocery shopping service and a meal making befriending service to over 2300 older age adults in Scotland (as of 2019). They are largely supported though an army of volunteers, and have been making the daily lives of their largely lone, elderly customer base that bit better and more food secure since they were founded over 25 years ago in rural Dumfries.

In the last month, Food Train has found itself on the frontline, in order to support some of our most vulnerable during this time of COVID-19. Overnight, most of their customers were told to cut off any physical social support and to avoid leaving the home in order to protect themselves from the COVID-19. Issues of food security have been central to the mobilisation of support for all of us during this global pandemic. Where we shop, how we shop or even who will help us shop have come into sharp relief. The practices of eating through social contact with visits from friends and family have been halted. For those who are older and often live alone, this is a time of collective concern for all of us.

Through the compassionate and strong leadership of CEO Michelle Carruthers, the charity has demonstrated great resilience and has been quick to increase and adapt their services to meet the needs of their growing customer base. Led by flexibility, ingenuity and a compassionate, common sense approach, Food Train was already on the ground and was able to expand its service before slower government initiatives. In just four weeks, the charity has increased its service by 59%, expanding its reach to 685 more older people to get fresh grocery supplies, with 340 new volunteers on board (including myself!) and 775 check in phone calls made to older people at home. Without the greater involvement of new volunteers, none of this would have been possible.

Food Train has not been able to take a breath to think about what these events may mean in terms of future funding, policy and research. At the moment, they are waiting for PPE and struggling to get sanitisers to protect their customers and volunteers. But as researchers, we have started the conversation about the value of our research findings, and, crucially, the policy implications and onwards lessons from our research. We are writing policy briefs in partnership with Eat Well Age Well, and look forward to attending our currently postponed parliamentary event, which we hope can help inform government and policy decision making to enable these frontline charities to gain longer term financial security and visibility. We can inform government response in the area of food insecurity, particularly in the area of older age food access, and how we best meet the ambitious aim outlined in Scottish Government strategy for a Fairer Scotland for Older People which aims to make Scotland “the best place in which to age and mature – a country in which older people are valued, respected and supported to live the lives they want” (Scottish Government, 2019).

In addition, we have been able to mobilise our greatest asset at the University - our students! - to consider telephone befriending for Food Train. Many have stepped forward to offer support and reassurance to older people at home at this worrying time.

Learn more about The Food Train and volunteer:

Research Investigators:

Dr Kate Reid, Principal Investigator: School of Education and School of Psychology @katereidglasgow

Dr Catherine Lido, School of Education @CatherineLido

Ms Krisi Huie, PhD student, School of Education