What effect did the coronavirus pandemic have on our food supply?

From supermarket shortages to the hospitality sector shutdown, we look at how COVID-19 impacted food supply in the UK.

Vegetables, primarily cavolo nero, displayed at a supermarket

Published July 2020

Published July 2020

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the entire UK food supply system.

We rely on a complex international network of highly efficient supply chains to help put food on our plates.

But due to measures to control coronavirus, supermarkets ran out of essential food supplies, food banks found they had almost double the demand compared to last year, suppliers to restaurants, pubs and cafes came upon financial hardship, and key workers in the food sector had to risk their health to keep the nation fed.

Future disruptions to our food supply are possible. A disorderly end to the Brexit transition period, a second wave of coronavirus, or the effects of climate change could have disastrous effects on our ability to access enough healthy food. We need to know how to approach these future scenarios.

This is why we, MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, launched an inquiry into COVID-19 and food supply in April.

What happened?

Supermarket fridge area with empty shelves

Photo by John Cameron via Pexels

Photo by John Cameron via Pexels

We received over 150 written submissions and heard from businesses in the food supply chain, food aid organisations, charities, academics and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) throughout April, May and June.

We received thousands of responses when we asked you to tell us your experiences and views in an online survey.

We heard from people living in urban and rural areas across the UK, in households ranging from a single person to multiple families under one roof. We heard from people who were shielding and receiving food parcels, people trying to access support from food banks, and others who shopped in much the same way as they did before the pandemic.

Here is what we heard.

3 key ways the pandemic impacted access to food

Signs for social distancing in a supermarket

Photo by Alex Motoc via Unsplash

Photo by Alex Motoc via Unsplash

1. There was a lack of clarity about how much food people needed to buy.

With people preparing for lockdown, possible self-isolation and the shift to eating all meals at home, demand for groceries soared in March, amounting to the biggest month of grocery sales ever recorded in the country. As a result, many shoppers encountered empty shelves, particularly when looking for dry and tinned goods.

Bar chart illustrating which foods were most difficult to buy in shops, supermarkets, and online grocery services. Dry goods is the highest, followed by tinned food.

The Government worked well with supermarkets and food retailers once the pandemic hit the UK, relaxing competition laws so that companies could work together, co-ordinate opening hours, and share delivery vans.

However, there was much confusion over how much food people actually needed to have in their homes. The Government told people to stop eating out and stay at home while closing schools, but they also told the public to limit the amount they bought in supermarkets.

"I don’t think there was any helpful guidance in respect of the likely effect of the lockdown on food supplies.  There was a sudden flurry of news reports about people buying loo roll and pasta like it was going out of fashion, which scared us."
Survey respondent
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Photo by Emily Pritchard

Photo by Emily Pritchard

2. The pandemic made more people unable to afford food.

Food banks and food aid providers began reporting shortages in their stock in early March. During the first few weeks of the crisis these organisations, much like consumers, found it difficult to buy the food they needed because of lack of supply and rationing from supermarkets.

At the same time, demand grew in leaps and bounds. We heard from the Trussell Trust that "there was an 81% increase in demand and, quite alarmingly, a 122% increase in the number of children receiving food through [their] food banks", compared to the same period of time last year.

The Government designed a system to provide children with a substitute for free school meals after schools closed, but many had difficulty taking advantage of it because it didn't include convenience stores and discount retailers from the start.

Unprecedented numbers of people applied for Universal Credit. There are millions of people whose ability to afford sufficient, nutritious food has been severely disrupted or worsened. This situation is likely to get worse as the economic impacts of the pandemic continue to unfold.

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Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

3. Foodservice and hospitality businesses and their suppliers are going to feel the effects of lockdown for years.

As pubs, bars and restaurants shut down, the companies and workers who supplied them found their revenue source removed overnight.

Those effects reached British agriculture. We learned that farms tried to move food originally destined for hospitality to supermarkets or to food aid organisations, but the adjustment was difficult. British dairy farmers, for example, lost over £41 million.

"All our fish and chip shops shut overnight, so those who process potatoes that would normally go into that market have been massively challenged."
Minette Batters, President, National Farmers’ Union

Although businesses have now started reopening, it will take a long time for the hospitality and foodservice sectors to recover, possibly not until at least 2022. This means food and drink suppliers may also struggle.

Our key recommendations to fix the problem

Close up view of red tomatoes

Photo by Christopher Jolly via Unsplash

Photo by Christopher Jolly via Unsplash

1. Ensuring people can afford enough healthy food is the responsibility of multiple Government departments. To bring that work together, the Government should appoint a Minister for Food Security who is empowered to draw together policy across departments on food supply, nutrition and welfare.

2. The Government should work with producers, processors and wholesalers servicing the hospitality and foodservice sector to monitor the health of food and drink suppliers as supply chains restart.

3. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) should continue to provide £5 million in annual funding to FareShare to redistribute surplus food from farms and across the supply chain to frontline food aid providers for a further two years. This would help those who struggle to afford food as the effects of the pandemic continue, and reduce food waste from farms.

4. Food supply to supermarkets continued because we were able to keep food coming into the country. Future crises could stop this flow and cause more serious problems. The Government has to update its food resilience plans, taking into account how consumer behaviour can disrupt food supply and whether our efficient "just-in-time" supply chains are as resilient as they need to be.

We would like to put on record our unreserved thanks to all the key workers in the food supply chain whose efforts and sacrifices have meant that the nation is being fed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Government must now respond to our report.

Our report, 'COVID-19 and food supply' was published on 30th July 2020 and the Government has two months to respond to our recommendations. Detailed information on our inquiry into COVID-19 and the food supply can be found on our website.

Membership of the EFRA Committee

If you’re interested in our work, you can find our more on the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee website. You can also follow our work on Twitter.

Looking at issues from the air we breathe to the food on our plates, Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) exists to scrutinise the administration, spending and policy of the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Cover image by Lum3n via Pexels