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Strengthening Food Donation Operations During the COVID-19 Crisis

This article was written by Regan Plekenpol, FLPC Intern.


The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and The Global FoodBanking Network Release an Issue Brief to Guide Governments Around the Globe.

Among the many devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is a rapid rise in global hunger and food insecurity. In the coming months, the number of people facing acute food insecurity —135 million in 2019— is expected to double.[1]The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned of this “looming food crisis.”[2] It further called upon governments to take a strategic, multi-sector approach in implementing policies to combat food system failures, supply chain fractures, and barriers to food access. [3] 

According to a new issue brief from the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), governments should recognize food donation operations as integral to this approach. Strengthening Food Donation Operations During COVID-19: Key Issues and Best Practices for Governments Around the Globe advocates for public-private partnerships to mitigate hunger and food insecurity during the pandemic.[4] The brief was released as part of The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas, a partnership between FLPC and GFN that maps food donation laws in 15 countries, and recommends policy solutions to the most common legal barriers. (Learn more about the project and explore initial findings, here).

Food banks and other food recovery organizations have long served as a solution to widespread socioeconomic repercussions of poverty and food injustice. Globally, over 1/3 of the food produced—or 1.3 billion tons—ends up in landfills,[5] while more than 820 million people are undernourished.[6] This paradox reveals a massive system inefficiency that undermines both human and planetary health. Under ordinary circumstances, food banks help to mitigate the damage by redirecting safe, surplus food to those who need it most. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, disruptions in food supply chains have exacerbated these inefficiencies, contributing to greater food loss and waste and a heightened risk of hunger for far too many. As a result, food banks around the world are seeing a surge in demand, yet are facing newfound challenges to effective operation. 

According to FLPC and GFN, there is a need for greater government action to help food banks respond to these challenges and to ensure that food donation operations are better integrated as part of the global pandemic response. The issue brief illustrates how governments can better protect and leverage these vital organizations to promote food security and food system resilience. It details how enhancing food donation operations will enable governments to rapidly deploy emergency food aid, strengthen national and local food systems, prevent costly food loss and waste, and alleviate hunger and food insecurity for at-risk populations. To achieve these outcomes, the issue brief calls for governments to take the following policy actions:

  • Formally recognize food banks and food recovery organizations as ‘essential’ to official emergency response;
  • Deploy food banks and food recovery organizations to complement existing social protections, especially school feeding programs for children;
  • Route additional funds and food supplies to help food banks and food recovery organizations meet rising demands and increased operational costs;
  • Exempt food banks and food recovery organizations from certain emergency response restrictions to ensure uninterrupted operation of food donation activities.

Though not exhaustive, these best practices are considered most responsive to concerns expressed by GFN’s member and affiliate organizations in 42 countries. GFN conducted a set of surveys in April and May of 2020 to better understand how COVID-19 and government response measures were impacting organizational activities.[7]

Findings from these surveys confirm that COVID-19 has drastically shifted the global food landscape in a way that has made food donation operations more critical than ever. New sources of food loss and waste, and new barriers to food access have emerged due to restrictions on movement; the closure of restaurants, schools, institutional kitchens, and hospitality venues; labour shortages; and shuttered processing plants, among other disruptions. Low income populations and families with children are especially affected by increased difficulty in accessing assistance programs like free school lunches and charitable kitchens. Many individuals are therefore in need of emergency food assistance and are turning to food banks for support.

However, many of these facilities lack the capacity to sustainably respond to the uptick in demand. The issue brief highlights that more than half of food banks (54%) in GFN surveyed countries reported an immediate and critical funding shortfall, with food banks around the world anticipating a shortfall of 76-100%.[8] In order for food banks to meet the needs of beneficiaries, they will require more paid staff and protection for those employees, expanded transportation and logistics support, and explicit government recognition as an essential component of official crisis response and preparedness measures.

Legal recognition of food banks as ‘essential service’ organizations allows governments to more easily allocate such resources to food rescue and distribution operations at the federal, state and local levels.[9] For example, such explicit recognition has allowed the U.S. government to allocate more than $3 billion in direct commodity purchases for food banks and $850 million in support of food donation efforts.[10] Yet, to date, few countries formally incorporate food banks as part of official disaster response and preparedness measures.

Excluding food banks from these strategies represents a missed opportunity on several fronts, as food banks have the potential to help bolster social protection programs and reach marginalized populations. In several countries, governments have started to tap into the existing infrastructure and local service networks of these organizations in order to reach the most food insecure. Still, there is an opportunity to improve upon this collaboration. In particular, the brief details the innovative approach some governments have taken in collaborating with food banks to provide meals to school children in the wake of pandemic school closures.[11]

Greater consultation with food recovery organizations when developing and implementing emergency response will ensure that governments enable rather than undermine food donation operations.[12] Carving out exceptions to curfews and other protectionist measures that impede continued operations, for example, is an important step in promoting positive collaboration. Government action that does not accommodate, engage, and remove barriers from food banks in the emergency response weakens capacity to attend to the basic rights of its citizens.

In fact, even in this unprecedented crisis, governments still bear the primary duty to progressively realize the right to food for all people.[13] This means taking affirmative steps to ameliorate hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition, especially for those who shoulder the dual burden of poverty and COVID-19. Achieving this goal requires policies that directly strengthen the operations of food banks and food recovery organizations, while avoiding COVID-19 response measures that inadvertently or purposefully undermine food donation efforts.

Based on these principles, the issue brief is intended to inspire greater collaboration with these operations through discrete, targeted policy action. As the pandemic continues, governments must afford food donation operations greater attention, both as essential providers of humanitarian relief during this crisis, and as a crucial social safety net partner in the future.


[1] COVID-19 will double number of people facing food crises unless swift action is taken, World Food Programme (April 21, 2020), https://www.wfp.org/news/covid-19-will-double-number-people-facing-food-crises-unless-swift-action-taken.
[2] Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Q & A Food & Agric. Org. of the United Nations (FAO), http://www.fao.org/2019-ncov/q-and-a/impact-on-food-and-agriculture/en/, (last visited June 18, 2020).
[3] Id.
[4] FLPC and GFN, Strengthening Food Donation Operations During COVID-19: Key Issues and Best Practices for Governments Around the Globe (2020), https://www.foodbanking.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Global-Food-Donation-Policy-Atlas-COVID19-Issue-Brief.pdf
[5] Food & Agric. Org. of the U.N., Global Food Losses and Food Waste—Extent, Causes, and Prevention 4 (2011), http://www.fao.org/3/a-i2697e.pdf
[6] Food & Agric. Org. of the U.N, et al., The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: Safeguarding Against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns 6 (2019), http://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf.
[7] GFN, COVID Pulse Survey government partnerships – April 2020 (39 countries represented, 43 food banks/national networks respondents) May 2020 (45 countries, 48 food banks/national networks respondents) (on file with authors).
[8] FLPC and GFN, supra note 4 at 6 (2020).
[9] Id. at 2.
[10] Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pub. L. No. 116-127 (2020); Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Pub. L. No. 116-136 (2020); USDA Announces Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, USDA (Apr. 17, 2020), https://www.usda.gov/media/ press-releases/2020/04/17/usda-announces-coronavirus-food-assistance-program.
[11] FLPC and GFN, supra note 4 at 4 (2020)
[12] Id. at 8.
[13] See International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, art. 11, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Jan. 3, 1976) and UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 12: The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11), E/C.12/1999/5 (12 May 1999).

The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation or Harvard Law School. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.