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How can we build resilient food systems in the COVID-19 recovery?

Ahead of our upcoming event  discussing this topic, Maddie Guerlain, from Sustainlooks at how the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of our food system. 

When it comes to food, coronavirus has been like water flooding through a valley, seeping into every nook and cranny to exploit the cracks and exerting pressure in every place it touches. Whether it’s exposing weaknesses in the ‘just in time’ approach of our supply chains or the fragility of household shopping budgets that were already far too stretched, there has been no issue left untouched.  

At the same time, the resilience of local communities and their ability to respond in a crisis has never been so tested nor strengthened than what we’ve seen over the last few months.

Local councils, community centres, schools, catering companies, volunteers, food partnerships or alliances, farms, hospitality staff and others have rallied together in record time to pivot or develop new operations, health and safety protocols, supply chains and referral systems in order to ensure that no one is left without a safety net while in lockdown, whether due to medical or financial vulnerability.  

We’ve already overcome many formidable challenges, but throughout our networks at Sustain all eyes are now looking towards the future. How do we maintain momentum and support for all the good work that’s taken place? What short-term responses now need to be let go or adapted for the long-term? 

What new seeds do we need to plant today, in order to create a more robust food system for the future? 

Good food for everyone 

Over the last few years, we’ve seen household food insecurity increase among British families, most clearly through the rising use of food banks across the country. COVID-19 has magnified this issue exponentially, with the Food Foundation estimating that close to 5 million adults are currently food insecure, compared with 2 million pre-lockdown, and which includes 1.7 million children living in these households. 

While the distribution of emergency food aid is paramount in a crisis situation, whether COVID-19 or otherwise, we now must look to enhance and develop ways of supporting families that avoid the institutionalisation of food aid in the UK. For example, by extending the provision of Free Schools Meals, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers, bringing back or topping up Local Welfare Assistance schemes, reducing the waiting times for Universal Credit and ensuring jobs pay at least the real Living Wage.

Families need to have money in their pockets in order to be able to buy the food they want, and should not have to rely on food banks in the long-term.  

At a wider level, implementing a Right to Food within local and national law would go one step further to ensure piecemeal approaches are no longer the norm. This is one of a series of socio-economic human rights (like healthcare and housing) which, when enshrined in law, require that our government and service providers make sure no one goes without when enacting policy. A Right to Food acts as a backbone to build up long-term change, accountability and legal structures to ensure no one will go to bed hungry 

Good food production 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the precariousness of our food supply chains, from a reliance on low-paid farm contracts primarily filled by migrant workers to the inflexibility of mass distribution systems under the closing of the hospitality sector. What has rung true throughout these disruptions is the under-valuing of many workers along this supply chain, whether the people picking leeks on a farm to those working at the supermarket checkout. Their role as essential workers has never been more evident, and yet we have no yet seen working conditions and pay improve to match this.  

Cheap food has deep repercussions down the supply chain, domestically and internationally, and so we now must ensure that all workers within the food system are valued for their contribution to the nation’s survival.

COVID-19 has brought these issues to the public attention in a way never seen before, and presents a key moment for fundamental change. Local veg box schemes have seen demand soar, and independent and community retailers are proving instrumental for a steady source of household food and goods. There are working alternatives already in place – we must now take the next steps so they can grow, replicate and reach more people.   

Finally, all this action must take place within the context of Brexit and the climate and nature emergency. Both will shape the COVID-19 recovery as well as future generations in terms of agriculture, trade, livelihoods, animal welfare, nutrition, food producers in the UK and abroad, and affordability. To re-build our food system in the coming months, at local and national levels, we must aim to find common focus among all three of these issues, COVID-19, Brexit and climate change, in order to channel public and private investment to enhance public health, the welfare of our planet and the resilience of local economies.  

Building the movement 

Local leadership has been at the forefront of the most effective responses, working best when councils tap into pre-existing relationships to enhance collaboration among key players and ensure that navigation of the new systems are smooth for anyone in need. We’ve seen food alliance and partnerships, many of whom are members of Food Power and Sustainable Food Places, make invaluable contributions in terms of helping develop responses that take a joined-up approach to food provision in relation to access to food and affordability, health and nutrition, and support for local producers and food businesses.  

There is a wealth of wisdom and lived experience within our communities, much of which has been brought to the forefront in responding to this crisisTapping into these strengths is how we will best be able to harness the energy of COVID-19 flooding into our lives so that we can build a more resilient food system. 

Register to attend a panel discussion on this topic, hosted by Local Trust in partnership with Sustain.