Millions of people in the UK will need food aid in the coming days, food charities are warning, as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to quickly spiral into a crisis of hunger unless the government acts immediately to reinvent the way we feed ourselves.
In just a few weeks, experts say, the pandemic has exposed the extraordinary fragility of the food system. And they worry whether it will withstand the growing pressures expected in the coming weeks and months.
Supermarket distribution systems, based on “just in time” supply chains, are struggling to cope with a sudden surge in demand since Covid-19 took hold. The most pressing concern is finding a way to feed the country’s most vulnerable and isolated people.
Figures produced by the Food Foundation using government statistics suggest some 17 million people fall into the higher risk category for coronavirus because they are elderly, have underlying health conditions, or are pregnant. At least 860,000 people in this category were already struggling to afford enough food before the crisis. And at least 1 million of them report always or often being lonely, and therefore may struggle to find people to deliver food to them.
Anna Taylor, the Food Foundation’s director, said that between 4 million and 7 million people in lower risk categories are also affected by severe food insecurity or loneliness, so having to self-isolate could tip them into crisis.
“These numbers show the massive scale of the food aid challenge from Covid-19,” she said. “Government leadership to deliver a properly coordinated response with local authorities, charities and businesses is desperately needed.”
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, and a former government adviser, said ministers have worked on the assumption that feeding Britain can be left to the market and big retailers. While ministers have been in discussion with supermarket chief executives during the pandemic, Lang argues they are failing to grasp the structural weaknesses in the food system and the scale of food poverty.
“The official line has been that it’s all seamless and would be fine if only stupid consumers would stop panic buying. It is not,” he said. “The just in time system is breaking. Government were only talking to a narrow range of people in industry rather than local authorities and community groups, who know where vulnerable people are.”
Delivering food parcels, Craigend, Glasgow – in pictures
Lang added: “Borders are closing, lorries are being slowed down and checked. We only produce 53% of our own food in the UK. It’s a failure of government to plan.”
In normal times, about 30% of calories are eaten outside the home each day, in restaurants, cafes and canteens. The lockdown has significantly increased the amount of food people are eating at home, most of which is sourced from supermarkets.
Shortages have eased in recent days, but many products are still out of stock and supermarket shelves are unlikely to look the way they usually do for a long time.
“Some £1bn extra food and groceries were bought by households in the last two to three weeks. That’s like Christmas but worse because it’s gone on for three times as long,” said Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium, the supermarket trade association.
The problem, Opie says, is “sheer logistics”. There is food, but not the capacity in terms of trucks, drivers, packers and pickers in warehouses to deliver it faster. Supermarkets are recruiting thousands more workers, running trucks through what used to be curfew hours, and editing down their ranges so there is less choice. “We’re nowhere near a wartime economy but supermarkets will not look the way they did in 2019 [for the foreseeable future],” Opie added.
Supermarkets have built supply chains of immense complexity and sophistication over the last four decades, affording customers a choice of more than 40,000 lines from around the world – from dozens of different kinds of pasta to a permanent global summertime of fresh fruits and vegetables.
They have done this by developing long international supply chains and keeping little actually in stock. Shelf space is constantly replenished from centralised distribution centres where, every 24 hours, thousands of products are trucked in from suppliers to be unloaded, reorganised, reloaded and sent out again to stores.
The logistics are controlled by barcode scanning and complex algorithms, with little slack in the system, so a sudden rise in demand can be unmanageable.
The consequences of a disrupted supply chain will be most acute for the millions in households whose incomes are so low that they have depended on food banks or free meals at school or in daycare centres, which have now closed.
Local authorities and other food poverty organisations who want to step in to deliver food directly to vulnerable people have expressed frustration at the lack of clear guidance or funding from central government. They are calling for ministers to keep alternative networks to the supermarkets open, and to use the army if necessary to make sure food reaches people.
“Food banks will not be able to cope with the extremely high level of need and are not the answer when people are being asked to minimise contact with others,” said Kath Dalmeny, head of Sustain, the food and farming alliance. “The most important thing is for the government to staunch the flow of people needing food aid by giving low-income households money directly to buy it for themselves.”
She added: “We may need the army to oversee biosecurity as caterers, for example in school kitchens, supply hubs and to enforce social distancing as people collect food from them.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced last weekend that the government had identified some 1.5 million people in England who were most vulnerable to Covid-19 and was advising them to stay at home at all times over the next 12 weeks, promising that military planners would be helping to set up a new system to deliver food to those who did not have family support.
The first wave of food parcels is expected to go out soon to about 300,000 people identified from prescriptions, but the Food Foundation said these represented just “the tip of the iceberg” of need.
The government has also been working on a scheme for parents of the 1.6 million children who had been on free school meals, with vouchers which can be redeemed in supermarkets. Campaigners, however, argue the vouchers should be usable for nutritionally-balanced meals from school kitchens, which could be kept open.
They point out that this would also make use of the tonnes of food that got stuck in the wholesale system when companies that supply pubs, bar, cafes and restaurants were forced to close and lost their business overnight.
This stock cannot be diverted to retailers because it is packed in bulk and labelled in the wrong way. “The whole food service sector is working hard to find a way to get this food to market, but you are asking it to redesign a whole supply chain in real time. It’s not like throwing a switch,” said Andrew Kuyk, director general of the Provision Trade Federation.
The industry can see other threats on the near horizon. The British food system is largely built on a cheap and highly flexible labour force, which can be turned on and off like a tap. Now that is drying up as Brexit, travel restrictions and fear of illness are keeping away the migrants who have typically done that work.
Out–of–work Britons have been responding to calls from farmers and food processors to plug the gaps with a new land army, but with the harvest season only weeks off, many labour providers say they are still facing huge shortages. The British Meat Processors Association has also warned that red meat and poultry factories are at risk of serious disruption if, as predicted, up to 20% of their staff go sick or into quarantine.
The London borough of Newham, an area with high food insecurity, is one of several local authorities that has been scrambling over the last week to set up a new food distribution system.
It is creating around eight new hubs from which children in low-income families and isolated adults can have food delivered to their doors. “We have the data to identify people who are likely to be struggling and have mobilised staff,” said its director of public health, Jason Strelitz, but the council was still waiting for government to commit money.
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