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.
FOOD AID IN GENEVA IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
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 (https://sites.gold.ac.uk/food-poverty/) 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 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 (http://geaide.ch). 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) 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, https://www.capas-ge.ch/new/sites/default/files/Rapport%20HETS%20statistiques%20CAPAS%202015.pdf), 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 (https://lecourrier.ch/2020/04/24/limpossible-confinement-dans-la-rue).
The Colis du Coeur (‘Parcels from the heart’)
The Colis du Coeur (https://www.colisducoeur.ch/portrait/) distributes food parcels upon presentation of a voucher issued by approved institutions (https://www.colisducoeur.ch/services-sociaux/). 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, https://www.colisducoeur.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Rapport_activite_CDC_2019.pdf).
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 who ensured the protection of the volunteers and beneficiaries (https://www.tdg.ch/geneve/actu-genevoise/frappee-epidemie-laide-alimentaire-ressuscite-samedi/story/22403088). 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, 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 (https://www.artias.ch/?mailpoet_routerndpoint=view_in_browserction=viewata=WzQzLCI4Mzk4OGVmMjVhNTQiLDM3OTMsIjM2OGM2NiIsMzMsMF0). 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 (https://lecourrier.ch/2020/04/23/une-aide-durgence-pour-les-etudiants/).
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 (https://lecourrier.ch/2020/04/16/une-nounou-en-enfer/). 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 (https://www.letemps.ch/suisse/fragilite-sanspapiers-accentuee-crise-sanitaire).
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. 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.
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.
 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; http://p3.snf.ch/project-185449).
Semi-confinement was introduced by the Federal Government on 16 March 2020. (https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/11166687-la-suisse-en-etat-de-situation-extraordinaire-jusqu-au-19-avril.html)
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.
 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).