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The Covid-19 pandemic has no doubt shaken up consumer habits when it comes to eating and shopping for food, but have the changes caused by the crisis gone deep enough to shift shoppers’ relationships with food producers?
According to Ben White-Hamilton, founder of Harvest Bundle, the way the economy has developed over the last 50 years has led to a significant disconnect between many consumers and food producers. “The UK food system is broken. We as consumers are so distant from our food, we are ignorant to the hidden costs of cheap food,” he says.
Rosie Jack, manager at Bowhouse, agrees: “There has, and continues to be, a disconnect between consumers and farmers. With increased availability of cheap food, less value is placed on produce.”
This disconnect has grown over time as more people moved away from the countryside, explains Chloe MacKean, global food systems project manager at the Food Foundation. “Not long ago, maybe even just a couple of generations ago, most people would know a farmer, one way or another. With people living in cities, their connection to food is supermarkets.”
“As a nation, we do love food,” adds Catherine Chong, who is co-director of Farms to Feed Us alongside Cathy St Germans. The pair started the social enterprise to connect people with farmers, fishers, and food producers during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. “We spend hours and hours watching chefs cooking on television, we absolutely love buying recipes and cookbooks, but we seem to have lost the cognitive and affective relationship with agriculture, and particularly food production.”
Is the pandemic breaking down this disconnect? Research by the Food Standards Agency and Bright Harbour that was published in August found that not only did the Covid-19 crisis change consumers’ behaviours with regards to eating and buying food, but it also altered their thinking about food systems.
“Many reported brief moments of ‘noticing’ or becoming more aware of elements of the food systems, like supply chains or its global complexity – far more than usually reported in FSA deliberative research in previous years,” the report said. “A few, usually those with more ‘time and space’, had newly engaged in deep questioning of the status quo under lockdown, sometimes drastically shifting views.”
Thanks to supermarket shortages, reports of Covid outbreaks at meat packing facilities and fruit picker shortages, as well as the impact of the pandemic on UK food businesses, awareness of food systems was raised. For some, the report said this led to an increased “deep engagement” with the food systems and changing views.
Chloe, who was managing an organic farm at the beginning of lockdown, said weekly profits at her farm shop were three or even four times higher than usual when Covid hit, and veg box orders outpacing what they could supply.
Due to the panic buying that led to shortages at supermarkets, she says, “I do think Covid has given people some visibility to producers that we haven’t seen before,” she said. “People are more aware. People are more plugged into food and where it’s come from, because everyone had a bit of a scare, to be honest.”
But will these changes last? Although Chloe has now left the farm shop, she said sales are still above pre-Covid times. But she’s wary that people could slip back into their old ways, describing her view as “hopeful, but realistic”.
Rosie said she believes the disconnect between consumers and food producers is changing, “with people increasingly keen to understand the story behind food and drink,” she said. “People care about the integrity of food production and the conservation, welfare and sustainability behind it.”
Farms to Feed Us aims to help farmers tell their stories. “When we started, [Farms to Feed Us] was a response to the abrupt lockdown due to Covid-19, and it was about helping the small scale farmers and producers revert their route-to-market from the cafes, pubs and restaurants that shut down overnight to selling direct to consumers, but soon Cathy and I realised that we both have perspectives and expertise that can contribute to the agriculture-food industry,” Catherine says.
“We focus on telling the story of the farmers, producers and the produce itself, the great traditions and cultures, as well as the structural social-ecological issues relating to agriculture,” she says. “But of course, we haven’t forgotten about fun. We need to make people realise that there’s so much fun and cool stuff happening in agriculture.”
Farms to Feed Us is developing an app to be launched in spring next year to help with this work. “The starting point for me was to ask these questions: could we create a system where agriculture produce is fairly valued, farmers and producers receive a fair share of the margin and socio-ecological risks, land is accessible to new and diverse entrants, biodiversity gains from agroecology will be recompensed, and end or at least revise the transactional relationship we have with the food producing community? The answer is yes.”
Jill Sargent, business development manager at Produced in Kent, says that a renewed focus on local shopping is also helping to break this disconnect down. “We want to enhance a deeper connection with locality, and we’ve seen people really starting to make the connection between food production and the countryside that surrounds them. Never before have people been so aware of the supply chain that goes behind the retailers and how that works.”
She believes that the local shopping trend is not going anywhere, especially as technology breaks down barriers around accessibility and knowledge. “It’s so much more accessible, but more than that, it feels good to shop locally, to feel that sense of belonging and being part of your community.”
Ben agrees that knowledge is the key to changing consumer habits in the long term. “The consumer has unknowingly demanded food that has hundreds and thousands of air miles attached. Food that has environmental and ecological disasters attached. If we understood more about how our food was produced, our actions would change.”
Speciality food retailers can help ensure this trend is here to stay by continuing the work that they excel at: sharing their knowledge, helping to tell the stories of the food they sell and “[getting] their customers to buy into their culture more, become part of their tribe,” Ben says. “It all comes down to knowledge. If we can enhance the knowledge and awareness to the consumer of how the food is produced, they will change for the better. It’s as simple as that.”