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Building back a better food system

By Nina Osswald, Co-ordinator at Good Food Oxford

While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things, it has not really changed how our food system operates, nor our vision of a better food system. But it has certainly shaken things up, exposing vulnerabilities in our food supply chains as well as providing new windows of opportunity for making some fundamental improvements. Awareness of the need to focus more on how we source and think about the production of our food was already growing around Brexit and what it will mean for food standards and food security, and the pandemic drove home the point.

The beautiful time of year has arrived when the stalls at the local farmers and community markets are abundant with diverse, locally grown seasonal vegetables, including various pumpkins and squashes. The early lockdown time when supermarket shelves were suddenly empty, and most farmers markets shut, seem like a distant memory already. People come out on a weekend to meet their friends and neighbours – even if it’s at a safe social distance – to have a friendly chat and get fresh vegetables from local growers. At the same time, around this time of year, supermarkets are stocking huge trays full of large, watery pumpkins grown in monoculture, destined to be carved and then discarded. A whopping 12.8 million pumpkins are expected to be carved and binned in the UK this Halloween, never to be eaten. 

This contrast reflects the extremes of food choices available to us today but we need to use this crisis moment, and the subsequent heightened awareness of the importance of local food systems, to consider how we build better sustainable local food systems. We have seen amazing work across our entire local food system but more is time, resource and attention is needed to: strengthen our communities through inclusive local food responses; support sustainable local producers; expand community growing movements; enable everyone to afford and enjoy good quality, locally sourced food.

pumpkins at market stall

Pumpkins for sale at the South Oxford Farmers and Community Market during Pumpkin Festival 2019 

Emergency response: communities stepped up to the plate 

The shortage of supplies in supermarkets came as a real shock to many who had grown used to year-round availability of everything on demand. Overnight, we were jolted into a keen awareness of how precarious the industrial, global supply chains we depend on are. 

As an immediate emergency response, an impressive number of local response initiatives were started in a very short time to address these issues of supply and access that lockdown meant for many people. We saw great examples of collaboration, innovation and building community around growing and distributing food from a range of organisations, many of them driven by very hard-working volunteers and charities. For instance, Community Action Groups in Oxfordshire had redistributed over 36 tonnes of surplus food, made 6,388 food deliveries and organised seedling swaps with 500-600 seedlings donated or swapped by mid June 2020.  

Some initiatives grew out of existing services such as foodbanks, who had been working to alleviate food poverty and redistribute surplus food to those in need for a long time, and others out of new, self-organised volunteer initiatives. Back in March, we wrote on the GFO blog about how the community food sector responded to the crisis by stepping up their services. It became clear at the end of lockdown that too many people depend on these services to just stop, and so many initiatives have decided to continue or transform their work into something more long-term. 

For instance, the community larder network by SOFEA was extended across the whole county in a massive effort during lockdown, and it will continue to be a huge factor in making food more accessible as well as reducing wastage of surplus food. 

Good Food Oxford is a broad alliance of food businesses, organisations and activists from across Oxfordshire. One of the focal points of our COVID-19 response to food access issues was the launch of an updated Oxfordshire community food services map and of district-level networks of community food services, replacing the county-wide foodbank forum.  

good food oxford map

Map of community food services such as foodbanks, community larders, community fridges and free or subsidised meal services at goodfoodoxford.org/foodmap

Building community around food 

Community initiatives have stepped up to the challenge, with volunteers working tirelessly to supply those most in need. People started delivering shopping bags to neighbours they had never met. Existing events around food like the Grand Iftar celebration adapted their format, continuing to feed and connect people and build community around food in spite of the difficult circumstances.

New collaborations emerged, for instance college chefs using their kitchen and staff to cook meals for the Oxford Mutual Aid Kitchen Collective, delivering over 11,000 freshly cooked re-heatable meals to at risk people between May and September 2020. A meal recipient is quoted on their website as saying “My health has improved tremendously since I started receiving these meals, thank you ever so much.” and the emotional and mental health impact of getting meals delivered to the most vulnerable is equally important. Local food producers are supporting the community efforts, for instance The Wonky Food Co. supports Oxford Mutual Aid with a buy-one-give-one initiative. 

Oxford Mutual Aid and OX4 / waste2taste meals social posts

Oxford Mutual Aid and OX4 / waste2taste meals 

You can read more about examples of local community responses on the Good Food Oxford blog post on community food responses during the early COVID-19 lockdown. 

Growing appreciation for local and agro-ecological producers 

The pandemic has drawn renewed attention to where our food comes from. During lockdown, demand for local veg boxes boomed, and while large supermarkets scrambled to refill the shelves, the ones who proved most resilient during this time were small retailers selling produce from local suppliers. Local food growers and vendors had their busiest time ever during lockdown, and public awareness of the importance of a healthy regional food system is grew along with the appreciation of independent regional food producers. While many called the public to “support local businesses”, it was actually in equal measure the local producers and businesses supporting the people. The way they stepped up to the challenge showed what a local food economy could be – locally rooted, seasonally oriented and resilient. 

