I had planned to write a monthly blog during 2020, each month a way of saying happy 25th birthday to Food Train, celebrating our achievements with warm words while politely stating the obvious that 25 years on, food insecurity for older people was worse than ever. I’d even created a timeline, it was in my diary. Then Covid19 snuck in and a dark tale of food insecurity among older people emerged without any politeness or warm words. The Covid tale is filled with fear and anxiety, desperation that brought out the best and worst in humanity and it’s still writing the ending for thousands of people around the world.
The first 3 weeks of March were simply awful for our shopping service. No point glossing over it, or looking for other fancy words, it was a really hard time for Food Train. Staff and volunteers jostled through frantic panic buying crowds, shoppers snatching the last items from shelves as we tried to make up orders for older people totally reliant on us bringing their weekly shop. No second chance to pop to the shop for our older members, if we couldn’t bring it, they went without till next week. Many of our older members shop week to week, small orders for smaller appetites and little stored. In those 3 weeks many orders were worryingly light, lots of basics missing, it felt like people only cared about themselves, volunteers came back each day fraught, worried and quietly fuming about the inequality created by the panic buying.
Lockdown on 23rd March changed everything. The shops became blissfully quiet, stocks replenished and our older members who had gone without were able to get their whole order again. And suddenly people did care. It was hard to compute, the same people who were fighting our volunteers for a two pack of toilet roll the weeks before, were suddenly gravely concerned about how older people were going to get food and clapping for key workers. No point hiding the cynicism I felt at the time. We were granted protected times in the shops to get the orders made up, any spare space in our local bases was taken up with donated food and grocery items and suddenly the funding came flooding in too; so much and so quick it was hard to keep track of who was giving us what! Scottish Government worked quickly and without bureaucracy to get emergency funding to us; 22 temporary Support Workers were recruited in 8 days. We danced a small jig of success for about 5 minutes; that’s roughly how much time we all had for a break each day for months. We marvelled at the funds coming in, revelling in not worrying about cash flow, no more arguing that older people should be higher up the giving index. For a few heady months, older people were in the spotlight and we were in the news a lot. The phone rang off the hook for weeks, volunteers flooded in and out, keeping up with the endless guideline changes was a full-time job, the offices busy but eerily quiet as everyone worked their socks off with that feeling of dread in the pit of their stomachs.
The worry was constant – what if we had an outbreak among staff and volunteers, what if we passed it to members and they died, what if one of the staff or volunteers died, or more than one, what if we couldn’t make deliveries, what if our members died of starvation; the worries were never ending but became very real. On 7th May after 5 weeks in hospital, one of our long serving staff died of Covid19. It was devastating for everyone, in a small team made up of even smaller teams, the loss of one of us was beyond comprehension. A fit guy, hard worker, kind and caring, well thought of by everyone. Dealing with the loss of one us, while helping 70% more older people in the most extreme circumstances, gives little time to grieve. Folks need fed, so we moved on at pace. We started a new 1-1 shopping service to increase our geographical spread and help more folks, set up new contactless payments systems and made 10,000 check-in calls to our older members in 6 months – the juggling was big top circus level.
Summer saw the virus ease a little and brought a relaxing of the lockdown rules, businesses opened back up, people took tentative steps back into café’s and restaurants, shops and bars. But not most older people. The low steady thrum of their fear audible over the summer bird song. We did a quick survey one week in July to see how many newer members needed us longer term – 98% said ‘yes please’. The known risk of dying from covid19 for older people created a peak of need that hasn’t shifted this year.
Local lockdowns appeared in Autumn along with social renewal work to help us “build back better”, food insecurity stayed high up the political agenda and we got our chance to contribute our members voices to policy groups and consultations. We argued passionately and with strong evidence on the need for local food access to be backed up with national infrastructure, put our tuppence worth forward to the hastily arranged Independent Review of Adult Social Care. But no different to every review and consultation we’ve ever been involved in, the food needs of older people are low priority. Successive Governments ignore medical evidence that backs up how vital food and nutrition is to our survival and health. And Social care needs food; if there’s none in the house the carer can’t make breakfast, lunch or tea, if the older person even meets the tight criteria to get that level of care. 20 years of erosion of lunch clubs, meal provision and grocery support for older people has taken its toll, Covid19 has turned the lights full beam on a problem that already existed. Covid has made food insecurity worse and I can see no plan to fix it.
And here we are in December, lurching towards the new year with a rising tide of cases, a new viral strain and some food supply chains on a shoogly peg with Brexit looming and pre-festive border closures with our EU neighbours. And what of older people? Many still staying safe at home, still fearful and anxious, still relying on a range of community and volunteer led supports for their basic needs. And what of national policy? No mention of progress with the right to food, no mention of work to address the reasons behind food insecurity and no mention of sorting the postcode lottery of food support for older Scots. And what of Food Train? It’s our busiest Christmas period ever. Thousands of shopping deliveries being made, meals being shared and friendly phone calls; business as usual pandemic style.
Without doubt it’s been our toughest year. The light at the end of the Covid tunnel is still blurry, and our amazing staff and volunteers have worked themselves to exhaustion, but it’s been worth it. Our older members tell us they feel safe, cared for, well fed and at peace with their viral imposed lockdown lives, because they know we’re there for them, and that’s all that matters.
Stay safe and well and here’s hoping 2021 is better for everyone.