Desire lines: What our food practice during COVID tells us about the food system we want

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic our food supply chains were forced to flex beyond what many thought possible, and whilst they were temporarily disrupted during the pandemic, exacerbated by media-fed anxiety about shortages, food continued to flow. Although this shows a certain robustness and ability to bounce back in the face of a short-term shock, does it mean that our food systems are resilient?

Our food systems are complex, made from layers of interconnected activities, infrastructures and ways of life, all sitting against a shifting backdrop of shocks and stresses, from natural resource depletion and a changing climate to global economic and cultural changes. Paradoxically, harmful effects of our global food system renders the health of humans and the planet, as well as the food system itself, more vulnerable to shocks and stresses. Food system resilience must therefore concern more than just the ability of supply chains to ensure a stable supply of food. Resilience is about having the agility and resourcefulness to become stronger, building on lessons hard-learnt, whilst also realising planetary health, fair working conditions, healthy diets for all and the respect of socio-cultural dimensions of food.

The COVID-19 conditions have acted as a magnifying glass on our society and food systems laying bare existing dysfunctions and inequalities but also sites of resilience. The past months have seen an impressive response on the ground from food producers to retailers, communities and neighbours, who got food to where it was needed in immediate reaction to the shock of COVID-19. Against the backdrop of longer-term problems locked into our food system, their adaptations emerge like desire lines – an urban planning phenomenon where collective bottom-up problem solving defies unhelpful structures – toward a resilient, sustainable and fair food system.

As the immediacy of the crises lifts, now is the time to reflect and avoid blindly following the well-worn path to a place we don’t want to return to.

In this blog we share insights from Scotland and beyond into what the pandemic has revealed about how resilient – or not – our food systems are. As we do so, we look to those who hold the food system together amidst the chaos, tracing transformation across new behaviour, innovative logistics, material adaptation and fundamental values. 

Innovative logistics meet new demands

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown saw a number of factors, from isolation and stocking up of pantries to closing of the hospitality sector, that led to people changing the way they procure food and businesses coming up with innovative logistical solutions to a new pattern of local demand.

As lockdown hit and public uncertainty about supermarket supplies increased, the country saw a huge leap in demand for local food. This was especially high for veg box schemes which rose to the challenge and succeeded in multiplying their capacity in a matter of weeks, many prioritising key workers and the most vulnerable. In some places this new demand has led to more material and long-term changes; In June, Glasgow-based Locavore announced a partnership with Ayrshire farmer Caldwell’s Vegetables to convert 14 acres of land to organic farming in order to supply organic produce for Locavore’s shop and veg box scheme.

The closure of the hospitality sector also sent shockwaves through supply chains far beyond our shores. The UK fishing norm of exporting most of what is caught and importing most of what we eat meant that many industries were on their knees only days after lockdown. Across the UK, fishers began selling directly to their communities, many surprised to even find a local market for their catches. Some have partnered with local veg box retailers, others have collaborated with the pioneering ‘Call4Fish’ that works with local fishers to provide delivery services across the UK. One Dorset fisher was even offered the use of a parking space outside an empty Airbnb and now holds a thriving weekly market. Similar stories of creative connection with local markets crop up across the country. Many of these have been aided by online platforms, such as the Open Food Network, the BigBarn and Scottish Edinburgh Lockdown Economy which help to shorten the distance between people and producers.

These examples demonstrate how the agility of local food systems make them more resilient to shocks: Short supply chains mean better feedback systems to respond to changes. Meanwhile localising food systems helps local economies thrive. This not only supports food security for the general public but also helps communities as people with resilient livelihoods are better prepared for – and can better cope with – shocks, whether recurrent, protracted or unexpected.

Material adaptation for a more sustainable food system

At a deeper level, adaptation during the pandemic has seen material change to business models, methods and use of space to strengthen resilience. Many of the people we have been speaking to see their innovative adaptations to match new behaviour patterns as part of their future business models, confident that customers will fall in love with cooking and preparing local produce at home.

Localising the supply of fish, for example, is seen as being a big first step in helping people understand what they are eating and where it comes from. For our partners at Open Seas, this potential change does not only promise a more resilient fishing industry for fishers and consumers, but importantly may improve the health of our seas. Other examples of adaptation during the pandemic also point toward changes in practice that can improve the health of resources, people, and our food system as a whole. As Locavore writes of their partnership with Caldwell, it ‘marks another step toward our vision of building stronger, shorter supply chains which are better for the environment and the local economy’.

