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Note: The authors of this blog are members of the research team for the project ‘Going hungry in the land of plenty: an anthropological approach to food aid in Switzerland’ and I have had the pleasure of working with them on several occasions. They offered this piece which reflects their recent focus on the effects of Covid-19 on food aid. PC.


 Ossipow, L., Y. Cerf, A. Martenot and A.-L. Counilh, HETS, HES-SO Geneva (22.04.2020)

This text is a Swiss “echo” to Pat Caplan’s blog entry ( on food aid during the Covid-19 crisis in the United Kingdom. It is based on a number of sources. One is our current knowledge of the food aid network[1] in Switzerland and on our monitoring of the emergency aid mechanisms seen on Geneva websites that indicate the places that are functioning during the present health crisis ( Finally, we have gathered information from a number of articles in the local press (Le Temps, Le Courrier, la Tribune de Genève, 20 Minutes and 24 Heures.) Among those consulted (approx. 150), about fifteen concern the most destitute people in Switzerland as a whole and in Geneva in particular. The dates on which these appeared give us an idea of the relative lack of concern for the poorest in the country, who had to wait nearly a month (from March to April[2]) for their situation be recognised in the print media. However, one striking development, and a welcome one, is that these articles do focus on about precariousness and poverty, and not, as is often the case, on the recycling of surplus food for environmental reasons, which tends to make the poor invisible.

 Hunger in Geneva during the crisis?

While hunger threatens the most precarious groups of people in the world, even in Europe, the poor in Switzerland are still receiving food aid, although not everyone can eat three full meals a day. However, during the present crisis, the poor are deprived of the “more than food” aspect of these redistribution systems, i.e. of all the services and meeting places that sometimes accompany food aid (listening, advice, leisure), with the exception of showers and health care.

Emergency housing has always been managed by the City of Geneva and by various associations (mainly financed by the City). However, in the context of the health crisis, the logistics of the operations related to the pandemic have been centralised by the communal and cantonal authorities. Measures have also been taken by the Aspasie association to provide temporary accommodation for sex workers made homeless following the closure of their workplace, in hotels across the city. Just like the distribution of vouchers by the Colis du Coeur, which have offered a welcome choice and anonymity, these medium-term shelters have been well received by the beneficiaries. Although their comfort and security have been welcome, they remain exceptional. While some hygienic services continue to be open (such as the showers at Le Caré), others have closed, but are being replaced by the opening of showers at a sports centre provided by the City. The emergency measures that have been put into place by the canton and more specifically by the City, do not signal a sudden return to state intervention. Even though the state delegates many tasks to the private sector (Crettaz 2015,, it remains relatively present, at least in the City, through the indirect financing of these associations, whether it be by offering free premises, by employing workers who are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits and by hiring professional social workers.

Continuity and reorganization of food aid organisations

Caritas grocery stores

As of mid-March, food aid redistribution was reorganized in Geneva. Some of the organisations did not change their functioning and were on the front line at of the outbreak of the virus crisis and have continued throughout the lockdown. The Caritas grocery stores are open almost as usual with people queuing up there just as they do in front of other food stores. Some employees wear masks, like the check-out staff, others don’t, but everyone tries to respect the famous ‘social distancing’ of two metres. In the line of people waiting to enter the store, several customers also wear protection. As usual, the food aid system maintains the difference between conditional aid (that of Caritas or Colis du Coeur, see below) which requires the presentation of a voucher, and unconditional aid, which serves everyone and asks for nothing except maybe a ticket in order to obtain a meal in certain places. During lockdown, however, the difference between conditional aid (voucher based) and unconditional aid seems to have blurred more than usual. The focus now is on ensuring that people do not apply twice for assistance but emergency benefits are still provided. Most vouchers handed out are based on mutual trust between applicants and those who deliver the goods. A majority of associations, and in particular Carrefour-rue, have noted an increase in requests for food aid. In addition, other associations have entered the scene and are also organizing temporary distributions.

