Ensuring food aid in a time of crisis

27 March 2020

The following article tracks lessons learned from the city of Milan, or how a health emergency can soon become a food emergency without adequate measures from the city administration.

Andrea Magarini is responsible for the food policy of the city of Milan and is chair of the Eurocities working group on food. During an evening webinar this week we heard from him about the experience of the city of Milan and its food team in setting up a safe food distribution system for all of those that cannot go out of their homes during the COVID-19 crisis.

Events unfolded very fast in the city of Milan, together with the spread of COVID-19 cases in the Lombardy region.

First came the decision to close schools in Milan. As a consequence, and quite suddenly, a lot of food became available that needed to be redistributed to all those in need to avoid food waste.
Following this, the lockdown began: this meant engaging with all actors from retailers to volunteers and others active in the food donation system.
The current food donation system faced two main issues. Firstly, a high number of everyday volunteers are people aged over 65 years old. Secondly, there was no single list of people that already benefited from the programme or that are now in need of support as a result of the lockdown.

In a few days, more than 215 food retailers were involved that had been forced to close as well as around 60 additional stakeholders, among which are the civil defence centre – the emergency response system in Italy – and the red cross.
A new system had to be put in place: 7 food hubs were created across the city to serve all those in need. A collaboration was started between three municipal departments, and municipal employees were engaged in the system which is monitored and supervised by the municipality. Today 150 people are involved in the food donation system, including 40 municipal employees coordinating each of the food hubs and 50 drivers.

In the first week a total of 1,000 people benefited from the programme, during the second week that number rose to 7,000 people, and it is expected that 15,000 people will be in need of food aid each week in the weeks to come.

The main challenges are ensuring safety, especially in the transport and handling of food. The volunteers and other workers are provided with masks, gloves and a training A strict protocol has also been put in place, with guidelines that are now available in English.

The city has additionally set up a support scheme: Milano Aiuta, ‘Milan helps’ to match the needs of those that cannot go out with private sector or volunteer offers.

With this in mind, a further issue arises regarding the organisation of shopping times for those that can go to the supermarket: people can only enter at a slow rate and the supermarkets have a long queue and long waiting times. To deal with this a new app now monitors the waiting time at each supermarket, allowing people to go to their nearby ones, when there is a shorter queue. Other solutions are being tested. For example, advance time booking for accessing the supermarket or collaborating with supermarkets to drop shopping in lockers, which are disinfected after every use.

The Milan food team felt that, on the one hand they were in luck because they already have a system for cooperation with stakeholders in place. While, on the other hand, teleworking and the closing of offices has made such coordination slower than usual. The employees are relying on WhatsApp groups to keep the contacts and the service going.

Recording and material from the webinar is available after login on the Eurocities website.

Photo credit Alessandro Grassani.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer