Impact of Covid-19 on food access

The Food Foundation has just released the results of a YouGov survey on the impact of Covid-19 on food access. (See here ) They found that;

 “More than 1.5 million adults in Britain say they cannot obtain enough food, 53% of NHS workers are worried about getting food, and half of parents with children eligible for Free School Meals have not received any substitute meals to keep their children fed, despite government assurances that they would provide food vouchers or parcels. This means that 830,000 children could be going without daily sustenance on which they usually rely.”

The media have blamed the public rather than the supermarkets for food shortages, with many stories complaining that panic buying by inconsiderate consumers are to blame for empty shelves and that NHS workers and vulnerable people are going without food because inconsiderate shoppers are piling up their trollies high  – this is simply not true.

The latest Office for National Statistics monthly retail sales report shows that food sales were only 0.6% higher in February 2020 than in February 2019 – (2020 was a leap year so there was an extra day in February).

Similarly, the Kantar Market Research companies Worldpanel (a survey of 100,000 UK shoppers) showed that in the week up to the 17th March;

 “average spend per supermarket trip increasing by 16 per cent to £22.13” and “extra demand in supermarkets is largely being driven by people adding a few extra items to baskets and making more trips, rather than shoppers buying large amounts of the same item in one go.” (See here)

This fairly modest increase in food purchasing is exactly what would be expected if schools and workplaces are closed and people need to make lunches at home for themselves and their children.

Tim Lang (Professor of Food Policy, City University) has been arguing, literally for decades, that  UK food policy is dangerously incoherent and the Government’s ‘leave it to Tesco’ approach” has resulted in ‘just eight companies controlling 90% of the UK food supply“ – their effective monopoly behaviours and just-in-time distribution systems have maximised profits at the expense of ‘hollowing out’ UK agriculture and increasing the vulnerability of the UK’s food distribution system, which has now been unable to cope with the current modest increase in consumer demand for food to cook at home. (See here, and Rethinking Food Policy briefs.)

It is the UK supermarkets pursuit of ever increasing profits and a lack of government regulation which is the predominant cause of the problems that some NHS workers and many poor and vulnerable people are currently facing in getting the food they need.   

In developing countries the monopolistic and ruthless practices of ten dominant multinational food companies has resulted in the impoverishment of many small farmers and farm workers  – see Oxfam’s Behind the Brands reports for details.

There is clearly an urgent need for the UK Government to develop and implement food polices which can ensure that everybody in the UK has access to the food they need during (and after) the Covid-19 pandemic.

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