Riding the waves. The long perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic from UK's local food system actors in 2020-21.
This report explores the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic as an ongoing event from the perspective of local food businesses and organisations in the UK. It builds a rich narrative using qualitative data collected from 12 case studies over a period of ten months (November 2020 - July 2021) as part of the project “COVID-19: the local as a site of food security resilience in the times of pandemic”. The report explores how local food system actors dealt with the pandemic period, contributing to the UK’s food security at a time when many people faced challenges of food access. However, as the case studies demonstrate, this was achieved at a cost of self-exploitation, weakened mental health, and, for some, burnout.
The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated national lockdown in early 2020 was a turbulent moment for our participants. The stress of facing the prospect of losing livelihoods quickly gave place to another kind of stress – of meeting an explosion in demand as customers, disappointed by the gaps in provision by supermarkets, turned to local food businesses. Local organisations working on food poverty similarly described a sudden rise in demand for their services, both from the public and from governance actors. This motivated some of our participants to expand their operations, taking on new staff and enlarging their premises. This intense period was also a time of the joy which came from working together under adverse circumstances, and saw the building of closer bonds both within and between businesses and organisations. This was all, however, underlain by worries about the disease itself, and about how it may affect our participants, their families, and communities.
By mid-2020, a certain sense of a ‘new normal’ was emerging; the shape of this new ‘normality’ was one of deep uncertainty. The severity of lockdown regulations kept changing dynamically throughout 2020, causing large fluctuations in demand and making it hard for LFAs to make long-term plans or establish new routines. Our participants described the challenges related to sudden expansion of their organisations, including problems with acquiring new premises, integrating new staff into the organisational culture and procedures, and reconfiguring administration of the business during a stressful and unusual period. This period also saw a continued effort from LFAs on the food poverty front; however, local food businesses faced a number of obstacles in contributing to this effort, including the closed nature of existing groups and networks. The national lockdown and limitations on family festivities, announced just before Christmas 2020, had a large impact on the morale of LFA staff, who had been working intensely both on the supply chain and emergency food provision fronts. Difficult weather in the late winter-early spring of 2021 also impacted local food production and caused supply chain disruptions for LFAs.
Throughout the research period, our participants were concerned both about the effects of the illness itself, and about the effects of the illness and of pandemic control measures, such as self-isolation, on their operations. They reported receiving no or very little guidance on pandemic safety. The inconsistent and fragmented nature of the advice led the LFAs to develop their own safety protocols. The lack of coherent messaging from the government meant that what constituted an appropriate and inappropriate level of risk was ultimately left to interpretation. As a result, the leaders within these businesses and organisations had to walk a fine line between ensuring safety and security and not being seen to interfere in people’s personal choices.
Towards the end of the reporting period, in mid-2021, the LFAs in both food business and in the third sector noted that they were starting to be affected by supply chain issues, potentially underpinned by the combined effects of Brexit and of the pandemic on the availability of labour and the flow of goods. They also noted that a number of local food system businesses were closing down, and that people working in third sector organisations were resigning.
In our last conversations, our participants were expressing a disappointment and frustration that the achievements of the local food sector had not been acknowledged. During the pandemic, the local food sector had ‘plugged the gaps’ in the mainstream food supply, and had ‘stepped up’ to deliver agile and targeted emergency food provision where government-led efforts were faltering. Neither of those efforts, they felt, was being sufficiently recognised by policymakers. As a result, our participants felt that, in spite of their hard work, as a sector they were back to square one, of working in an ‘alternative’ niche at the margins of the dominant food system.