Food for Thought

Alison Kemp, Technical Director at Wardell Armstrong discusses the changes in grocery shopping and food waste as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am sure that I am not alone in having changed some of my habits since we were plunged into lockdown. One of those in particular is in relation to how I shop for food. As a household, we have always tried to support local businesses and shop locally, but this has previously been challenging when they are often not open late in the evenings, rarely offer deliveries etc, and so we still regularly ended up relying on the convenience of supermarkets for the bulk of our groceries.

I am proud to say that this has changed and, from my experiences during lockdown, I am confident that the same applies to many other households and am hopeful that some of those changes will be sustained.

Supermarkets have remained open and accessible throughout; however, the restricted opening hours, likelihood of extensive queues and the additional challenges and risks with managing a large shop have opened up the opportunity for alternative options to become more viable and attractive. Where I live, in Bristol, numerous small shops and farms started offering (or have expanded existing) online order and delivery schemes, and so we are now able to buy fresh and locally produced products at competitive prices, which were delivered to our door. Some small traders also offered options for our street to all order for a delivery on the same day, offering further efficiencies. Small shops across the city have also adapted by offering to serve customers outside the shop front, with staff collecting and packing the produce on their behalf. Supporting schemes like this gave us an enormous sense of community at a time when I think people really needed to feel a collectiveness. It was also fantastic to know that we were able to support small local businesses through a very challenging time, so that hopefully they can survive and even thrive during and post-lockdown.

Reference was made to a survey undertaken by Hubbub in the latest issue of CIWM which stated that 48% off respondents were throwing away less food waste during lockdown, than previously. I believe that lockdown encouraged people to revaluate what they were buying, cooking and eating. For many, the balance of cost, nutrition, health and convenience has been reconsidered. The number of people regularly cooking and eating at home increased and so the focus on cooking from scratch, meal planning, reducing food waste, better utilising the freezer and using up leftovers became more mainstream.

I believe that lockdown encouraged people to revaluate what they were buying, cooking and eating. For many, the balance of cost, nutrition, health and convenience has been reconsidered.

Alongside more efficient use of food, and the social and community benefits of this adjustment, there are also a number of environmental benefits. We are now using shops more regularly that we can walk or cycle to (helped by the fact that we have more available time as we are working from home much more), we buy what we need in smaller but more frequent trips so that it is always fresh, keeps better, less gets wasted with the important added bonus that the produce does not come covered in packaging.  This means less food waste and less packaging waste associated with food purchases – an all-round win for the environment.

Coupled with this, we also began to think about our vulnerability in terms of food supply. I am sure that the ‘panic buying’ reported in the early part of lockdown contributed to a spike in food waste; however, thinking about the long term, our household decided to take advantage of more time and sunshine to rearrange our garden and plant fruit and vegetables so that we can be more self-sufficient and resilient. Judging by the difficulty we experienced in sourcing seeds and compost, I get the impression we were not alone, and you don’t even need a garden, just a few pots or a window box can produce a surprising amount! If this trend is sustained, then this will further reduce food and packaging waste, whilst further contributing to the overall awareness of where our food comes from and how efficiently we are consuming it.

Food banks are far from a new issue, but their importance regularly made headlines during lockdown as a growing number of people struggled to afford enough food. This further highlights the need to seriously consider and re-evaluate the efficiency and resilience in our food production and consumption, on a national as well as local and individual level.

I hope that a positive to come out of this pandemic is that the switch to local producers, local sellers, home growing and home cooking will be sustained, and with it the benefits of community collaboration, healthier eating, reduced packaging and reduced food waste will continue to be realised.

It will be interesting to see how this behaviour change impacts longer term, on what ends up in our bins, and it is clearly not just food waste that has been impacted – Councils have also been recording significant increases in the amount of recycling being collected from the kerbside. Both the pandemic and the nations’ reaction to it appear to have inadvertently encouraged sizeable steps towards delivering the behavioural and cultural evolution that the new Strategy is about to drive. The focus therefore may need to be on how best to maintain this momentum, and to consider how some of the core strategic objectives that are already on route to being met, can be enhanced and reinforced to most effectively build upon this step change.

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