In the space of a few weeks, coronavirus has upended our lives – and one of the most surreal consequences has been the curbs placed on our regular food shop. So what is COVID-19 teaching us about Britain’s fragile food supply? And can we do our bit to stop waste and make our food funds go further?
Something that we take for granted in modern Britain is the freedom to pop to our local or big store and buy whatever we need or want, whenever we choose.
Everyday, early or late, one thing you could always rely on was that supermarkets would be open, easy to use and full of the stuff we need (and lots of stuff we don’t!)
But food shopping has been transformed by COVID-19 – and the crisis has made us think more deeply about where our food comes from, where it goes and whether we’re making the best of what we have.
Oh, and how long we should boil our eggs for. Find out the CORRECT answer at the bottom.* But first…
Panic in the aisles
Even before the lockdown, people started worrying about supply shortages. Stockpiling took off as shoppers stripped supermarket shelves. Soon, we all joined in with a spot of panic buying to ensure we weren’t left behind. Own up: didn’t you reach for two packets of coffee or butter when you’d normally grab one?
But since the lockdown, supermarkets have imposed order with queuing, special hours for the elderly and key workers and limits on essentials.
We’ve been reassured by supermarkets (and the government) that there’s plenty to go around, so long as everyone just buys what they need. Indeed, in many areas, the shelves are bulging once more as if nothing has happened.
But in some places, key items are quickly cleared out as soon as they arrive, such as eggs. Some are even going a step further, with the British Hen Welfare Trust reporting “a large amount of backyard chicken theft in the current climate”. Man, some people must really love their eggs…
The secret life of food
Today, we depend on a hidden world of economic activity, particularly when it comes to our food supply. The industry that provides all our food and drink operates on a “just-in-time” basis with little room for disruption.
We import around half of our food, with around 90% arriving in shipping containers, the rest by air for perishables. But shipping companies make money not from freight but from passengers, relying on us all to keep travelling – and 90% of us have stopped. This means maritime workers have been laid off and shipments are at risk.
Around 30% of what’s on our shelves comes from Europe. Your Tesco tomatoes, for instance, come from Almeria in south-east Spain, via refrigerated lorries to the Channel Tunnel and then to one of Tesco’s 20 distribution centres. That depends on the road haulage industry, which has been hard hit as parts of the economy shut down.
Many drivers are now off sick, but there was already a shortage in this crucial part of the workforce before coronavirus came along. The average age of a truck driver is 56, with fewer young people coming through the ranks.
Then there’s the stuff that comes from further afield. Some countries are responding to the emergency by banning exports of vital foodstuffs, as they attend to their own problems.
Running on empty
Suddenly, there is a real risk that supplies could run low. Fruit and veg is being hit by a double whammy of international travel restrictions and a shortage of foreign workers to harvest crops. If the situation continues, we simply won’t be able to produce, process and package all the food we need. Our food supply is officially under threat.
Farmers who normally work with restaurants, cafes and pubs cannot easily redirect their produce to supermarkets, who in turn can’t rip up existing contracts and standards. Even the cuts of meat sent to restaurants is different from what can be sold for home cooking. Who knew?
We are starting to realise just how much we depend on key workers, at home and abroad, to bring food to our tables. But even their best efforts aren’t enough.
Cows are being ‘dried up’ or sent to slaughter as demand for milk from cafes, restaurants and offices disappears. But once lockdown is lifted, the tap can’t easily be turned back on. And those gallons of milk that are having to be tipped down the drain now will be harder to produce in colder months.
Stepping up to the plate
There is some good news. The government initially announced a £3.25 million fund to redistribute up to 14,000 tonnes of surplus food to where it’s needed. Now, the environment secretary has launched a £16m fund to help charities WRAP and FareShare, and the latter is reporting higher deliveries of good-quality food from hospitality businesses: they are donating it to 11,000 foodbanks and community groups.
But we as individuals also need to step up to the plate. Research from Tesco shows home-cooking has quadrupled since lockdown begun. Little wonder when money is tight, and takeaways are typically much more expensive than meals cooked from scratch.
Of course, many independent restaurants, cafes and pubs are depending on our remote patronage right now. Getting takeout from a local business that might otherwise collapse is as much our moral duty as ensuring we don’t waste our food. But it can’t be the whole answer, and lockdown is forcing many young people get creative in the kitchen.
Sadly, that could also lead to a lot of food waste, which may have risen as much as 30% in one fortnight, according to surplus food retailer Approved Food. In the UK, we throw away 4.5million tonnes of edible food every year – that’s over a fifth of what we buy. And when you consider the carbon footprint of that food, from growing it to shipping it, you realise that something has got to change.
Thankfully, there is so much we can do. Firstly, look for cheap, classic ingredients that will work well in most meals, such as tinned beans and passata. Dig out your cookpot to make stews, curries, pasta sauces, soups and dips. If you don’t have one, make the investment. You don’t have to spend very much money to get a decent one that will do the job.
You can freeze most fruit and vegetables without worrying that you will lose the nutrients. Cooking in big batches is time AND cost-effective, as leftovers can be frozen or put in the fridge for future meals.
Most food has a longer real shelf life than the ‘use by’ label suggests – so before you chuck it, ask if you can cook it. You can find a recipe for any combination of ingredients online. But it’s also okay to do it your own way. Cooking is not an exact art: you may find an amazing new dish by using slightly different ingredients in different quantities.
Ready, steady, cook
Practice makes perfect and there is no better time or opportunity to improve your cooking skills. Moreover, cooking has been found to be highly therapeutic thanks to the concentration, creativity and hands-on approach involved – not to mention the satisfaction of making a delicious meal and serving it to others. That alone is worth something in these unsettling times.
Try to think more seasonally and locally about your food. Post-war rationing ended when my parents were five – today, strawberries and blueberries are available on the shelves all year round. Or at least they have been until now…
Experts say we could, if we really wanted to, grow 100% of our apples, pears and soft fruit, and a more diverse range of vegetables – even if we can’t stretch to mangoes and bananas!
Personally, I think that’s probably a bridge too far considering most of us are still trying to get grips with boiling an egg properly – myself included. Though I think I’ve cracked it (boom tish).
But if that sounds too ambitious (or you don’t have a garden), try cultivating some herb plants in your kitchen. This will allow you to spice up and add flavouring to all kinds of dishes. Coriander, oregano, chives and rosemary are particularly versatile. I started doing this earlier this year and there’s something really satisfying about putting actual herbs from the earth you’ve grown in your dishes. And they look dead pretty too.
Encouragingly, another item that is consistently cleared out in the supermarkets is flour: everyone is baking. But you don’t have to be Mary Berry to get involved. Banana bread is easy to make and a great way to use up leftover fruit. It can also be super-healthy if you leave out the sugar and pack it with seeds and nuts instead (if you don’t have related allergies).
And if you’re worried about becoming a smug banana bread bore, well, you can avoid that by a) not posting every meal on Instagram (it’s not compulsory!) and b) not giving a monkeys about what anyone thinks of your new-found enthusiasm for cooking. What matters is cooking and eating food to please you.
Post-Covid 19, will our relationship with food ever be the same again? I suspect not. Some disruption to food supply chains will be temporary, and we may quickly revert to takeaways, fast food and exotic meals out when this is all over.
But If we start to think more about how our food gets to us, and whether we really need everything we buy…well, so much the better.
*P.S. The correct way to boil an egg is to get an extra large one and put it in a simmering deep pan for 5 minutes. You’re welcome.