The sight of UK supermarket shelves being stripped bare in a matter of days and farmers warning that lack of workers could cause produce to go to waste has highlighted how quickly food supply chains can be disrupted.
Though supermarkets have introduced rationing and panic buying appears to be on the wane, there is lingering uncertainty about what to expect in the weeks and months ahead. Some food producers and suppliers have acted quickly and creatively to try to ensure fresh food remains available across the UK.
Here are some of the people and grassroots initiatives trying to make a difference.
The community group
Planna Fwyd – Welsh for plant food – is a community project in the Dyfi Valley in mid Wales.
The project organises a variety of food production initiatives, from Zoom lessons for first-time crop growers to sending out seed packets for families to grow in their gardens, and has about 100 local people involved. The group also plans to organise a second world war-style “land army” of volunteers to work on farms, with about 30 people signed up and plenty more showing interest, out of a town of 2,000 people.
The project was born three weeks ago, after Mach Maethlon, a community organisation working to improve food supply and sustainability in the local area, joined up with the local coronavirus aid group in an attempt to combat fears around a food shortfall.
“After the crisis kicked off, we got lots of people saying they were worried about food supply, and asking if they could help,” said Katie Hastings, one of the group’s coordinators. “We had a range of people, from families wanting to turn their land to veg, to farmers wanting to grow food on empty land.”
The group are having to reckon with social distancing regulations, ensuring that volunteers can work collectively and share toolswithout putting each other at risk.
What do the restrictions involve?
People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:
- Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
- One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:
- Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
- Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
- Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals
Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.
“We’ve been trying to work to improve the food supply here for eight years, and have had a sudden burst of enthusiasm. We import a lot of vegetables here, and while the project came in response to fear over food supplies, it will hopefully have a positive ongoing impact after the crisis,” Hastings said.
The group also hopes to help those in isolation. “There are a lot of people at home struggling with not working and being isolated. If we can work out a safe way to work on farms, it gives them the chance to do something meaningful,” Hastings said.
Reeve the Baker was established in 1952 in Barford St Martin, a village six miles west of Salisbury in Wiltshire. These days the company has 200 staff and 12 shops dotted around Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire.
One hour after Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown, its owner, Gary Reeve, grandson of the bakery’s founder, Harold Reeve, closed all the shops and furloughed most of the staff. “It was the hardest decision of my life,” he said.
“I could have stayed open, we’re a food business, but we have small shops and enforcing social distancing would have been a nightmare. My staff were worried too.”
People rely on the bakeries and he did not want to let the community down so came up with a plan to deliver bread instead. Five bakers work overnight and bag up rolls and bread that is then taken by one driver to 20 surrounding villages. Each village has a designated weekly delivery day.
Reeve relies on local businesses that have been temporarily forced to close, such as the Wyndham Arms pub in Dinton, to organise orders. “It couldn’t be done without the village coordinators,” he said.
“The landlady, Mary Gibbens, takes customer orders and card payments over the phone and we drop off once a week and people in the village collect from her. She knows everyone and makes sure all the elderly and vulnerable get their supplies.
“We’ve gone back to how it was when my grandfather was baking bread. He would deliver to villages too. The community spirit we’ve encountered has been amazing.”
In addition to the deliveries there is a pop-up shop in the town of Wilton twice a week.
The truck driver
Jacques van Doornewaard is a lorry driver bringing fruit and vegetables from the Netherlands to the UK. He travels about three times a week bringing goods including pears, strawberries and mushrooms to British supermarkets.
According to Van Doornewaard, Britain’s shelves would run out of fresh produce within a couple of days without supplies from countries including the Netherlands.
“If the supply chain of food was disrupted for 24 or 48 hours, all shops would be empty,” he said. “Without truck drivers everything would come to a standstill.
“It’s much quieter than usual. The ferry’s capacity is 280 lorries, and on a quiet day there are about 105. Yesterday, on the ferry there were less than 50 drivers. We have to eat in shifts to maintain social distancing.”
Van Doornewaard used to deliver to food markets, who would sell the produce to restaurants, but this supply chain has closed down in recent weeks. Instead, more produce is going to supermarkets, as staff scramble to fill the shelves.
In the past week, Van Doornewaard has delivered 3,000kg of pears to Tesco in Dagenham, east London, and half as many to Sainsbury’s, also in Dagenham, with stops at farms across southern England. He has also delivered mushrooms, strawberries and cheese. Through the week, he returns to collect thousands of empty trays to take back to be refilled in the Netherlands.
The UK lockdown is more severe than in the Netherlands, and he has been struck by the emptiness of British streets.
“The children’s playgrounds are empty. Some minor roadworks are going on, [but] the big construction sites are empty. It’s funny to notice since in the Netherlands that kind of work is still going on,” he said. “It’s a little bit like on a Sunday morning, except for the fact that you see almost more lorries than cars.”
The local farmers’ initiative
As restaurants close their doors, many farmers are struggling to sell their produce to their usual suppliers, while more people are eating at home and struggling to get food from supermarkets.
In response to this, Cathy St Germans established Farms to Feed Us, a digital database that connects people with farmers, enabling them to buy fresh food directly. So far, more than 80 farmers, growers and suppliers across the country have signed up.
“There’s no shortage of fresh produce on our farms and being fished in our seas,” she said. “There has never been a more important time to eat healthy food and support your local farmers, growers and fishermen.”
She added: “We really focus on small-scale farmers and growers, where the ground isn’t having its life sprayed out of it. It’s not just about being organic, the size and ethos of the farms matter.”
The group is working with sustainable agriculture organisations including the Biodynamic Association and Pasture for Life to record and share the growers on a database, which can be searched according to area, or product, and can be easily printed for those who are less computer-literate.
“I was taken aback by the response, there are so many people reaching out and wanting to know when it was available,” she said. “It was really amazing and really moving – there were so many people wanting to help, from all walks of life and all over the country.”
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