Resilience and transformation. Resilience of the UK's local food sector to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic
The start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 had a profound and diverse impact on the local food sector in the UK. In this report, we draw on original qualitative data (interviews and document analysis) to better understand the resilience of local food actors (LFAs) to this event. Across the case studies, we find that LFAs were able to be resilient due specific characteristics: flexibility and rapidity, adaptability, diversity, and redundancy. We further find that these resilience characteristics were enabled by the LFAs social capital. LFAs which were lacking those characteristics and which had weak social capital were found to be more vulnerable.
On the positive side, some local food system actors were able to exploit gaps in the dominant food system to expand their reach or otherwise strengthen their businesses. Many also benefited from an influx of new volunteers. Other actors experienced serious disruptions to their livelihoods due to pandemic-related regulations (e.g. closure of food markets). There was a pronounced shift to the online sphere across the sector. There was also a shared sense of lack of support from, or indeed experiences of being hindered by central authorities. Across the board, the 2020 pandemic was experienced as a ‘baptism of fire’ and a source of intense stress for LFAs.
We also investigated the extent to which the local food sector could be a source of transformation of the UKs food system following the pandemic disruption. We found that there is little structural support for such a shift, with little recognition of the transformative potential of the local food sector in mainstream policy. Further, we find that the sector appears to be suffering from a ‘middle class image problem’. This is an obstacle in building a broader political recognition of the many benefits which the local food sector could bring to the UK food systems in the future.