We are living through the beginnings of the worst food crisis since the Second World War, with warnings that as the global economy slumps the most marginal and vulnerable will face food shortages. The ‘Food Foundation’ reports that just three weeks into the lockdown three million people (6% of the population of the UK) are hungry and 14% report someone in their household skipping meals because they could not afford or access food. Fishers, their ships tied up in harbour because of problems in the supply chain, are resorting to food banks as dairy processors with contracts into the foodservice industry are going bankrupt, resulting in farmers having to waste milk. This fragility in the food system was predictable; indeed, it was by some of the UK’s most knowledgeable food system thinkers.

In the shadow of Brexit, Tim Lang has just published a masterful account of the failings of the British food system. He points to our national vulnerability through reliance on just-in-time delivery systems, delivered through a handful of powerful corporations. This weakness combines with the policy conceit that we can always buy our way out of trouble through global food markets. With climate change requiring urgent change, he points to the human and societal cost of a food system that entrenches inequality while undermining public health. Even in the face of apparent plenty too many of us are poorly nourished, yet feasting on empty calories. For many of us, Professor Lang’s diagnosis is familiar, not least because we have heard him say it repeatedly, over the years, on TV and radio. His book drives the point home, its scope and breadth pushing the points home. At the end of the book, he calls for a ‘Great Food Transformation’.

I do not intend to summarise his suite of policy prescriptions for how we, through our national state, could take control of the food system and in doing so attend to our public health problems and social divisions. But instead, I am going to focus on his call for food citizenship (forgive me, it is my job). Lang makes the point that for this Great Transformation to take place, it will require a re-skilling of most of us to become more discerning purchasers, and less reliant on food out of the home or prepared for us. He points to the important, but the limited success of ‘Food for Life’ in schools and the strides made in educating children in primary schools about food.

In the current COVID-19 crisis, we find ourselves at a moment when we are eating all meals in our homes, the biggest fast-food providers have shut up shop for the duration, and we have time to focus on cooking. I might also point out the slump in advertising of fast foods during the suspension of professional sport. What does the evidence suggest about the changes in our habits? So far, there are signs of change.

The environmental charity Hubbub reports, from a survey of 2000 people, that 44% of people are enjoying cooking more since the lockdown, and 47% enjoying spending more time eating with their household. Food waste is down with 48% reporting throwing away less food, through more careful meal planning (51%) and getting better at using leftovers (41%). Take away eating is crashing, with 43% buying fewer takeaways as they worry about contamination and 41% saving money by not ordering takeaways. There is a surge of interest in local shops, with 29% visiting their local corner store for the first time, with increased interest in butchers, milk deliveries, box schemes, farms shops and greengrocers.

Another YouGov poll conducted for the Food Foundation and the RSA reinforces some of these points. 38% of people say they are cooking from scratch more, with 33% reporting throwing less food away. Respondents are taking up new things, with 6% ordering a veg box or local farm order for the first time, and 14% planning meals for the first time. 42% of people report valuing food and other essentials much more, along with 40% feeling a greater sense of community in their local area.

A local store in Cheltenham with Social Distancing signage

These figures suggest that some people, a majority in some cases, are hunkered down and are living their lives unchanged. Given the short-term time frame, this is perhaps not surprising, instead what is notable is the speed of these changes for some. If those people who are reporting these changes continue with them, this would be the basis of building a very different food economy. It also an appropriate time to debate the shape of the food system as the links between the state and business are laid bare. While a lot of attention has been focused, rightly, on support measures to small business, larger corporations have received support as well; the supermarkets will pay no business rates this year on their properties. Prioritising key workers, the social distancing measures in stores, a focus on the supply of staples, and the limits of the number of items that can be purchased reveal the careful choreographing of our purchasing habits.

Chris Goodall, in his book ‘What we need to do now’, sets out a raft of ‘can do’ ways in which we could rapidly de-carbonise the British economy. It is a breezy, confident set of prescriptions which when I first read them looked technically possible but lacked an explanation of how the political will for them would appear. Horribly we now we seem to be living in a moment of possibility and discussion, arrived at through a terrible cost, that no one wanted, but that we should not waste.

References:

Tim Lang (2020) ‘Feeding Britain. Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them’. Pelican, London.

Chris Goodall (2020) ‘What We Need To Do Now For A Zero Carbon Future’. Profilebooks, London.

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