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COVID-19 highlights weaknesses and opportunities in our food system

Julien Behal/PA

COVID-19 highlights weaknesses and opportunities in our food system

The food system reaches into all aspects of our daily life. Yet as we have seen in this crisis, the food system we have built up over the past decade can be fickle and inadequate.

First and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic is a health emergency - many have died, we all remain at significant risk, thousands are bereaved. Second it is a societal upheaval - jobs are lost, businesses collapsed or teetering on the edge and our food system has been bearing the brunt of this.

Following the (right and proper) guidance to avoid eating out and later enforced closure, many thousands of jobs in the catering sector disappeared overnight. Within days industries reliant on those markets, such as high value creel caught shellfish, began to crumble too, leaving producers such as that fishery (which comprises around 85 per cent of Scotland’s fleet) tied up in port and mothballed.

The closures piled further pressure on retail supplies and saw shelves cleared even more quickly than before. Those who were already reliant on food banks found food banks themselves unable to stock up or staff able to plug the gap. Supermarkets recorded their biggest week ever, followed by one of the worst in recent years. Many now feel very insecure. For various reasons, many people still don’t have access to good, healthy, sustainable food. Government in Scotland, both local and national, is trying to tackle that; but there is no shortage of food, just a problem of access. The full effects of this are yet to become clear. However, the fact that food lies at the centre of many of them is obvious, and highlights in sharp relief the fact that we need a system level response to emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient.

This is something we have been calling for for some time, explicitly in the form of a Good Food Nation bill. Sadly, though this was in the government’s programme for the coming 12 months, this has itself become a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. And whilst we recognise that this is a necessary decision by the Government, the thinking which underpins the bill has never been more relevant. We need to be talking about the present insecurity as a right to food issue. And we need a central coordinating body, not unlike an independent food commission, with an overview of the whole system, from the workings of the supply chain to the redeployment of workers in catering and hospitality and the hotspots of food insecurity.

Amazingly though, whilst our food system has been put under vast pressure, the chain flexed but it didn’t break. There have been no food riots.

And more impressively, the shock in our food system has jolted consumers into thinking beyond their weekly supermarket shop and has spurred a surge in demand for food boxes, community deliveries from local producers, and a move in general to healthier and more sustainable buying.

Meanwhile catering businesses are coming together with competitors to provide food for those unable to access food themselves – whether because the crisis has isolated them, made them insecure, or because they lacked food security before the present situation. Chefs are teaming up to share deliveries, communities are quick to support them.

As well as highlighting deficits in our previous food system, this crisis is shining a spotlight on the best examples of what a new system could look like. We remain resolute that the way to get there, justly and fairly, is through a Good Food Nation bill. We look forward to having the opportunity to engage in that debate when the time is right.

Between then and now we all have many challenges to face, and the Scottish Food Coalition continues to stand ready to support those most in need through it. There will be many changes in the coming months, a new norm will form on the other side. When it comes to deciding what this new norm will look like, it could not be clearer, food matters.

Pete Richie is Director of Nourish Scotland, a member of the Scottish Food Coalition

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