The modern food system has been built on the premise that nature is just another problem to be solved on the way to greater specialisation and efficiency, resulting in vast swaths of monocrops and the decimation of natural ecosystems. However, the potential of the food system as a whole to cope with shocks and stresses is a large part to do with diversity: greater diversity – in the crops and animals we grow, in the markets they are sold to, of farming method and of farmers themselves – can help growers ride out unexpected weather conditions and changes in markets. 

Whilst specialization is about growing at scale, diversity includes smaller scale – reimagining smaller pockets of land in urban and rural areas to create vibrant growing spaces – a vision that feels ever closer as the pandemic has led to food being grown in new spaces. 

One such example is Inverness Botanic Gardens. Their closure in March coupled with concerns about the UK food supply, caused the growing team to rethink how they used their land and growing skills. They immediately shifted from growing masses of nursery flowers for their usual summer displays towards growing vegetables for distribution within their community, and are now looking to permanently incorporate edibles into their growing strategy; providing family friendly learning about growing veg, and even starting a box or pick-your-own scheme.

There are many other places where growing can only be done at a small scale, such as the Isle of Arran on the West Coast of Scotland. Problems getting food to the island during the first weeks of the pandemic sharpened the need for public growing spaces. The majority of land suitable for growing crops lies in small pockets spread across the island, mostly owned by two landowners. In response Woodside Arran Farm changed their model to focus on growing organic veg for islanders on a pay what you can basis, whilst a group of residents are also about to sign a leasehold with one of the landowners to create their own resilient farming structure, working small areas across the island where the closest communities manage the land. 

In that way resilience is not not only about sustainability but also about social and spatial justice: Who has access to land and how that land is worked often dictates what and how much people can eat. These deeper values underpinning a resilient food system were put into action as people responded to the crisis.

The values that show the way

COVID-19 hit many of our communities hard because we already have a hierarchical food system where healthy and sustainable food is not accessible to all. IFAN data since COVID-19 shows how the pandemic has both exacerbated and created vulnerability to food insecurity across the UK. Many of those pushed into food insecurity for economic reasons work in the food system where low wages and job insecurity prevail. This inequality that reverberates through our food system is a root cause of much of our recent distress.

One place where dysfunction has been laid bare is in our food system’s heavy reliance on migrant workers, from food service to production, (British Summer Fruits, which represents berry growers in the UK, reported that 98% of harvest staff last year came from overseas) – and the built in potential for labour exploitation. Many of those who work to produce, harvest, process, prepare, sell and serve food are poorly paid and facing insecure and unsafe working conditions. Jobs in the food sector are amongst the most precarious, with retail and hospitality accounting for a third of workers living in poverty; almost half of the people working in the food sector in the UK are paid below the Living Wage. In this environment workers are less able to exercise their rights, increasing the risk of non-compliance with employment legislation and slavery.

The ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign is hoping to harness students and the furloughed thousands into a new army of farm workers to help ease the pressure that will be felt by UK producers after COVID put a halt to migration. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Contrary to popular belief, harvesting fruit and vegetables is a very skilled and physical job, often located far from major towns and transport links. The assumption that anyone can fill their shoes highlights a view of farm workers and other workers in the food systems as dispensable.

What we’re seeing this year should serve as both a warning to those developing our post-Brexit immigration system but also an imperative to change the way we view and value key workers, not just in the food sector but way beyond. 

Against the backdrop of widened inequalities, the community responses to food insecurity resulting from the pandemic have been remarkable; Collectively, people have put into action their strong commitment to the belief that good food must be accessible to everyone – that no one should be left behind. Similar collective action has taken place across the world: in Belfast an art gallery turned into a soup kitchen in response to the crisis; in New York City cab drivers helped deliver food parcels; in Cape Town, South Africa, two drug gangs even called a truce and agreed to work with the government to use their drug supply routes to get food to those in need. Closer to home Edinburgh Food for Good Coalition and other community groups formed  to prevent people from falling through the cracks of existing emergency services.

The many community food responses built on dignity show the power of acts of solidarity to ensure access to food during crises and manifest a shared value of food as human right and common good.  They show us that food is not just about what we eat, but also about community and inter-human connections. Importantly, they demonstrate the value of bottom-up solutions in building resilient and non-hierarchical food systems that respect the right to food.

Toward a resilient, sustainable and fair food system 

What can we learn about resilience from the innovation and solidarity we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic? Actors across the food system from growers, to retailers, innovators and communities have shown through creative logistics, material adaptation and shared values that it is possible to ensure food for everyone and to do so in sustainable ways.

Like urban planners who follow desire lines when re-assessing a landscape, policy-makers should look to these newly trodden paths as part of the journey towards a truly resilient food system that addresses the dysfunctions made so visible by the pandemic.