Faith-based food assistance in times of the pandemic
Faith-based food assistance has changed a lot in times of the pandemic. How has this affected the most deprived and what are the future risks?
During the COVID-19 crisis, churches and faith-based organisations have provided food assistance to people living in poverty to an even greater extent than before. What kind of new practices have emerged in faith-based food assistance in Finland and how has the pandemic influenced church social work and people living in vulnerable situations?
Food assistance in times of the pandemic
In a secularised welfare state of 5.5 million inhabitants, hundreds of thousands of Finnish people receive charity food assistance every year. The majority of food assistance agencies are faith-based organisations or Christian churches. In spring 2020, the pandemic hit Finland and profoundly changed the provision of food assistance. The number of people asking for Church social assistance grew rapidly and the number of recipients in food assistance even doubled. Churches and charities began to distribute so-called ‘emergency parcels’ instead of organising indoor communal dining and other social activities for people in need.
In 2020, many new unemployed, low-paid, and laid-off people appeared at food banks.   New people included employees working in precarious industries, for example as cultural professionals, freelancers, and cab drivers. In Finland, school lunch is free of charge and when schools moved to remote teaching in spring 2020, new families resorted to food assistance as well. Employees of the biggest church in Finland, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, were also worried that feelings of insecurity and loneliness had increased among children during the pandemic.
In spring 2020, elderly people in particular were strongly recommended to stay home as much as possible to avoid COVID-19 infection. This meant an increase in loneliness and was reflected in food banks, where recipients expressed more anger and bitterness. People lacking digital devices or competence became even more excluded when the majority of social services and communication went online. Some food banks developed an appointment system by which recipients needed to call in advance to reserve a food parcel. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to receive food assistance for those with no phone or subscription.
Vulnerable people even more vulnerable?
In the times of the pandemic, food assistance was reorganised in many ways. Communal dining in churches and charities was forbidden, and instead, people had to stand in line outdoors to receive their food parcels. Standing in the line where everyone can see you felt humiliating and embarrassing to many. In Finland, attitudes towards the poor – for example, people lining up for food assistance – have harshened as the political atmosphere has changed during the last decade or so. In public debate, the deprived are more often blamed for their poverty and new sanctions against them are demanded. The most vulnerable have thus become even more criticised, lonely, and excluded, in other words, even more vulnerable.
Will food banks endure and survive?
Distributing food assistance during the pandemic has not been straightforward for the helpers either. Even though there has been a peak in new volunteers within food assistance, employees and volunteers report puzzlement, hopelessness, and fatigue.   In Finland, as well as abroad, concerns have been raised about the financial sustainability of faith-based food banks. The question arises, if – and most likely when – the pandemic prolongs, will the food banks survive financially and the staff mentally? Furthermore, food bank employees have expressed their concern about the increase of poverty, loneliness, insecurity, violence, and mental health problems of the recipients as a result of the pandemic.  Will the most vulnerable endure and survive, and if not, what are the effects on our societies?
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