Blog post by GFO intern Bella Driessen
2020 has been full of surprises and challenges. Empty supermarket shelves are not a familiar sight in the UK, and forced many of us to wonder how resilient our supply chains are. Across the country, food banks experienced unprecedented demand and, as online supermarket delivery slots dwindled, veg box schemes saw orders sky-rocket.
Good Food Oxford has carried out research to find out how local good food businesses coped through the COVID-19 crisis, to discover how resilient the local supply chain is. The hope is to find ways to help the local food system cope better with future shocks.
Local good food businesses, including producers, box schemes and retailers were interviewed to find out how they had to adapt their businesses, how successful their response was, and what support they needed.
A lot of Oxfordshire’s residents turned to local food businesses during the crisis. Many businesses had to call in the help of volunteers or employ new staff members to cope with the new orders. Some businesses were lent larger space to upscale, whilst social distancing forced other businesses in small buildings to make staff redundant. It could be helpful to have a database of large and under-utilised spaces so these could be located quickly in another time of crisis.
Volunteers were hugely appreciated. In some cases, there were worries they might not have the right skillset, or would lack the staying-power of employees. Having a more regular voluntary workforce in the sector might provide a greater pool of skilled workers to tap into during times of crisis.
For producers, it was not easy to respond to a sudden increase in orders in March. The country was in the middle of the ‘hungry gap’ when winter stores have run low and the new harvest season has yet to start. The UK’s fruit and vegetable supply relies heavily on imports at this time of year, and the local producers were, in this case, no different. By summer, local supply had rallied. However, one business found there simply is not enough local fruit and veg to meet demand.
Having a website was really important for many businesses to survive. In some cases, it allowed businesses to completely change from a shop or market stall to a home delivery scheme, and in other cases it allowed businesses to manage increased orders, keep in touch with customers through unpredictable times and quickly alter what they were offering. It would be good to research or develop an online platform that local businesses could all access for online sales.
Adapting to home delivery also made it important to have access to vehicles and drivers. This was handled in a number of ways. One business had fortunately recently bought an extra van, one used volunteers and sourced bikes and trailers through the Library of Things to set up their own eco-delivery system, and others relied on volunteers and their own cars. It probably would have been helpful for a number of businesses had there been a coordinated, shared delivery system available, rather than everyone having to find their own solution.
Speaking to other Sustainable Food Places, it was found that close links to the Council were really important for coordinating the local food response. Glasgow City Council were already working on a 'Food Strategy', and can now incorporate important lessons from the COVID-19 crisis. This could be a crucial opportunity to work with the local Councils to include food in local policy.
The research found that local businesses coped impressively with the crisis, but that the response was ad-hoc, uncoordinated, and – in some cases – unsustainable. There are lots of ways that the local food supply chain can be strengthened and Good Food Oxford aims to take these findings and work all our local businesses to build a more robust and resilient sustainable local food economy for Oxfordshire.