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When Sean Chambers was furloughed from his job cooking meals for a company of 600 people in the City of London, he decided to pursue his bread-baking hobby a little more seriously. He posted on Nextdoor, a neighbourhood site, that he was a local sourdough baker making loaves and croissants for delivery in the area.
In the ten weeks since, Chambers has gone from making a handful of loaves on a Sunday to growing a successful micro-enterprise, baking more than 100 loaves a week. “Bread is not a luxury,” Chambers says from his two-bedroom home in Cricklewood, North London, where he has spent lockdown with his wife, his sister and three children. He says that the growth of his business is proof that people faced with empty supermarket shelves and long waiting times for online delivery slots, are changing their habits “both in terms of what they are buying and what they are growing”. “We have been inundated with orders,” he says.
Chambers has been offered space to grow his company at Clitterhouse Farm, a nearby yard and outbuildings saved from bulldozers by the local community. For Paulette Singer, co-founder of Clitterhouse Farm Project, organisations like this are just the start of a shift to local growing and buying. “The rise of micro bakeries, people buying plants from us, vegetable box schemes – all those things have thrived as supermarkets have struggled to shift their supplies and to find new ways to deal with surplus,” she says. “It needs to be supported to hold on to people past this so that we are prepared for any future crisis, because this is a stark trial run for climate change.”
Before coronavirus, UN agencies were already predicting global food insecurity because of conflicts in Yemen, Central Africa and the Middle East. In April, beneath the coronavirus headlines, environmental reporters were covering a second wave of desert locusts sweeping across East Africa in north and central Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, eating everything green. In Latin American and the Caribbean, socio-political crises and weather extremes have led to high food prices. In Southern Africa, poor rains, volatile food prices and unresolved political and economic instability are expected to make existing food supply problems even worse. And the UN has called for cuts to the carbon emissions from the food industry, which have ballooned to a quarter of all global emissions as farming practices have become more intensive and supply chains have grown longer.
But it took the shock of coronavirus for many developed countries to notice the fragility of their own systems. Overnight, thousands of restaurants, school cafeterias and workplace canteens stopped buying produce from wholesalers. At the same time as shoppers were confronted with rationing and bare shelves at major supermarkets, farmers from Wisconsin to Wales were faced with an oversupply of milk, forcing some to dump gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. Chicken farmers smashed eggs and culled animals when faced with the sudden decline of workers and demand. At British fruit farms, fears that a bumper crop of strawberries could be left to rot in the fields because of labour shortages prompted Prince Charles to launch a scheme called “Pick for Britain”. When that failed, Eastern European farm workers had to be flown back into the country, months after the UK’s official exit from the EU at the end of January, to pick crops.
Many wholesalers were forced to pivot. Some worked with food banks and community businesses to distribute surplus food. Others started to sell directly to consumers. One supplier, Nature’s Choice, set up a paypoint on its website and put together seasonal vegetable boxes of a quality normally only available to the capital’s top chefs. Vernon Mascarenhas, the company’s commercial director, says he sees the shift to seasonal produce as one of several changes to the timing and availability of supply that are on the way. “With global warming, the season is earlier by one day a year,” he explains. “What that means is, in 30 years our season will be one month earlier. We already have French and Italian apricots and cherries growing in Kent. In a few years, there is even the opportunity for peaches and nectarines.”
After lockdowns end, top chefs will find themselves in a new world in which using seasonal produce is no longer just trendy, but vital to ensuring they can get the food they want to put on their menu. “A lot of restaurants are starting up again [after lockdown], and we are saying to the chefs, you will only be able to buy mass bulk production aubergines, which is pretty awful stuff,” Mascarenhas says. “Chefs think they know their seasons, but seasons change every year.”
Meanwhile supermarkets that saw their global supply chains tremble during the crisis will face further disruption. The UK currently imports around half of its food, according to government figures. A third comes from the EU, including chillies, cucumbers and spinach, while products such as beans, honey and avocados are among the 20 per cent of produce imported from further afield. Both sources are likely to be threatened by the twin forces of Brexit and climate change, and will be pitted against the influx of US produce that will follow Brexit, a battle that will play out in the consumer choice between quality and price.
Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, says the impact of coronavirus on supermarkets is unprecedented, but also representative of a “class of issues” including Brexit, protectionism and climate change. “The system is basically a long chain but quick response just in time system that runs on small variations and predictability,” he says. “Throw in any barriers – tariffs, borders, lack of pickers – and the system is disrupted. Throw in cheap food from the US with lower standards and the system comes under more pressure.”
Sparks says supermarkets can mitigate these disruptions if they can predict what is coming and prepare. Supermarkets might start by rerouting systems, increasing stockholdings, building warehouses and bringing production back into the UK, he says, “But that takes time and could cost money.”
Communities fear that while supermarkets adapt, people will go hungry. “Our current food system is linear and wasteful, exploiting producers and reliant on weather systems that are in flux,” says Jessica Prendergrast, member of the Onion Collective, a community business in Watchet, a remote town in West Sussex.
When Prendergrast witnessed the failures of the local food system to feed vulnerable people during coronavirus her organisation stepped in, supporting residents to deliver the meals on wheels service at the local housing association and distributing bags of food in partnership with the local Co-op. “We have instability from climate change, intensive agriculture practices, increasing water scarcity, competition for land and now more than ever a lack of resilience in the global networks of supply for food. Locally we have seen panic stockpiling, empty shelves from just-in-time supply chains, school closures putting kids at risk because they rely on school to be fed,” Prendergrast says. “The response that we are seeing within our communities has the potential to create a more localised version of the food system.”
Community-run organisations that have established hyperlocal supply chains are now turning their attention to making the shift a permanent one. “The whole system has changed,” says Sally-Anne Watkiss, treasurer at Homebaked, a community bakery next to the Liverpool Stadium in Anfield. “The economy is working the other way round.”
Homebaked traditionally makes big sales of pies on match day. Since coronavirus, it has been baking 70 loaves a day for local food banks and a community centre. Its bread has been included in food boxes distributed by the local food bank, alongside meat from a butcher in nearby Walton Vale and freshly made frozen meals from local pubs, transforming the food distributed to the poorest people in the area from the usual donated cans at the end of supermarket checkouts into fresh, local produce. The nearby Asda, once the supermarket giant in the area, is buying Homebaked’s pies to feed its own staff.
“Lockdown has benefitted local stores, local communities and shorter supply chains,” says Sparks. “They have also been overwhelmed in some cases, but in others have succeeded with tighter local interaction and product availability. What we do not know is how that will play out as things go back to normal, whatever that is. If more people stay working from home then local will become more important.”
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