Unconditional aid: in kind and free of charge

Already known as emergency aid in pre-Covid times, all the distribution systems  that offer free breakfast or meals (Le Bateau Genève, le Phare, Club Social Rive Gauche, le Caré and Café Cornavin as well as Carrefour-Rue) have rapidly transformed themselves from a sit-down system to a takeaway distribution. In some restaurants, transitional measures have been implemented (reduction in the number of tables and distribution of hand-sanitiser before entering in the restaurant). Meals, either hot or cold, are now served on a tray. The Open Church association of the Temple des Pâquis and Swiss Gambia Solidarity are carrying out an itinerant distribution within their neighborhood. Joining forces with the latter, anti-fascists groups have created the ‘Popular Solidarity Brigades’, modelled on experiences in Milan (

The Colis du Coeur (‘Parcels from the heart’)

The Colis du Coeur ( distributes food parcels upon presentation of a voucher issued by approved institutions ( Before the coronavirus, these vouchers were also issued by more marginal associations mainly serving migrants and so-called undocumented migrants (see p. 18 of the 2019 activity report,

Even before the pandemic, the number of beneficiaries picking up parcels every Tuesday was constantly increasing (about 3,457 beneficiaries every Tuesday; see p. 16 of the aforementioned report).  When the first coronavirus preventive health measures came into place on the third of April, the Colis du Coeur rearranged its distribution by bringing the beneficiaries into the premises, one by one, after they had waited outside. The volunteers (80 people registered) received them as usual, having been asked previously to put on gloves to handle the supplies (something people sometimes do in normal times).

However, by March 28, 2020, some volunteers were hesitating to come to work. This was the result of changes in the management of the association and the fact that volunteers, most of whom are well over 65 years old, were deemed to be at risk and had to remain sheltered. On 28th of March, food distributions took place in four different locations and also supplied hygiene products and nappies. This did not happen in the following weeks. With the support of MSF (Médecin sans Frontières), the Cities of Geneva and Carouge and the food bank Partage, these distributions were carried out in conjunction with local enforcement authorities[3] who ensured the protection of the volunteers and beneficiaries ( On the same day, the beneficiaries were asked to give their addresses and phone numbers, so that they could be reached and advised of the next distribution. Finally, a system of distribution of vouchers or “gift cards” which could be exchanged in three different supermarkets was set up.

Shortly afterwards, a questionnaire was sent out by Aude Martenot (member of the research team and also a worker at the food bank Partage) to the people who had been able to benefit from these vouchers. The processing and analysis of the survey (see Martenot 2020) shows that most of the beneficiaries were satisfied with the voucher system[4], even if some had not received them immediately. Paradoxically, while distributions are often unpopular, because they force the beneficiaries to travel across the city and deprive them of a choice, the use of vouchers allowed the beneficiaries  to again ‘have a choice’ (except for alcohol and cigarettes) and offered them the advantage of going almost unnoticed to collect their food aid.

At the present time, then, hunger does not threaten the poorest in Switzerland because help is still available. Rather, as Pat Caplan explains, it is the volunteers who appear to be in short supply. Younger volunteers have taken up the cause and the associations expect a rejuvenation of voluntary work (Le Courrier, 24.4.2020, p. 12). In Switzerland, as in other European countries, the problem for clients is not hunger, but the possibility of receiving financial aid ( Solutions have been found for the self-employed who will receive “loss of earnings benefits”, while others are technically unemployed. Students who have lost their part-time work can also apply for emergency aid from specific funds offered by their institutions (

Those who remain stranded are the so-called “undocumented” or clandestine population who normally could have found work on construction sites, in bars, in childcare or home help ( They could try to apply for exceptional social aid despite the lack of a residence permit. However, this could jeopardize a possible subsequent application for regularization of their situation (


 In 2012, Janet Poppendieck, an American sociologist who studied the implementation of food aid structures after the “Great Depression” in the USA, compared food banks to a Pandora’s box[5]. Their inevitable if desirable institutionalisation in times of crisis poses a risk, in the long run, of serving as a fallback for public policies that are difficult to put into place. Ultimately, the worst is yet to come, as many small and independent businesses will no longer be able to pay their bills and will be forced to close down and apply for social aid. In addition to these people, there remain illegal workers who may find work again once the lockdown has ended, but whose income will have been severely reduced for almost two months. It is therefore on the side of social protection that things will be played out.

