Food Shopping and Covid-19

Many of us have all been thinking a lot more about food shopping. It has become a much less mundane and much more fraught activity.

Post by Isabel Fletcher, Senior Research Fellow, ResULTs  and SHAPE-ID

In spring and summer of 2019, I was interviewing people living in the four ResULTS study areas (North Yorkshire, Orkney, the Scottish Borders and Skye) about how and where they shopped for food. This was part of the project’s work to understand the resilience of the entire food system in these remote and rural areas. However, food shopping is a very mundane activity and several of the individuals I approached wondered why an academic researcher was interested in the topic, and some even directly asked me this.

Fast forward to January this year, when governments started to introduce lockdown measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. As these measures were put in place across Europe we began to realise what can happen to our food supplies when people are only allowed to go out for limited periods to shop for food, and when staff shortages, the need to introduce social distancing and altered buying patterns, threaten to disrupt those supplies.

As a result, many of us have all been thinking a lot more about food shopping. It has become a much less mundane and much more fraught activity. More people in affluent countries such as Italy, Spain and the UK are starting to understand some of the vulnerabilities of the supply chains that, until now, have provided those of us that can afford it, with an amazing array of foods round the clock and often on our doorsteps.

In this, we have become more like the people I interviewed last year who, mostly because of where they live, have a much better understanding of these vulnerabilities. I can see four important similarities between the shopping practices described by my interviewees in remoter rural areas and responses to lockdown reported in the British popular press. In response to lockdown restrictions, people living in cities and towns are more like my respondents in that they are:

1. Making fewer trips to supermarkets and planning those trips more carefully

2. Maintaining well-stocked store cupboard or freezer to keep them going between shopping trips

3. Having to be more flexible in their shopping and cooking due to limited (or no) availability of basic products like pasta, tinned tomatoes and flour

4. Eating less takeaways and cooking more at home, including home baking

This sounds like it might be a welcome good news story and for some, particularly those who don’t have to worry about money, these lockdown restrictions may be a break from routines and a chance to enjoy spending more time cooking. However, for others, including those already living on low incomes, these restrictions are making it harder for them to get hold of an adequate diet. If you don’t have a usable kitchen, sufficient cooking equipment and the money to stock a store cupboard of ingredients, then cooking at home is much harder and much less likely to be a source of enjoyment. Many poorer individuals also shop around more, searching for cheaper or reduced price items in order make their money go further, and this is much harder in lockdown due to limited stock, opening hours and public transport.

I can’t tell this from my interview data, but these additional stresses for those on low incomes under lockdown are also likely to be similar to the experiences of people living with food poverty in remote and rural areas of the UK. The research data that does exist tells us that wage levels are lower in these areas, whereas food and transport costs are often higher.

My overall conclusions are first, that people are amazingly resilient – I admire how people will adapt in the most creative ways to very difficult situations – and second, that in the UK we need to make our food systems work better for all of us, not just affluent city dwellers.

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