Opinion: Why we need a national food parcel scheme

March 24, 2020

Speaking to my mother yesterday – on FaceTime, of course – she tells me that her usually sleepy local Co-op is now bedlam. "Going in there everyday rubbing shoulders with everyone,” she says. “Isn't that what we're trying not to do?"

I've been thinking the same. We're now supposed to be “social distancing” to reduce transmission of Covid-19.


Evidently, some of us are taking this more seriously than others. But even those following the rules most obediently will struggle in a packed supermarket, where everyone is jostling for the last loo roll and pint of milk. Amid the carnage, giving each other a wide enough berth is nigh on impossible. Yet you can't get an online delivery slot for three weeks.


We need to take shoppers out of the aisles, and we need to do it fast. Aside from reducing panic buying, it could save lives. Yesterday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced food parcels for 1.5 million "vulnerable" people who will now self isolate for 12 weeks.


This is absolutely the right approach. But why not go further and introduce a national scheme to send weekly food packages to homes, or to be collected swiftly in store?


For a reasonable price, supermarkets could put together bundles of cupboard essentials, perishables, meat, seasonal fruit and vegetables, plus a few treats.


Shoppers could pre-select for dietary requirements such as vegetarian, gluten free and coeliac. But this would be as far as the choices could feasibly go. To ensure speed and even distribution, food parcels might need to be a bit of a lucky dip. 


Fussy eaters may well turn their noses up. For it to work, there must be no whining if the chicken isn't free range, or if the cheddar is mild instead of mature. Or if the broccoli isn't purple sprouting, and the apples tasteless Gala instead of your favourite Pink Ladies. 


Make no mistake, I love my food. I live for pizzas with rich tomato bases and thick crusts. I adore fragrant Thai green curries with jasmine rice and crackers. And I worship gorgeous, puffed profiteroles, bursting with cream. But for now, I'm willing to let most of this go if it means my neighbours and I are safer from the virus. 


Not everyone will feel the same. Some people may have genuine needs not met by pre-packed food parcels, so this idea would need to remain an option and not become the only option. The elderly, vulnerable and NHS workers should be prioritised.


Morrisons has taken an early lead, and will from today, make pre-made food parcels available to shoppers. But I think the appetite exists for all supermarkets to adopt this as a mainstream offering. They currently don't have the capacity to deliver in such quantities, but they are working on it. They are hiring new staff by the bucket load and unemployed people or students with cars could make useful delivery drivers. 


Supermarkets that adapt to this new world fast enough to improve our lives over the coming months will emerge as national heroes. In the short term, pre-made food parcels to keep people out of shops could be a game changer for the greater good. The pizzas and profiteroles can wait.


Kate Morley is a Consumer Affairs writer for the Telegraph.


First published in the Telegraph



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