Over the past few months, we have observed COVID-19 spread across the world, taking many lives, shocking the economy, and bringing many countries to a virtual standstill. We have seen the pandemic stress fragile food systems as supermarket displayed empty shelves and food banks spilled over with demand. We have watched a host of remarkable community responses as people and organisations across the world have stepped up in solidarity to make sure the hungry are fed and the vulnerable are cared for.

At the Food Ethics Council, we celebrate these encouraging community responses, while stressing the need for urgent government support. We need to embed ethics at the centre of our food responses. Now several months into the crisis, it is clear that the consequences of the pandemic will be long-term. Acknowledging this, we wanted to pause and reflect on what we have observed these past months.

What positive trends and shifts can we see in the food system which we want to support as we build back better? Which trends are more problematic and need to be rallied against moving forward? We are not alone in asking these questions and share some thoughts with you here as we coordinate our continuing response to the current crisis together. In conversation with our expert Council members, we have identified three positive trends to get behind and three challenging developments to be wary of.

Positive trends to support

1. Food- and farm-workers have been acknowledged as keyworkers.

The past weeks have made clear how vital these workers are to keep our food systems afloat, when they have historically been undervalued and underpaid.

How can we move from ‘applause’ for keyworkers, to a true valuing of their contribution to society? For example, a decent living wage, better working conditions or better training.

2. Huge uptake in interest and support of smaller, local food networks.

Local vegetable box schemes and other local deliveries have kept the food system up and running, providing valuable food sources to supermarket chains. A Hubbub survey found that 89% of people who made changes in their food shopping habits say they plan to use at least one alternative to supermarkets even after the crisis has finished. How can we ensure this desire to ‘choose local’ continues?

3. Bottom-up, ‘people power’ has rapidly organised and risen to the challenges, through local communities and projects, where government has struggled.

This has included distributing emergency food and supporting neighbours and vulnerable people. How can we support and resource this solidarity spirit to continue in the months and years ahead? How can we capitalise on this renewed food citizenship to build the foundation for more resilient food systems in the future? We need to turn these emerging and strengthening collaborations into new robust networks and structures that will outlast the current crisis.

Worrying trends to address

1. The food impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the already marginalised, particularly along the lines of gender, race and class.

How can we strengthen the voice of those most affected in public and political spheres? How can we ensure our response understands how food issues intersect with other economic, social, and political issues? How can we avoid further embedding these inequalities in our emergency food responses? As a starting point, we need to ensure we significantly improve diversity of representation in decision-making, at any level.

2. Large supermarket chains have increased their power during the crisis.

Since the hospitality and food service industry has been effectively put on hold for the foreseeable future, supermarkets have taken on much of that demand. Coupled with much closer collaboration and support from government, they have increased their influence.

How can we keep such corporations accountable and make room for diverse alternative food sources? Choosing local markets and other smaller food distribution models is a way we can all contribute to a diversification of food access options.

3. Times of crisis allow for increased government powers, at a time where a more diverse and inclusive collaboration is needed.

These new government powers manifest, for example, as forms of new and concerning surveillance. The government demonstrated a lack of preparedness and international solidarity throughout the crisis. Similarly, advice from international bodies like the World Health Organisation were not taken as seriously as they should have been. Meanwhile public services including the NHS, are being framed as charities. How can we ensure long-term planning alongside an emergency response to the pandemic? How can we push for local, regional, and national government responsibility?

We can learn from countries that have managed to contain the virus, such as New Zealand. In a similar vein we can express solidarity, support and shared learning with those countries also struggling with the virus. We should be moving forward as an international community.

BUILDING BACK BETTER

At the Food Ethics Council, we are using these questions to continually orient and reflect on our response to the pandemic. We hope that they might inspire others working in this changing field. It is only by coming together and coordinating our responses that we will build a more just, more resilient, and more joyful future.

 

Author: Helene Schulze, Food Ethics Council

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