Why a post-COVID recovery must ensure a transformation of our food system

12th May 20 by Mia Watanabe

Food is a right, not a luxury, and it’s time for our food system to reflect this.

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Over recent weeks in the UK we have witnessed gallons of milk being poured down drains by independent farmers who are being refused collections by supermarkets. Vegetables are rotting in fields because we cannot guarantee safety and dignity to the low-paid migrant workforces on whom we depend to harvest this produce. Tonnes of food continues to be wasted all whilst thousands of people go hungry. Why? Because our food system, that places profit over livelihoods, is not equipped to handle a crisis. This system is fragile, and we are seeing it crumble before us.

It’s no question that our food system was broken already. This has only been exacerbated by the crisis: this system simultaneously produces masses of surplus whilst failing to feed everyone, with more and more people relying on food banks than ever before to compensate for this disaster. There has been a 73% increase in supplies being distributed by food banks over the past five years, and a 23% increase from 2018 to 2019 alone. Between 2010 and 2016, 4,000 small-scale farms in the UK closed, according to Defra. These are signs of a system that is not only failing but is systematically depriving the most vulnerable in our society of their basic right to food. In a post-COVID society under economic turmoil, these issues will only become more pertinent unless drastic action is taken to transform what, and how, we eat.

The UK’s food and farming industries employ 1 in 8 working people. Those who work in food service, however, saw their sector collapse overnight. With no guarantees to a fair wage and thousands of key workers in grocery stores and food processing plants left with no choice but to face the coronavirus head on, it is imperative that any efforts to recover from the pandemic places food issues at its centre. A transformation of our food system is necessary if we are to build back better.

For many of us, our experiences of food in lockdown have been mixed. There’s been a reported 34% reduction of household food waste since lockdown started as a result of individuals being more careful about the food they consume, with visits to grocery stores becoming a somewhat perilous excursion. We’ve seen radical forms of cooperation and care-giving flourish through mutual aid networks whose actions have involved distributing free meals and delivering shopping for neighbours. Bread making has introduced an entry point to baking for many new cooks and as some people find daily catharsis through punching their sourdough, others are rage baking with their communities. Whether it’s shortening supply chains, or reducing long journeys for livestock, these resourceful, and often radical, adaptations to the way we eat under lockdown should be seen as a foundation to the world we want to rebuild.

To do this, we must challenge our “barriers of imagination”. Currently, less than 20% of Britons are optimistic that the quality and the environmental impact of the food they eat will get better in the future. Even less are optimistic about their access to healthy food. In a society that is so pessimistic about the food we eat, a just recovery for our food systems is an opportunity to imagine big and better. We must ensure we have a national food strategy that works for people, not profit. We need fair wages for agricultural workers whose labour, as we are now witnessing, provides a backbone to feeding our communities. We need access to healthy food for everyone, leaving no one hungry. And finally, we must pandemic-proof our food system to ensure that this does not happen again. Food is a right, not a luxury, and it’s time for our food system to reflect this.

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