Covid-19 underlines the need for resilient food systems

“We won’t forget Covid-19 easily. It is a reminder that our fundamental strengths lie in the connections that exist between people. It is an opportunity to give the respect most deserved to people-scale food systems creating local resilience through personal connections between eaters, local producers, neighbours and communities.” Nick Weir from the Open Food Network discusses the food systems strengthening communities during the pandemic, keeping people and personal connections central to their operations.

An image of a produce at a food market
An image of a produce at a food market

Thomas Brenac

Nick Weir

In the last few weeks, we, as citizens, have been exposed to multiple calls for resilience. Our government is asking us to be patient, understanding and comply with the rules for the benefit of the community. Praise is rightly being made of the resilience of the NHS, of all the key workers and of our food system as well. 

Regarding food systems, the key marker of resilience, both in normal times and exceptional ones such as these, is ensuring people have sufficient food and nourishment. However, where or how the food has been produced has been less of a concern. This perspective has resulted in the so-called alternative food networks. Networks that prioritise the how and the where of food production. Networks that have been branded as “niche” and criticised as exclusive. Nevertheless, the story revealing itself is that it is exactly the scale, community embeddedness and citizen participation of these food networks that is filling a critical gap in our collective food resilience during the coronavirus outbreak.

Stories of resilience are ringing loud and clear from the Tamar Valley. Tamar Valley Food Hubs runs a delivery service along the Tamar Valley into Plymouth. Its project manager Simon Platten says: "We're taking so many orders from older people in the community who don't know what to do. It's breaking our hearts. This week their orders have increased five-fold as we work to make sure deliveries can be made to people self-isolating.

“Tamar Valley Food Hubs was set up seven years ago with local resilience very much in mind. Drawing on the produce from small scale local growers and producers we have found our short supply chains have been able to respond more quickly than those of supermarkets.

“What has struck me the most personally is the speed with which we have been able to increase distribution capacity. We are very much a community interest company and it is the personal relationships that we have built with our customers and suppliers; our community, over the last five years that has allowed us to act swiftly. Along with the vast increase in sales to new shoppers, we’ve been able to stay in personal contact with our regular shoppers who we know are older and self-isolating to make sure they have what they need.”

Tamar Valley Food Hubs uses the Open Food Network (OFN) as the backbone of its operations. The OFN is a software platform bringing together an international community of social innovators who are building grassroots local food systems for food producers, wholesalers and communities. 

The Network is providing a vital service for food communities across the country who are working hard to provide food for people self-isolating and supporting their local farmers, growers and producers who are quickly needing to redirect their food production into new channels as markets, cafes and restaurants close.

Many businesses with physical locations are turning to online sales to support their communities. Glasgow Locavore runs a good food store, cafe and wholesale operation. Its online sales have skyrocketed in the past weeks, providing resilience where revenue in other parts of the business has dropped. 

Farmers markets across the country, including Aberwystwyth, Fife and Stroud, are shifting online to help communities practice social distancing. As these organisations are embedded in their communities, they are able to respond quickly and have the personal connections required to adapt. Where supermarket delivery slots are booked out for weeks, local networks are reaching out to individuals. Last week, Kent Food Hubs was delivering boxes into the small hours of the morning to make sure the food got into homes.

All this is happening as the UK launches into the peak of the hungry gap – when UK winter produce is all but finished and we rely on imported food before the summer harvest begins. 

The commitment of small growers like Down Farm in North Devon is going to be crucial in the coming months as we come to terms with supply chain disruptions.

Liv from Down Farms comments: “We don’t usually sell much produce between March and June as it is the hungry gap. However, with the coronavirus lockdown we really felt our community needed us so we opened our online shop with our own produce and other local farms’ produce. Within a few days we had sold out, with over 30 new customers and more emails requesting our veg and veg boxes. It's going to be a balancing act doing these increased weekly sales, local deliveries and all the spring prep for the 2020 growing season.” 

The so-called alternative food sector is accustomed to collaborating and this collaboration is key to helping the sector adapt quickly. 

“As an online platform we are only a small part of the puzzle,” says Lynne Davis of the OFN. “The team has produced a training video for volunteers to become phone buddies, taking orders for vulnerable people without internet access. We’re working fast to assist food hubs to onboard new producers, and food hubs to set up. Anything we can do to help the real heroes actually delivering the food.”

Across the country scores of communities are responding to this crisis, setting up food hubs, making home deliveries and ensuring everyone has the food they need. Their strength is in their ability to tailor their responses specifically to the needs of their local community. 

We won’t forget Covid-19 easily. It is a reminder that our fundamental strengths lie in the connections that exist between people. It is an opportunity to give the respect most deserved to people-scale food systems creating local resilience through personal connections between eaters, local producers, neighbours and communities.