Physical distance without social distancing: a vital role for community food initiatives 

As the number of people struggling to access food has increased with this crisis, the experience of food insecurity has become much more widespread.  Being able to access food safely and with dignity is now on the minds of nearly everyone. This has brought many more people into a discussion about how fit for purpose our models of crisis response have been.  

We firmly believe the UK and Scottish Governments need to use their powers to ensure everyone has financial autonomy during this crisis and in the days to come. 

We welcome the Scottish Government’s recognition that a ‘cash-first’ approach is ‘the most dignified way‘ of supporting people facing food insecurity, and the significant investment in the Scottish Welfare Fund as a key part of this support. Ensuring this approach works in practice will mean that everyone will have the money to access and eat food of their own choice, and allow us to close food banks.

The cash-first approach does not mean an end to community food initiatives, though, because many community food initiatives are about more than providing food. They help us meet another of our basic human needs – the need to connect with each other. Community food initiatives often have a vital role in reducing loneliness, providing places for people to interact, improving social capital and promoting overall wellbeing.  

Supporting communities during the crisis 

Even though the methods used by community food organisers, volunteers and community members might have changed since the lockdown, by ensuring dignity is embedded in them, they continue to strengthen communities.   

In our weekly meetings with the Dignity in Practice Peer Network, smiles, laughter and congratulations arise as volunteers and representatives from community organisations relate the way they have continued building community in these unsettling times. We have collected some examples of good practice to share:

Moving communities online:   

At the beginning of the month, a volunteer from Woodlands Community Café in Glasgow celebrated his first-ever Zoom birthday with the Café participants. During the celebration, everyone in the call took turns to share a fond memory they had with him. Woodlands Café also moved their weekly community meals online, and this led to volunteers joking about changing the name to “The Zoom Café”. Additionally, Woodlands community members are meeting online to continue attending the weekly meditation sessions they took part in before the lockdown.

Even though we are restricted from meeting in person, moving events to online spaces can enable us to continue feeling part of our communities.  

Bringing the community garden home 

The MAXwell Centre in Dundee is usually buzzing with young gardeners during the school holidays, so this year, the community gardener and development workers put together ‘Grow Your Own Bags’ for people to grow herbs, spices and food in their own homes. The bags included seeds and advice on how to grow in gardens, pots and on windowsills. In response to “popular demand” a Facebook group was created alongside this initiative for people to “share questions, relevant news or advice”.

Sharing food growing supplies and having conversations with community members through the Facebook group has created a platform where people can continue to feel valued and able to contribute.   

Staying connected 

Greener Kirkcaldy has been working to ensure their volunteers are able to stay connected by providing those without phones or the internet with a mobile phone. Apart from helping volunteers feel valued and able to contribute during the crisis, this action recognises that not everyone will have access to virtual ways of communicating. Greener Kirkcaldy is also filming a series of recipe videos guided by community member’s requests, involving them in decision-making, while simultaneously creating a virtual space for people to cook together as a community. 

Keeping in touch and involving community members who are self-isolating or shielding during this crisis may mean reaching out differently or taking practical steps to help people without a mobile phone or internet access.

Drawing from community knowledge to adapt 

Central and West Integration Network (CWIN) developed a system for food distribution that coordinates service providers’ physical movement in order to meet government guidelines on social-distancing and thus ensuring the safety of workers, volunteers and community members. CWIN drew from staff and volunteers’ collective knowledge when developing this system by involving them all in decision-making.  

These examples show us that as community food initiatives have been working hard to provide safe ways for people to continue to socialise, develop new skills, tackle isolation, feel valued and improve general health and wellbeing. It may well be that ‘social distancing’ should better be called ‘physical distancing’ for these groups and many others across the country.  

Accessing food with dignity 

In line with the Scottish Government’s ‘cash-first’ approach, many food organisations are attempting to signpost community members to schemes that allow them to access cash and other financial support during this crisis.

However, referral and application processes can be difficult to understand, and staff and volunteers are often cautious about giving the wrong advice. Furthermore, some people do not fall under any of the categories that would enable them to access direct government support, such as asylum seekers and refugees. This leaves community food initiatives feeling responsible for providing an essential service.  

We strongly urge that the Scottish Government’s next steps to ensure everyone has access to food focus on closing all the gaps in existing schemes so that no one falls through.

Our work alongside community food groups since the lockdown has shown that an important part of the next stage will be making sure these cash-based supports can be accessed easily and with the fewest barriers as possible. This will mean that community food initiatives will no longer feel responsible for providing an essential food provision service and can instead focus their efforts on what they do best – building strong communities – while following social-distancing guidelines. Getting this right during the crisis will be a step towards building a system where food banks are no longer needed – a system where community food initiatives continue to exist and multiply as places where people are drawn by the desire to spend time together.  

We invite you to read the Adapted Guidance on the Dignity Principles to find more tips for continuing to build community by embedding dignity in your projects during and after the crisis and to share with us all the wonderful ideas you come up with ( We are also developing a series of online workshops on how the Dignity Principles can be applied in volunteers’ practice. Watch this space to find out more!