The impact of COVID-19 forced 90% of people in the UK to change their cooking and eating habits. For the first time, many saw shortages of staple ingredients and struggled to access food.  The ways food reaches our plates became a national conversation and created instant change.  What will be the long-term impact of COVID-19 and how can we build a more resilient and sustainable system?  This was the conversation for 50 diverse organisations brought together as part of the Hubbub Explores workshops. Five key questions emerged. 

1) How do we help those who are struggling? 

COVID-19 has impacted people in significantly different ways, some are baking sourdough whilst others are struggling to put food on the table. Those who face difficulties are defined as being food insecure meaning they cannot access or afford food that is nutritionally adequate and safe. 

The latest research from the Food Foundation suggests that 4.9 million people in the UK including 1.7 million children are food insecure, up from two million pre-lockdown.  15.4 million adults have already lost household income as a result of COVID-19 and financial worries are one of the main reasons for food insecurity.  Concerningly, 68% of people facing food insecurity have not sought help.

Food banks plus support from local councils and community groups have been the safety net to which many have turned, but this support is not consistent across the country and some people are not accessing support because of the stigma associated with seeking help. 

Ensuring people can afford to eat is a fundamental requirement of government and adequate policies and financial support must be in place to meet the needs of a growing number of people.  However, food systems can also be reshaped to reduce food insecurity.   

2) Can we build a more resilient food system? 

The crisis offers a significant opportunity for stronger and fairer partnerships between farmers, manufacturers, retailers and citizens.  At the most basic level there has been a surge in people buying directly from farmers through farm shops and delivery schemes.  The increase in home cooking along with heightened awareness of our food system has seen people taking more interest in the provenance and quality of their food which has helped to drive this trend. 

COVID-19 has forced retailers to re-evaluate their supply chains.  Farmers are reporting this has created a new dynamic: retailers are willing to discuss longer-term relationships on more favourable terms.  Hopefully, this new relationship will stick, building a more localized and resilient food supply.  This could also provide an opportunity for farmers to start diversifying production and enabling healthyhigh quality food to be grown locally. 

This resilient model could be undermined if government chooses to accept low quality, cheap imports from countries such as the United States and Poland, and every effort must be made to avoid this route. 

3) How can we encourage people to keep valuing food? 

The shock of shortages and the difficulty of getting supplies forced people to re-evaluate their relationship with food.  Polling from Hubbub* revealed that over half of people are valuing food more.  48% reported that they are wasting less, 30% are getting children involved in cooking and over half of young people reported learning new cooking skills.  New habits included increased use of the freezer, better meal planning and greater use of leftovers. 

As people return to work, with less time to cook, plus the reopening of takeaways and restaurants, these habits could swiftly disappear.  The workshop discussed how these new values could be retained. There was a strong belief that culinary skills should be included in the curriculum, better equipping young people to eat more healthily.  Retailers have an opportunity to give customers support and guidance on how to get the most value from food.  

4) What will be the impact on shopping habits? 

During lockdown, there have been some significant changes in shopping habits. People are shopping less frequently with bigger shops.  There has been a rapid move towards more home delivery, but people are also buying more from local and specialist shops.  Supermarkets have reported huge demand for basic items, particularly frozen and tinned products which have greater longevity.  Many people have experimented with milk and meat alternatives because their normal product wasn’t available. 

There is an opportunity to embed some of these positive changes. Structured investment in local food box delivery schemes could boost British farming and give more people direct access to high quality, locally grown produce.  The desire for shopping locally at more specialised shops could prove a lifeline for local shops and suppliers.  We are already seeing the emergence of the ’15 minute city’ concept where people can access all the provisions and services they need through a journey by walking or cycling that is no longer than 15 minutes.  Could this be a central plank of the post-Covid-19 response? 

5) How could we use Community Food Hubs in the future? 

national network of community food hubs was a concept that the discussion constantly returned to. Like Community Fridges, these were visualised as being available for the entire community rather than for a specific audience to avoid any stigma.  Their core purpose would be to build resilience by creating closer links with growers and independent producers, reducing food waste, fostering innovation around food, promoting growing at home, enhancing culinary skills and cutting social isolation. 

Central government investment in building such a network would meet a wide range of government targets, not least the regeneration of local high streets.  Workshop participants broadly agreed that the creation of these hubs would significantly help to create a more resilient and sustainable UK food system. 

Join the conversation

Hubbub is running three more Hubbub Explores’ workshops discussing travel, homes and communications. To register for these events please RSVP to [email protected]Based on the discussions we will create a ‘Greenprint’ setting out recommendations for a rebuild that is just and sustainable.  This Greenprint will be shared with interested organisations and taken to central government with policy recommendations. 

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*You can find the full report on the results from our food polling here, and if you're interested, the raw polling data here.