"It feels like everyone is moving on but forgetting that some of our older population are still very much at risk."
Food Train supports older people living at home. Our teams of local volunteers provide regular practical and social support via our weekly grocery shopping service, handyman and household support service, home visits, befriending service, neighbourhood meal sharing service and library service.
In early March, as COVID-19 began to take hold, our shopping service was hugely impacted by large numbers of public panic buying. As a result, we stopped all our non-food based services to help focus our resources on getting essential food and meals to older people.
The organisation has faced huge challenges losing over 200 volunteers overnight as lockdown came into effect. The pressure on staff and volunteers was intense in the first few weeks. We had no spare funds for PPE, we needed more vans, double the amount of shopping boxes, we had over 500 new volunteer enquiries and we clocked up 1600 hours overtime in eight weeks across our staff team.
With emergency funding from the Scottish Government we were able to take on 22 more part time temporary support workers to help us safely deliver our shopping service. We have made 9000 check-in calls to our members since lockdown came into effect, many of whom were very worried, lonely and anxious. And, using our meal sharing technology, we have also created a platform which matches local volunteers with an older person in their area who needs help with their grocery shopping. We launched this in June and already we are helping older people in the Aberdeen area, North and South Lanarkshire, Edinburgh and Ayrshire.
We can’t yet see what the longer term impacts of COVID-19 will be as we are still facing increased demands. Although some older people are now managing okay and getting their shopping delivery fortnightly rather than weekly, our overall weekly deliveries are still 60% higher than before COVID-19 (it was 80% higher at the peak in April and May).
Last month, a survey of Food Train members showed that 98% expected to use our service over the longer term. However, this comes at a time when expenses are higher than ever at the organisation with extra staffing, transport, volunteering and phone costs. Financial planning has also been a challenge as a result of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.
During April, May and June we did see a higher than normal level of donations and corporate help, but that is very much a one-off and cannot be relied upon longer term.
We’re trying to get some of our other work restarted in some way, including our befriending, home support and library services. However, with our shopping and meals services still at extremely high levels, with no reduction on the horizon, it’s hard to see how we can cope longer term. It feels like everyone is moving on but forgetting that some of our older population are still very much at risk and still need help, particularly with food and meals.
We are beginning to see and hear the impact on some of our older members. After nearly five months of pretty difficult isolation, with some getting less care too, some say that their physical health has got worse, that their mobility is much worse, they are now more fearful of going out, they are eating and drinking less and their mood is very low.
We are aware how much our profile has been raised, we’ve benefitted from so much great publicity and public support in terms of new volunteers and donations. That type of positivity is not being felt yet with our local funding in each branch. Most of our referrals come from Health and Social Care Partnerships, who have been extremely quick to ask more of us, yet the conversation remain very one way. The winter months bring higher numbers of referrals from Health and Social Care Partnerships but without two-way dialogue and funding that matches need for our services, we will have no option but to close to new referrals.
We are hopeful of phasing back in our other services between now and Christmas with various adaptations and we are hopeful that we can continue to maintain our grocery shopping and meals services to help all the older people who need us. Our new payment methods will be kept in place as an extra offering and we’re working on funding to keep our regular phone calls going. We’ll continue with our hygiene and safety practices until it is much safer to ease back. We are hopeful that the Scottish Government will now see the value of national infrastructure to ensure equitable food access for all older Scots and work with us to achieve that.