It might not have been as bad as some predicted, but COVID-19 certainly showed us that our food systems are vulnerable in times of crisis. In this blog Lynne Davis explores the lessons we can learn from the pandemic shock to build resilient future food systems.

The stories of empty supermarket shelves and dairy farmers pouring milk down the drain sent a reverberation of fear through most of us, evoking images of collapse similar to those we’d heard about from the Great Depression. There was a call for food rationing. At home many started stockpiling. The government created a cartel of businesses across the food supply chain and gave the members of this cartel priority market access. These were not usual times.

In actuality what we saw was a severe shock to the market. Overnight the hospitality sector, in which in normal times 20-30% of the nation’s food is consumed, closed. Overnight to farmers, producers, wholesalers, manufacturers and processes that supplied this enormous sector had no buyers for their produce. Overnight the whole country was told to stay home, and with little to do a great number of us decided now was the time to take up baking. Demand for certain supermarket products spiked. Shelves emptied. While many in urban centres might have been devastated when they had to put their sourdough bread plans on hold due to flour shortages, rural supermarkets really did see significant food gaps.

The supply side of our food sector could have been starkly impacted too. We did not know if borders were going to close completely. We did not know if factories were going to be closed due to infection. We did not know if migrant workers were going to be able to arrive to harvest on farms. Fortunately, the main impacts of this crisis were caused by government decisions to slow the spread of the virus and thus governments had the power to put measures in place to combat this. Borders stayed open. Migrant workers arrived on chartered flights. Some factories did close and others were mandated to stay open. Low paid food workers became key workers and gained claps. We continued to eat.

Most of us continued to eat. A huge number of people fell through the cracks of support packages. Food bank usage skyrocketed. Families relying on school meals were suddenly missing out on this invaluable source of nutrition. Vulnerable people could not leave their houses, yet couldn’t access delivery services from the supermarkets (despite proactive action in the form of the aforementioned cartel being given names and addresses of vulnerable people from local authority databases). People working in the community sector, from food banks and mutual aid groups to community enterprises like food hubs, were suddenly working 80 hours weeks. Being on the front line these groups, already embedded in their communities, knew exactly the scale of the problem and worked tirelessly to patch things up and ensure people were fed. These groups are still working around the clock, though most inform us that team members and staff are now getting holidays and a chance to recover. On the flip side huge swaths of the labour force were suddenly furloughed, twiddling their thumbs and feeling desperately useless in the biggest crisis our communities had seen in our lifetimes.

It was not all doom and gloom however. The truly inspirational stories are the ones that come from these groups that were working on the ground, the groups that were embedded in their local communities. Community food hubs played an enormous role in ensuring that food found its way to people that needed to eat. Across the UK, as the hospitality sector closed local food hubs were able to quickly contact the producers that suddenly found themselves without a market. Across the UK we saw demand for online food hubs within the Open Food Network increase by 900%. These food hubs had the market and already had relationships with the producers that had lost theirs. They were able to redirect the food supply fast.

Having operated within their communities for years, community food enterprises knew who in their community was vulnerable. They were able to reach out to these people directly and take orders for food over the phone. They were able to prioritise these shoppers and make sure that their orders were met, in the knowledge that while many people could top up a missed item from a local store, those self-isolating would not. Because these were personal relationships between food suppliers and food eaters, people self-isolating felt a sense of connection and trust during these scary times, something that many have reported gave them hope and strength when the news did not.

Personal relationships not only enabled community food enterprises to reach vulnerable people and manage the overnight supply chain shift from hospitality to retail, it was also exactly what enabled these enterprises to scale. When suddenly distribution routes went from serving 150 boxes to 600 boxes overnight, local community groups stepped up to support the shift. Community food enterprises reached out to people around them, many furloughed and desperate to be useful. Volunteers became delivery drivers and box packers. Working at the scale of a community food enterprise meant simple systems were easily adapted. Scaling to four times the size was far easier to achieve in this sector than it was in the highly optimised and efficient supermarket and industrial food supply chains.

The scale of the emergency response that was delivered by community groups and community enterprises across the country speaks volumes. Those of us within the sector observed directly the role that personal relationships played in local resilience. In stressful and chaotic times it is important to be able to act quickly. It is far easier to respond quickly among networks of people that trust each other, than trying to build up networks from scratch. When everyone is working around the clock trying to make things happen quickly, it is far more effective to already have the relationships in place. It was in this sector – the community food enterprise sector – that we supplied every order. Within this sector our shelves did not go bare.

It is widely accepted that the kind of shocks we experienced during COVID-19 will not be the last we see during our lifetimes. As our climate shifts and increasingly devastating climatic events hit different parts of the globe we know that we need to be able to respond and adapt. This pandemic has shown us just how well placed community food enterprises are at adapting and responding to unexpected shocks. The big question now is: do we focus support on community-scale infrastructure that will better enable communities to respond? Or do we go back to the kinds of efficiency metrics that optimise resilience out of our food systems?