There are so many ongoing discussions about what will happen when we are ‘back to normal’, if we ever can be, and what a ‘new normal’ may look like.
Some boroughs and counties have taken quick action to the delivery slot shortages and empty shelves caused by stockpiling by using their existing food networks and quickly linking up with services and charities to get food and meals to the known vulnerable populations and adjusting quickly to the reality for the newly vulnerable.
MEALS FOR THE VULNERABLE
Authorities are continuing to provide school meals in some form even though they previously had not filled this function when schools are closed. It was a relief when the government decided not to expect local authorities to cover the feeding costs during ‘school holidays’ and hopefully there will now be a greater understanding of the need to provide all-year round feeding for the country’s most vulnerable children.
Optimistically, I would like to see the attitude that led to the government rejecting Frank Field’s 2018 Private members Bill in favour of more pilots and research, quickly metamorphosing into central government funding for school meals, rather than passing the burden on to under-funded local authorities.
Vouchers are a popular solution with government because the people making decisions have never had to live in a food desert, or in a home without kitchen equipment, or in a refuge and, in the event they have nobody in the home that can cook, they can eat out, deliver in or afford reasonably nutritional ready meals if they choose to. Vouchers cannot be relied upon to feed the vulnerable of any age, food is what is required.
A good practice example is Tameside MBC. Tameside reacted quickly to the crisis; their food strategy group is obviously more than a strategic talk shop, its members want action on poverty, allotments, food waste and resources and take it. Working with Fareshare, Anthony Seddon Fund https://tasfund.org.uk/, Jigsaw Homes https://www.jigsawhomes.org.uk/, Cracking Good Food https://crackinggoodfood.org/ , Infinity http://www.infinitycic.uk/ and the council Food Safety team they have worked quickly to protect the vulnerable and those most at risk.
Included in their actions was the enrolment of street food traders and homecooks into an army of people willing and able to take food deliveries from the likes of Fareshare and batch cook them up into meals for those most in need. Cooks with kitchens that have been inspected by their local authority can simultaneously help others and themselves – having nobody to feed (and no income stream) is a depressing outlook for food business owners. It would be great if this could continue ‘after’, so that the growing numbers of people reliant on food banks can have access to fresher foods.
INCREASE IN LOCAL DELIVERY SERVICES
The localised Covid Support groups that sprung up so quickly, quickly turned to local suppliers when the supermarkets were unable to deliver. People knew that digital communications wouldn’t reach the most vulnerable, and that county-wide resource databases would probably be incomplete, because the people who have the necessary information aren’t necessarily on council radars, and so independent businesses adapted to deliver all sorts of items, from paint to bird seed, fresh fish to orange juice to a much wider audience and neighbourhoods organised postcard campaigns to let neighbours know that there was somebody who was there for them, even though their families couldn’t be. On our local group, I have seen panicked requests from people abroad unable to check on their parents and grandparents met with selfless offers of help and shopping (particularly necessary when so many shops have understandably gone contactless and many people prefer/have no option available but to use cash).
Not only are people who have never had to go without, suddenly facing the sort of shortages faced daily by the time-poor, food poor and people in insecure employment, but our just-in-time, nationalised food chains have shown themselves as unfit for this purpose. This week I met our local Grimsby Fresh Fish travelling unit, with a van full of paid-for preorders and a selection of fresh fish for impulse purchases. He told me that he is busier now than at any time over the last few years, he has many new customers and his existing customers are spending more each time than they were before lockdown. His particular new sector are people used to shopping at the ‘upmarket’ stores such as M&S and Waitrose but are now shopping closer to home. They see that not only is the cost of this fish less than they are used to paying, but the product is far fresher. Hopefully, realising how flexible this service is, his new customers will stay with him.
People who moved to towns and villages with a reasonably healthy, independent and diverse high street but whose busy lives meant that they couldn’t access those shops because of their traditional opening hours are now enjoying their local amenities. Many have branched into delivery for the first time and as a result, are maybe seeing for the first time that they can both modernise AND get better. For these stores, the ‘after’ question might be how flexible they want to be in the future to retain these new customers.
EXIT STRATEGIES FOR F&B
Some countries have already started to share their exit strategies for ‘after’. Austria currently hopes to allow restaurants gradually from mid-May and to review every tow or three weeks. This review could of course result in another full lockdown if there is a second viral peak, making it difficult for businesses to persuade lenders to support them and for government to decide how, when and where to target support.
If particular types of businesses need to be prioritised at the expense of others, what will be the basis of that priority?
The food and beverage sector has become the keystone of many town centre revivals and there are many self-employed independents within that sector who haven’t been furloughed and are struggling to make ends meet with grant aid not kicking in till June and a huge backlog of Universal Credit applications. How many of these businesses will be willing to take the risk of reopening, once life starts to go back to the new ‘normal’? How many local authorities, whose staff are being internally redeployed to ‘key tasks’ have the time to consider what they will do if they add fistfuls of newly empty properties to their pre-Covid19 vacancy rates?
With social distancing needing to remain in place for some time (and probably for vulnerable groups, even longer), restaurant and bar staff may need to wear masks whilst at work and tables will need to be reduce in number, to allow for social distancing. Businesses will have some element of their cash flow forecasts based on the number of covers they have and how often these covers might turn over per day. If tables are forcibly removed, these forecasts will be redundant and some businesses will not be able to see a profit as possible. Others might see compulsory mask wearing as detrimental to both their ambiance and average spend. If customer numbers and spend drop, every type of restaurant might face closure – from Michelin stars to neighbourhood bistros. What will happen then to the staff, the local economy, the food chains and the premises?
BEACONS OF HOPE
There are many ways in which a new vision for our food economy could innovate, experiment and gamble to capitalise on the changes that Covid19 has brought but it will require all levels of an organisation to an ability to let go of habit and to become less risk averse.
Covid19 has shifted our daily experiences heavily into locality – places you can walk to or who will deliver to you – a more flexible attitude to diet and a practical understanding of how much food we normally waste. With the right type of support and plenty of imagination, our communities could become more sustainable across all the income levels and maybe food poverty can be finally addressed on the scale necessary to largely bring it to a halt?
This wont be ‘out of the box’thinking, it will be ‘throw the box into the recycling bin and dream boldly.
But everyone needs data. We do not know how many food-related businesses have survived this far, how many can hang on for another month or two, how many have lost their owners, how many have lost the will to carry on. We need to be asking these questions now, so that when an exit finally becomes visible, we understand what we need to so that as many of us as possible reach it.
EXAMPLES TO INSPIRE
Wales, often ahead on food strategy and locality since devolution, is addressing food poverty, links to Covid-19 and the climate emergency https://foodmanifesto.wales/2020/03/31/homegrown-food-pandemic/ and a Covid response food group set up only 3 weeks ago https://plantfood.machynlleth.wales/
Farms to Feed Us, set up as a database of smaller scale farmers, growers, dairies, wineries, bakeries and independent shops that will now sell directly to consumers. Many of them sold exclusively to wholesalers or restaurants in the past. It’s divided into producers that deliver both locally and nationally. https://www.cathystgermansevents.com/farms-to-feed-us
Community Fridges – Worcester are among the early adopters of community fridges as part of a network run by Hubbub since 2017 and which piloted in Derbyshire in 2016. The average UK family wastes £810 a year by throwing away food and drink, and £3 billion is wasted by food sectors. Community fridges could be a valuable addition to food banks. https://www.hubbub.org.uk/the-community-fridge
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