As pandemic restrictions lift, the vaccine roll-out continues and we excitedly welcome our community back to Mercato Metropolitano, I live with the hope that we have seen the last of these cruel lockdowns.

I can understand the necessity of the last lockdown, which saw an already under-resourced NHS pushed to the brink and thousands upon thousands of tragic deaths. However, it is crucial we recognise that even as COVID-19 cases reduce, the burden these lockdowns have placed on people’s physical and mental health has not.

At the end of March, almost five million people were reported to be awaiting treatment — a new record high Almost 10% of these people have been waiting for their treatment to start now for over a year. In context, just over 3,000 people have been waiting more than a year to start treatment in March 2020.

Many of these patients are awaiting treatment for cancer and other chronic health conditions. And this does not even begin to consider the mental health pandemic that has emerged after a year of isolation.

But linked to this is perhaps the most under-recognised tragedy of all that leaves the biggest stain on the Government’s handling of the pandemic — the malnourishment of our children. The long-term health implications of this are yet to be seen, but I have no doubt they will be more than considerable.

With children back in schools since March, it seems that the issue of food poverty has fallen off the news agenda. But cast your minds back to January, when widely circulated images of food packages sent to vulnerable families revealed the shocking reality for many of our young people.

As an alternative to free school meal vouchers, the Government employed a private company to distribute food boxes containing food that you would not serve to a dog. Brown bananas, room temperature yoghurt tubes, halved vegetables and portions of tuna flakes and cheese served in plastic bags.

Once again, Marcus Rashford stepped up and spoke out — as did hunger relief campaigner and food writer Jack Monroe and thousands more — and the Government quickly made it clear that they deemed the food parcels unacceptable.

But their quick response makes it no less of a shock to see what some in this country think a vulnerable family can and should get by on.

The prevailing attitude in some quarters is one that suggests those in food poverty should be grateful for whatever they get. But they not only deserve better, they need better.

As one Twitter user worked out, the total amount of calories in one of the most widely circulated images were fewer than 3000. Consider that a growing child should be consuming half to two-thirds that amount in a single day, this package was designed to feed a full family for an entire week.

There are around three million people in the UK who are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. The cost to NHS England alone is over £19 billion each year. The consequences range from increased risk of illness and lower quality of life, to reduced energy levels and low moods.

The UN officially recognised the importance of addressing this through a healthy diet in December, declaring 2021 the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.

There is a dual aim to this: firstly, as an opportunity to improve infrastructure, implement farming practices to support small scale farmers and reduce food waste in the supply chain, but also to promote a more holistic approach to nutrition.

The UN’s Director-General for Food and Agriculture, Qu Dongyu, described the initiative as a unique opportunity to raise global awareness of the fight against hunger and malnutrition, saying: “In the current health crisis we are facing around the world, promoting healthy diets to strengthen our immune systems is especially appropriate.”

And yet in a year when much of the population’s physical health has been at risk from COVID-19, it is baffling to me that policy makers and businesses here in the UK are still failing to recognise the importance of food.

As I have written about many times before, food is crucial not only for our nutrition but for our social connections. For many, it is the experience of food that gives us some of the best moments of our lives. And at a time when social connections are lacking, food is the literal crumb of comfort for many, with meals the central part of these monotonous lockdown days — perhaps the only time of the day we escape from our work desks or the endless worrying news cycle.

Everyone deserves to have this escape and have access to good food that they can enjoy with their families. And when this food is nutritious, it has a positive impact on our mental health as well as physical.

I fear that the Government’s slow response to implementing free school meals during school holidays last year and the inadequate excuse for ‘meals’ that we saw in the third lockdown, are symptoms of a leadership that has no plan to address the mental health implications spiralling from it.

While the first lockdown last spring brought mental health casualties — with 60% of adults and more than two-thirds of young people reportedly saying their mental health suffered — it was in some sense made easier by impactful government finance packages, a sense of community spirit, unusually good weather and an unknown aspect to the pandemic that meant we could not have envisioned how long it would cause us suffering.

More than a year on, those who were not impacted mentally in the first lockdown or even the second ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in November, certainly were in the third.

After the last-minute changes to the Christmas regulations, combined with winter weather and a death toll that shook us all, the mental health support that has not been forthcoming has to be a priority now as we emerge into our new-found freedom. Not least because many are now expected to suffer with ‘reopening anxiety’, or will be worrying again about continuing developments with the so-called ‘Indian variant’ — that may yet again delay the full lifting of restrictions.

BACP-accredited counsellor and spokesperson Louise Tyler explains: “People have at worst faced grave financial adversity, isolation and loneliness or at best, a general sense of uncertainty for more than a year. Even hope about the vaccine is mixed with grief and loss for so many. No matter who we are, we’ve all been prevented at some level from doing the things that bring meaning and pleasure to our lives — socialising, hobbies, eating out, travel and culture.”

She cites Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as an explanation for why this pandemic has taken such a toll: “Maslow’s theory presents human needs in a pyramid, with basic needs at the bottom and more high-level needs at the top. We all start with a set of non-negotiable and basic physiological needs: food, water, warmth, bodily security and protection from attack. These needs must be met before we can address needs such as love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.”

And this is where governments and institutions are persistently failing in the context of the economic and social effects of this pandemic. By failing to meet the basic physical needs of its people — as in the case of the free school meals presented to vulnerable families this week — what hope can there be that those same people’s mental health needs can be addressed?

Tyler advises: “Do what you can to help others, to keep yourself and those around you mentally and physically strong.”

At Mercato Metropolitano, helping others is what we do. And we do this through our community food markets because we know the importance of good food to our physiological well-being, and social connections to our mental health.

Throughout this pandemic, we have delivered food to vulnerable members of our community, offering free meals to school children in need during the holidays, adapting to social distancing to ensure our customers were safe, and keeping our grocery and delivery services open for our community to still be able to enjoy our food.

It has been an incredibly challenging year for us, as it has for so many businesses. But we are more than a business. We are a vital support system for the community and are proud to say that we have played a part in keeping those around us strong. And by doing that, it has made us stronger still, because it helps us to know that we are playing our part in making this terrible time just a little bit easier for the most vulnerable in our cities.

And so now I am calling on our Government, businesses and communities everywhere. At this time of great challenge, where our livelihoods and lives are so vulnerable, we must all do whatever we can to find a way out of these dual physical and mental health pandemics. Whether it is providing good and nutritious food to those in need, or simply taking the time to speak and listen to your nearest and dearest.

Let us all play our part and ensure the adequate support is put in place for the most vulnerable in our society to not only survive and meet their most basic physiological needs, but to live.

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Andrea Rasca

Founder & Chief Executive Dreamer, Mercato Metropolitano. A global movement driving sustainable food development to tackle the world’s biggest societal issues