References cited:

Crettaz, E. (2015). ‘Final report of the research project: Profile, target audience and efficiency of private social action associations belonging to CAPAS’. Geneva: HETS.

Martenot, A. (2020). Monitoring the distribution of food vouchers under the COVID-19 scheme. Review of the survey conducted from 9 to 19 April 2020. Geneva: Fondation Partage.

Poppendieck, J. (1999). Sweet charity? Emergency food and the end of entitlement. New York: Penguin.

[1] The global research,

Going hungry in the land of plenty: an anthropological approach to food aid in Switzerland (2019-2022) is being conducted by L. Ossipow, A.-L. Counilh and Yann Cerf in collaboration with A. Martenot with the support of a grant from the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation;

[2]Semi-confinement was introduced by the Federal Government on 16 March 2020. (

[3]The distribution must indeed be done following certain guidelines at the risk of being banned, as an association learned at its own expense. They attempted one without asking for authorization on Saturday 25 April and were stopped (Tribune de Genève, Friday 24 April). They then restarted under the control of the City.

[4] The vouchers are 50 CHF for a single person, 80 CHF for 2 persons, 100 CHF for 3 persons, 120 CHF for 4 persons and 150 CHF for 5 or more persons per household (Martenot 2020: 1).


Blog 19. Coronavirus, lockdown and food poverty. 020420

Before the Covid-19 crisis

Earlier blogs (14 and 15) refer to the report on extreme poverty in the UK by the UN Special Rapporteur; this, as well as a similar report by Human Rights Watch, appeared in early 2019. Both were excoriating, finding large numbers of people in the UK living in poverty, even destitution, while ten years of austerity had wreaked havoc with the social welfare system. These reports were dismissed, even attacked, by the UK government, but it is important to note that the situation highlighted in them forms the backdrop to the present crisis. Further, the issue of Brexit has not gone away, and, as noted in blog 16, is likely to lead to further difficulties in UK food production: regular migrant workers are unable to get visas hence a lack of labour to pick fruit and vegetable crops, as well as of a potential slow-down in imports if Brexit is finalised at the end of 2020 and customs checks have to be introduced (

Covid-19 and lockdown

The decision by the UK government to enforce a lockdown had a number of significant effects which included:

  • Closure of businesses and lays-off of staff, resulting in immediate reductions in income
  • An explosion of applications for Universal Credit, with nearly one million people applying by the end of March. Given that under ‘normal’ conditions the wait for any money to come through is 5 weeks, and often longer, it is clear that many of this million will struggle to get on to the system. The CEO of the Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, wrote a heartfelt plea for the waiting time for Universal Credit to be cut (
  • The closure of schools has meant that children who normally receive free school lunches, even free breakfasts in some cases, no longer get them.
  • There was a lot of panic buying in shops, resulting in empty shelves and some rise in prices. Online shopping became increasingly difficult, with few delivery slots available.

What has been done by various sectors to alleviate this situation?

  1. The government

Has announced a variety of financial schemes to help businesses, the self-employed and others, and the provision of grants of £800 per person. In addition, all families with children on free school meals will receive vouchers of £15 per week in lieu. However, all of these measures will take time to come into effect and meanwhile many people are being ‘furloughed’ at best or losing their jobs entirely.

The government has also set up a scheme of food delivery for those deemed to be particularly vulnerable in health terms, although there has been some criticism of the contents of the parcels which consist largely of ambient foods ( The food industry

2. The food industry

This sector has obviously been having a bonanza in sales and has, in some cases, given money or food to the food charity sector: Morrisons £10 million in cash, the Co-op £1.5 million of food to the redistribution charity Fareshare, while Lidl has said it will provide bags of fresh fruit and veg to NHS staff ( The supermarkets have also made some attempt to ensure that older shoppers have a dedicated shopping time and have paid much lip service to prioritising deliveries to older customers; even so, as I fall into that category myself, I  am well aware from personal experience and that of my peers that finding a slot is still often difficult. Most supermarkets now practice some form of rationing for their customers with caps on numbers of items and frequency of on-line deliveries.

