The much-anticipated second wave is already bringing with it round two of empty shelves and booked delivery slots. Tescos and Morrisons are limiting items, such as toilet roll, flour, dried pasta, and anti-bacterial wipes. While Ocado and Sainsbury’s are warning customers they’re experiencing high demand online.
In March, Covid-19 highlighted just how vulnerable the UK’s food supply chains were – and the slow reaction of retailers taking action to ration caused a devastating ripple effect. So will we have enough food this winter? And how did lockdown change our shopping habits? We speak to those keeping Britain fed.
Did lockdown change our food shopping habits?
Earlier this year, cheesemakers were forced to throw out produce because they weren’t able to sell it. The craft beer industry was equally hard hit, with makers flushing beer down the drain. And many farmers left fruit and vegetables to rot in fields because there were no workers available to pick them. It was tough – and they had little preparation.
“The collapse in food service has been terrible,” says John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food, who represents 1,300 small food and drink businesses in the UK and has been working closely with independent retailers throughout the crisis.
“Any food producer who supplies to restaurants, pubs and hotels have had their orders fall off a cliff because of closures and a lack of workers. However, during lockdown, there was a huge shift in supporting your local shop. Whether it’s a deli, farm shop or a convenience store, there was a big uplift in sales.”
Farmers found new supply opportunities, building community through local food purchasing and adapting quickly to the fast-changing situation – but it’s left supermarkets lagging behind in the dust.
“Supermarkets have let people down,” says Abby Allen, sales and marketing director at Pipers Farm in Devon, who works with 25 small-scale family farms. Allen believes they haven’t been able to “pivot and meet demands”, adding that their supply chains have been “slow to react”.
“Shopping behaviours are changing fast and many aren’t going back to supermarkets and opting to support local instead,” she says.
Will we have enough food for winter, then?
Coronavirus had a detrimental effect on the UK’s food supply earlier this year, but in the last six months, many have worked around the clock to strengthen broken links with producers and to create a better food supply chain that works for everyone for future generations to come.
“Without sounding romantic – hopefully, there’ll be less globalisation and buying only what we need in the future,” says Farrand. “There’s an understanding again about locality, seasonality, and how you can get your weekly shop from a one-mile radius.”
Catherine Chong, director of Farms to Feed Us, a nationwide database that was set up in response to Covid-19, also believes food supply is healthy. “We’re not seeing a lack of food in the UK,” she says. “In fact, what’s happening is retailing can’t keep up with the supply of food on certain lines. There’s enough food out there, people just have to look elsewhere and beyond the supermarket.”
Farmers and farmworkers like Allen are now classed as key workers, which defines the importance of their work keeping people fed through a difficult time. “We’re a very adaptable, resilient bunch and we’re used to having to change with nature – Covid-19 has been no different,” explains Allen. “Farmers have developed a relationship directly with their customers. They get feedback and they can learn from that.”
Of course, supermarkets are more prepared this time around. Some are limiting items, while others are prepared to add in restrictions if and when is necessary. It’s likely we won’t see the empty shelves for as long as we did in March. Supermarkets are convenient – one-stop-shops with everything you need under one roof. And not everyone can afford to shop locally, especially during one of the deepest recessions this country has faced since records began.
But Farrand says produce isn’t always more expensive than the supermarkets. “A lot of farm shops are better quality at the same price or sometimes cheaper,” he says, “certainly on things like meat, fruit, and vegetables than in supermarkets.”
So, how will people shop for food now?
One of the societal benefits to lockdown and the pandemic is that it’s made us reassess, strengthen links and figure out what was wrong pre-Covid. From how we organise getting food from A to B to how we help small-scale farmers.
Online shopping has become a lifeline for many, too, and we’re better equipped for a digital world. People who had never shopped online before have put aside their fears and embraced virtually purchasing goods from websites and apps. As well as supermarkets, Allen says the likes of Farmdrop, Riverford and Natoora are “changing the game and making it a real pleasure for people to be able to shop online”.
Of course, supermarkets will always be an option – and sometimes the only option – for many. But resisting the urge to panic-buy will mean there’s enough to go around for everyone. Anxiety is likely to be what fuels stockpiling, but Hansa Pankhania, a therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said it’s also driven by helplessness, fear and loss of control.
When people panic-buy it’s a “gesture”, she explained – they’re doing something to help themselves in an otherwise helpless situation. When we have no control over the bigger picture, we crave control in our “micro world” – our home and daily routines. Buy stuff, by all means, but do so sensibly. And remember, even in the full lockdown in March, we were still able to visit the supermarket every day. With the latest restrictions, we can still do the same.