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The Future

Coronavirus Crisis | 6 Positive Social Initiatives

As coronavirus rocks the world, it also pushes local communities to come up with ingenious ideas. The crisis has encouraged the creation of resilient ways to care for the most vulnerable members of our communities, and even to fix some of the glitches in the food system. Below are four social initiatives created by the community for the community.

1. Robin Food (Belgium): Surplus food for vulnerable communities

Robin Food is an initiative born in Belgium, responding to two problems created by the coronavirus quarantines: 1) the closure of restaurants, cafés, and canteens is leaving farmers with large volumes of unsold surplus vegetables; 2) many people have also lost their jobs, which means that many of them and their families may no longer be able to afford the price of a healthy, nutritious diet. Robin Food buys surplus vegetables at auctions from regional farmers and employs processing companies (also hit by the crisis) to process the vegetables into soups, sauces, and spreads to lengthen their shelf life. It then distributes them to food aid actors that will offer them to the most vulnerable members of communities. 

The initiative is currently crowdfunded, but the partners behind Robin Food (enVie, Rikolto, RIMO, Riso, and EIT Food) are currently developing a sustainable economic model to ensure the project’s future. Their idea would be to offer the soups, juices and spreads at a slightly higher price in high-end supermarkets: included in the price of one product would be a donation that would allow the same product to sell at a reduced price in social grocery stores. 

2. Hilfma App (Austria): Helping older neighbours with their groceries 

Neighbourhood aid movements are also on the rise. A group of committed students from all over Austria has developed a new app to support their grandparents and other people in risk groups in the fight against coronavirus. On the app, users (from or representing such high-risk groups) can specify what food or products they need and either share their address or their GPS position. This way, other users (from lower-risk groups) can find out if someone in their area needs any help with grocery shopping, medicines, or any other request. Since older people often do not own a smartphone or aren’t able to use the app, the app is designed specifically to allow young people to manage the requests on behalf of their elderly relatives. 

Similar neighbourhood aid is being organised in the UK on the Nextdoor platform, which since the beginning of quarantine, has been swarming with new volunteers and elderly requests for help. 

3. Big Barn (United Kingdom): Connecting farmers directly with customers

BigBarn is an online webshop for local food in the UK. It has developed an online tool to help British citizens directly connect with local food producers and distributors, which has become increasingly popular during the coronavirus outbreak. The aim of the platform is to connect consumers directly with small producers and distributors. The platform allows local farmers and retailers to earn more from what they produce and provides consumers with fresher and more accountable food. 

A similar initiative has just been created in Italy, called Zizzu. It’s a digital map that pins down all of the small local shops, not only related to food, that could organise home delivery during quarantine. 

4. Semi e Piante Facebook Group (Italy): Sharing seeds for home gardening

As social distancing and lockdown measures jeopardise the harvesting of some crops, people around the world have been turning to gardening as a soothing hobby. The demand has quickly overwhelmed the seed industry, leading to the rise of several seed exchange networks. Many of these informal exchanges take place on social media, in particular on Facebook groups, where people can offer seeds or ask for them in their region, and novices can find answers to their gardening questions. 

The Italian Semi e Piante Facebook Group is just an example of many–a quick search via the FB search bar revealed similar concepts and groups in other countries, such as the Spanish Intercambio De Semillas Libres and the UK Free Seed Share or Swap

5. Mobilisons-nous (France): Citizens help farmers harvest crops

In many European countries, lockdown measures are challenging farmers, who rely on foreign seasonal workers coming to harvest fruits and vegetables. This French initiative is attempting to connect farmers who need help with planting, sowing, harvesting, or driving machinery, with local or regional people who are available to help in the fields. Both parties need to fill out a form on the Mobilisons-nous website. Farmers will state what kind of help they need, and volunteers will list the skills they can offer. The platform will automatically present volunteers’ profiles to matching farmers.

6. Gabenzaun (Germany): Food bags hanging from fences for those in need.

Pictures portraying food bags hanging from fences in Germany have been circulating on social media. The name of this practice, Gabenzaun, literally means “fence of gifts”: German citizens are anonymously hanging fruits, vegetables, clothes and other essentials to fences around towns and cities. This is pure, anonymous kindness that doesn’t seek any public display or recognition and allows those in need to avoid any feeling of public shame. 

These initiatives are all somewhat revolutionary. They may have started as temporary solutions, but they show that we are all coming to cherish (especially in counterintuitive environments like big metropoles) the beauty in community bonds. These make us feel more secure, supported, and self-sustained, and they have the power to transform mere transactions into interactions that reward everyone who takes part in them. The coronavirus crisis is making us appreciate cooperation over competition, but once this is all over, will we remember these lessons? And will we make the highly competitive global food system adapt to these rediscovered values? I certainly hope so. 

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