3. The food poverty charities.

This sector, particularly food banks, has been hard hit. On the one hand there is greatly increased demand from old and new clients, on the other, many organisations have lost a large proportion of their volunteers, because they are over-70 and/or have ‘underlying conditions.’ Many food banks also do not have enough food because they are getting fewer donations ( . They have also had to revise their procedures for safety reasons to do with the virus.

Some examples of the effect of the covid-19 crisis on food aid charities

Over the last five years, I have worked intensively with a half dozen food aid organisations in both north London and West Wales. Four of these are food banks, three belonging to the Trussell franchise and one being independent. The remaining two organisations are a Community Centre on a council estate in north London and a CAB (Citizens’ Advice Bureau) in Wales. They are all the subject of a detailed report which is currently in press. Let’s look at how each has coped with the new situation:

The Community Centre has sought to remain open, although many of its activities have been suspended. In the last two years, it signed up with the Felix Project (, a food redistribution charity, which supplies the Centre regularly and which is currently offering food parcels to local residents who need food help. However, the Centre has not been able to run its regular Holiday Lunch scheme for local children in receipt of free school meals or operate its café offering nutritious but cheap meals.

The north London food bank reports a big loss of volunteers, many of whom were over 70, and is currently seeking additional volunteers for ’warehouse’ jobs (sorting food by date, making up food parcels) as well as drivers for its new delivery scheme. Paradoxically, it has received some large monetary donations but been unable to spend these as it wished, partly because of panic buying by the public and partly because of restrictions on buying in bulk. Nonetheless, it is continuing to operate as a food bank, albeit with revised procedures to ensure social distancing. These include making up (somewhat smaller) food parcels in advance, so there is not even the minimal choice previously offered, while no tea, coffee or biscuits are served.

A Trussell Trust food bank in West Wales which has a number of branches and also ran cafes has suspended the latter and closed one of its branches, but otherwise continues to operate using its usual source of donations (supermarket collections and Tesco/Fareshare Food Cloud with which Trussell has a ‘partnership’). It has produced a leaflet for users explaining why procedures had to change.

Another Trussell Trust franchisee in a poor town in West Wales was struggling last week when I looked at its Facebook page. However, in the interim, I got a report from the manager:

The community has rallied around and we have had a large amount of food donations already this week Our stock is a lot improved and we wait to see what the need will look like over the next week or two as everyone settles into a new way of life. We too have seen a huge number of financial donations come in over the last week or so. Many people who can’t get out have given money instead. Have had a couple of large financial donations from individuals too, four figure sums!!! Quite amazing and humbling too for a little town like ours. We are looking to go to deliveries only shortly for the protection of everyone.

The final food bank, a much larger, independent operation with several branches, has closed two of them and, like the Trussell food banks, makes up parcels in advance with a slightly reduced amount. The manager told me a week ago that they were ‘running dangerously low on supplies’ and noted that, like the London food bank above, it was handicapped by not being able to buy in bulk.


If we thought that the situation with regard to food poverty in the UK was bad before, it is likely to become considerably worse now. As Martin Caraher has recently noted, there is no way for the state to identify people who are suffering from food poverty and goes on to point out:

Our welfare system (Universal Credit) is not set up to deal with food insecurity and the policy has been to refer clients to food banks as opposed to giving them money for food..[while] the amount of money people currently receive for welfare is not sufficient for them to buy a healthy diet even if they could access it (quoted in an email from Food Inequalities Rebellion, 31/03/20).

Some of the more activist food poverty charities have called for greater action. The Church Action on Poverty ( has lent its support to a statement coordinated by Sustain ( calling on the government to release more funds to eradicate household food insecurity and ease welfare constraints such as the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, at least for the duration of the crisis. This statement has been signed by 31 representatives of organisations and academics working in the field. The Food Inequalities Rebellion has focused on the food needs of children (

In the longer term, much needs to change in our welfare and food systems to seek to eliminate food poverty, as many have pointed out, most recently and notably Tim Lang in his book: Our Food Problems and How to Fix them (Penguin 2020). As he notes ‘charity can be good at highlighting need, can meet some of it, but is unable to provide lasting or adequate safety nets’ (p. 328).