Many people living with and beyond a cancer diagnosis received emergency food parcels from the government for the many weeks of lockdown. A recent survey of shielding experience undertaken by Public Health Scotland reported that 7% of respondents said they were struggling to access food that met their needs. Food provides much to our lives not limited just to nutrients. Professor Geraldine McNeill from The University of Edinburgh who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and a second breast cancer in 2010 provides some wider perspectives on food provision.

In March 2020 an estimated 1.5 million people across the UK were instructed to ‘shield’ themselves indoors because of their particular vulnerability to COVID-19. For those who could not obtain food by other means, local authorities were instructed to deliver weekly food parcels. Initially some parcels contained only snack foods but most contained foods on a list drawn up by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which included dry or canned foods (rice, pasta, meat, tuna, soup, tomatoes, baked beans and peas) along with long-life milk, tea, coffee, biscuits, sliced bread and fresh potatoes, fruit and vegetables. Nutrient analysis of one parcel showed a calorie content of 1,900 calories per day and adequate protein, vitamins and minerals for an adult, apart from vitamin D for which supplements were advised.

Although many were grateful to receive basic supplies which were sometimes not available from supermarkets, even when a priority online grocery delivery slot could be secured, the limited variety of the foods only allowed a rather monotonous diet unless supplemented by existing food stocks such as butter/margarine, condiments, cooking oil and onions. Importantly, there was no provision for religious or other dietary preferences e.g. vegetarian diets, which reduced menu choices further and may have led to food waste. In Scotland advice was developed for enhancing the parcel contents but these modifications were only voluntary. The UN General Comment on the Right to Food explicitly states that this shall not be interpreted in a narrow sense which equates it with a package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients.  During times of stress such as illness and isolation, having fresh, familiar and tasty foods to eat and share can be a major source of pleasure and comfort: being able to keep to dietary choices or restrictions such as low GI or halal foods is also important for a sense of identity and well-being. While the parcels provided during lockdown met basic needs we should look for opportunities to learn from the experience so that we can improve this kind of  food provision in future.

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