While supermarket food supply chains in the UK recovered fairly quickly from the initial wobble, small businesses and community groups proved even quicker and more flexible in responding, from dedicating more space to food growing to stepping up walking and bicycle deliveries. But we are still miles away from a truly resilient food system that relies on human scale, locally owned production and retail rather than the concentration of power over our food production and supply in the hands of a few multinational corporations. For this to change, sustainable and diverse businesses need support. Among other things, access to affordable land will be essential in order to build viable livelihoods from local food production. 

Producing more food locally and agro-ecologically could be a huge win in fighting climate change, for instance by reducing transport and storage, packaging and waste, sequestering carbon by building healthy soils, abolishing factory farms and minimising fossil fuel use for processing, machinery and chemical inputs. Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that “adopting more stringent guidelines in UK could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% and reduce diet-related deaths by more than 100,000 a year” (Oxford Martin School, 2020). 

The need to act is being recognised more widely, and in July this year, part one of the UK’s National Food Strategy was published. The National Food Strategy is a major review of the food system, leading to new policy recommendations for supporting the UK’s food system through the pandemic as well as advice on preparing for the completion of Brexit on 31st December 2020. While this is certainly a great step in the right direction, much remains to be done in terms of how much more ambitious the strategy could be, and in terms of implementing what it recommends. As Colin Tudge said in a blog post in August, what we need is a way of “thinking that is truly radical” around how we farm, who owns the land, how the economy more widely is organised, and a mindset and science that are guided by non-material values.   

More policy goals and recommendations to local and national governments are summarised in the report Fast Forward Oxfordshire published by Friends of the Earth in 2019.  

Valuing diversity and addressing inequalities 

While the emergency response and the more long-term work of community food services is crucially important, building back better means not to lose sight of what the real problems are, and that a lot more work is needed to solve them. We want an economic system where everybody is able to afford good food, and we want a food distribution system that creates value instead of surplus. We want a culture that values diversity in crops and in food cultures instead of endless choices of the same processed junk. 

In building back, we have a chance to build on the new appreciation for local food producers, and aim to make human-scale farming and food production a truly viable livelihood. And we can work towards embedding the sector more widely in local economies and communities, making farming and growing as a livelihood accessible to a lot more people from different backgrounds. For instance, new initiatives around access to land have emerged long before COVID-19, for instance the black-led grass-roots collective Land in Our Names that works for reparative justice in Britain by securing land for BPOC (Black people and People of Colour) communities.

Home cooking and healthy eating as the new normal 

In addition to a peak in demand for locally grown produce, the lockdown period sparked a surge of interest in home cooking and baking as well as in healthy eating. This has not immediately resulted in healthier eating habits for all however. The Veg Facts in Brief, 2020 report finds that 79% of adults eat less than 3-5 portions of veg a day, and 11% even less than 1 portion . It recommends that government can support healthier eating by including fruit and veg in school meals more strategically, by promoting uptake of Healthy Start Vouchers and committing to developing a thriving horticulture sector, which is currently absent from the Agriculture Bill. 

There are clear links between vulnerability to becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 and non-communicable, or lifestyle, diseases like diabetes. Immunity more generally is closely linked to food and overall health. For example, sugary drinks and junk food are important contributors to the obesity epidemic but do not get much attention in conversations around overall health or susceptibility to infectious diseases. 

A lot more remains to be done to create truly healthy food environments, where nutrition and exercise are seen as an important prevention strategy rather than an afterthought. For instance, access to fresh produce for everyone is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed more strategically. In August, food activists celebrated a great success in reinstating the Schools Fruit and Veg Scheme which had been quietly halted during lockdown, and managed to get the topic some media attention. Overall however, inequalities in access to fresh, nutritious food still does not get enough public attention. 

Improving food security – from the ground up 

Another trend that that gained hugely in popularity during lockdown is growing food in community garden initiatives, allotments and home gardens. To make this trend more inclusive, the new Community Action Group Harvest at Home is committed to growing food security from the ground up – by supplying grow kits to vulnerable and food insecure households first. Their vision extends to supplying grow kits more widely and connecting home gardeners across Oxfordshire. Read more about their initiative here.  

It’s this connection between alleviating existing food poverty while at the same time building the foundations of future food sovereignty that is growing the roots of a resilient future food system. 

We want this food system of the future to be resilient and vibrant on all fronts: Sustainable livelihoods for those growing and producing our food locally and in other parts of the world; growing diverse, nutritious and mostly plant-based food locally to a much larger extent, by a lot more people; knowledge and skills around what to eat for good health and how to prepare it, access to fresh food where people live and the ability for all to afford good quality, locally grown food, and a food culture that values diversity, cooperation, mutual support and connecting socially around food. 

The food system we want to build back is in fact the one we have been campaigning for, for years. What this time calls for is to connect the momentum of building back a new normal with that vision, and building on the new awareness that is growing around food, health and sustainability. 

This year’s Oxfordshire Pumpkin Festival will bring together community groups and food businesses again celebrating the diversity of locally grown pumpkins & squashes as well as calling on everybody to cook and eat, rather than carve and bin their pumpkins. 

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