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Covid and Food: Exceptional opportunities in unprecedented times

Blog by Blanca Peña-Méndez

Sustainable Merton Community Champion (Food Action Team) and Trustee

There is no doubt that many aspects of our lives have been affected by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, including food related behaviours. Significant weaknesses in our food supply system that started to show in the pre-lockdown weeks were highlighted in the months that followed. Most of us had to quickly adapt in order to bridge these gaps, and guarantee food access for ourselves and our families.

A food system that over relies on complex suppliers’ chains often managed by a handful of companies meant that individuals had very little choice in the way they procured food. The need for quick access to fresh products sparked an extraordinary number of grow-your-own followers. Home gardens, allotments, local farms… they have all flourished over the last eight months in urban and peri-urban areas. Mainly because of product shortage, but also because gardening was one of the few safe outdoors activities that people could carry out in the main cities during the spring of the lockdown.

Unfortunately, not everyone has been in a position to overcome the challenges around food access. Job losses and furloughs has meant that an increasing number of people aren’t able to afford food products, let alone, fresh healthy meals. Food banks across the UK have seen the demand for emergency food rocket. Almost 100,000 households received support from a food bank for the very first time between April and June this year. While last April, in the middle of the first lockdown, there was an increase of almost 90% in the number of food bank users in relation to 2019.

Community action has become one of the main pillars of the emergency food response plan. Sustainable Merton opened the first Community Fridge in the borough last May. Since then, Merton's Community Fridge, run by volunteers and stocked thanks to surplus food from businesses and community gardens, has redistributed over 6,000 kg of food. Equivalent to around 15,000 meals.

Lack of supplies; fewer trips to the shops; and extra time to be creative and experiment with food, have encouraged citizens to develop new food management behaviours including planning meals, batch cooking and freezing. Amid the pandemic, food waste has reduced significantly, particularly during the lockdown months last spring.

As we learn to coexist with the coronavirus, we look at the future and wonder how much of our food system in the years to come will be shaped by the pandemic. The positive changes we have seen so far have come in an organic decentralised way. If we want them to stay, we will need suitable policies and investment.

Local supplier chains would need to be supported by competitive routes to market for Small and Medium Enterprises. A few online community food market places have already sprouted, and the technology is certainly there to experiment with other solutions.

Food box schemes, local markets and alternative, independent shops and supermarkets will also play an important role in the monetarisation of the grow-your-own movement. With the right financial support, they could also create more local jobs and accelerate the economic recovery.

Community Fridges are a long-term initiative to address food poverty and food waste. Three new fridges will open in the borough in the next few months, thanks to Sustainable Merton and its partners (Commonside Community Trust, Polish Family Association and the Wimbledon Guild). There is also an initiative already in motion for community gardens around Merton to supply the fridges with fresh food.

Blanca regularly visits Phipps Bridge Community Garden, run by Sustainable Merton Community Champions

A growing number of citizens, businesses and local authorities are supporting the campaign to provide free meals for children during school holidays. The Covid 19 lockdown highlighted that the access to school meals was essential for underprivileged children. Whether this social back-up will be enough to convince policymakers to adopt the necessary changes, remains to be seen.

We live in unprecedented times, which also means extraordinary opportunities to build a strong and inclusive food system where no one goes hungry and everyone has access to fresh quality meals.

Click here to learn more about Merton’s Community Fridge and our partner organisations


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