The coronavirus crisis is the most disruptive public health crisis in a generation. But this unprecedented situation is also highlighting the other existing cracks in our society; the other long-standing crises affecting our most vulnerable ─ employment rights, housing and food justice.

The impact on access to good, nutritious and affordable food has been affected in a number of ways. Panic buying is limiting the choices for people who work unsociable hours ─ the very people working to keep us safe during the crisis. Some children who rely on free school meals have lost access to their only hot meal of the day. And both of these issues are driving demand at local food banks, who find themselves stretched as they lose volunteers to self-isolation. On top of this they are competing with all the people who are staying at home for their regular bulk delivery slots from the supermarkets.

Councils like Hackney are facing the same multifaceted impact of food justice on their workforce and their local areas, but are stepping up to the challenges with municipal spirit, innovation and co-operation ─ as they always have done at times of national crisis.

The Government has required all councils to help with Project Shield by coordinating the delivery of food and help to those that need it from the list of 1.5 million people being asked to stay at home. In Hackney we are currently supplementing the Government supplied food parcels with fresh fruit and vegetables, and creating more culturally appropriate options for Hackney’s diverse communities. However, Co-operative councils like Hackney are doing more than that and launching volunteer hubs. There are many who are self-organising in their communities to respond to the challenge of food justice during this crisis, like shopping for their isolated neighbours, volunteering, offering unused storage spaces, or raising money for their local food bank. Co-operators know these mutual aid groups are not a threat to our municipal traditions of local leadership ─ at times like this, mutual aid groups need to be harnessed as powerful co-operatives between local people and local governments. Volunteer hubs are helping direct these well-meaning groups in the right direction, providing them with advice about volunteering safely, and linking them with local charities. We are already seeing evidence of the effectiveness of hyperlocal networks using “Nextdoor” and “Covid Mutual Aid” to provide immediate and effective to their neighbours

At the same time, we are co-operating with the local charitable sector as partners in the fight for food justice. We are using Hackney’s Food Poverty Alliance of 50 organisations to coordinate the challenges arising in meeting the growing demand on food supply and delivery, between civil society and the retail sector offering support, to get the right food to the right people. We continue to take an active role in creating links between members of the Hackney Food Poverty Alliance to support information sharing and best use of resources to maximise our reach to those most in need. We have launched a support services map that includes community food projects for our residents, including lunch clubs, and we remain the largest funder of lunch clubs in London. And we are co-operating with our peers ─ we have made the template of this map available on GitHub for other councils to use, and share their local support systems fighting for food justice.

To make sure we are working with our partners most effectively, and to give people to raise other issues about food justice during this crisis, we have also launched a food justice survey. It is likely this crisis will last longer than many public organisations have had to plan for before, lasting not days and weeks, but for weeks and months ahead. We will need to build systems and partnerships that will be sustainable, and we will need to keep learning.

And while the Government has promised to continue a free school meals offer for those children that qualify, Hackney Council continues to support vulnerable residents with Healthy Start and Alexandra Rose vouchers to purchase fresh fruit and veg from participating market stalls and shops. We have continued to fund the free school meals of children in families with No Recourse to Public Funds that come to us for support ─ putting extra money in the pockets of migrant families that we are supporting, so they can keep feeding their children.

At Hackney we are supporting the Co-operative Party’s calls to give clear guidance to food banks about staying open to support their local communities. We are sharing the Hackney Foodbank’s donation page in all of our council communications, including where local donation points are across the borough.

Co-operative values have never been more important, because tackling this crisis will take more than one institution or single area of society. Individuals, communities, the public, private and third sectors will have to work together like never seen before. Having co-operative councils like Hackney tackling food justice in their areas can be clear examples of a co-operative response to today’s challenges.