In this blog, we hear from Dr. John Lever, Reader at the Centre for Sustainability, Responsibility, Governance and Ethics at the University of Huddersfield. John has been conducting research on the regional food system in Kirklees in West Yorkshire for over five years. This blog post draws on a recent University of Huddersfield funded project (A safe and just local food system) exploring its changing dynamics during the Covid-19 health pandemic.
Kirklees in West Yorkshire, which has a population of 422,458, is a diverse region socially, geographically and economically. Covering a mixed urban and rural area of 408.6 km², the average life expectancy of residents in the urban north of the borough around Batley and Dewsbury is up to five years less than residents in the more prosperous parts of the rural south around the Holme Valley.
As the Covid-19 health pandemic unfolded, and a bullwhip effect in international supply chains emptied supermarket shelves, farm shops across the region experienced a rapid and unprecedented surge in demand. Indeed, despite the intensity of the problems that emerged during this period, with many local artisan food producers struggling to survive, the regional food system largely came into its own, adapting quickly to a rapidly changing situation.
When cafes, restaurants and hotels closed and locked down, farmers and food producers across the region were extremely worried about the future. But as the crisis unfolded, many began to proposer, as local people turned to independent retailers, home deliveries, and farm shops in increasing numbers. The regional food system, it soon emerged, had the capacity and flexibility to respond to the crisis in new and innovative ways.
As they have in other places, farm shops in particular thrived during the Covid-19 lockdown, providing access to a wide variety of fresh produce from family run farms across the region. All kinds of innovations soon appeared. Some farm shops simply converted their stores to accommodate social distancing, while others changed to delivery only. Some started delivery services across a wider geographical area, while others started delivery services for the elderly, vulnerable and those advised to self-isolate; another started delivering ‘isolation boxes’ and (as a new lockdown routine emerged) Sunday lunches using their own produce and locally sourced chicken and turkey.
Many farm shops also differentiated their offer, offering a wider variety of grocery products alongside their traditional range of dairy, meat and organic products. Others bagged up rice, pasta and flour, the latter being in particularly high demand from the Pakistani community in the urban north of the borough. Demand in some shops tripled or quadrupled in a very short period.
These changes were welcomed. They were also accompanied by a feeling that the crisis had slowed people down, given them time to think, and forced them to shop in places where they don’t go anymore, to shops that don’t have big car parks. Interviewees noted that local people have once more started to visit ‘the villages’ where farm shops are located, which have suffered greatly in recent decades in line with the expansion of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres. Covid-19,it appeared, was bridging the rural-urban divide across the borough in unanticipated ways.
In the food bank age, national and local policy makers tend to assume that food banks are the answer to everything, and Kirklees is no exception. Deprived of central Government funding over many years, food banks and supermarkets provide local authorities with much needed sources of support. But the crisis has started to challenge some of these assumptions.
A number of interviewees suggested that farms shops aren’t as expensive as many people imagine, and that local people often avoid them, not because of price, but because supermarkets are easier to access on the way home from work for people leading busy lives. But as people consider their options in a post Covid-19 world, and employers allow their employees to work at home on a more regularly basis, there are signs that sourcing local food will potentially become the new normal for many people. While farm shops lack the capacity to serve entire populations, there is no doubt, as the crisis has shown, that they have a greater role to play enhancing the resilience of regional food systems. Family farms and farms shops feature in the academic literature on short supply chains and local food, but as we ease uncertainly out of lockdown, perhaps they will become a more regular feature of academic debate and everyday life.
You can follow John on Twitter @DrJohnLever
An overview of John’s research can be found on his staff profile page at the University of Huddersfield.