The UK Food System in the time of Covid-19

The UK Food System in the time of Covid-19

Catherine Price 

Everyone needs food. It is an intimate part of everyday life, and as well as being a biological necessity, it is also an important aspect of society. When purchasing or consuming food, the last thing on anyone’s mind is likely to be the fact that they are one part of a global food system. The food system is a complex web of activities including the production, processing, transport and consumption of food. However, the Covid-19 pandemic is illustrating the flaws and fragility with the food system. The food supply chain is struggling with shoppers buying more than usual. The prospect of a family needing to self-isolate for 14 days means purchasing additional items to see them through this period. Empty shelves derive from the fact that supermarkets do not usually store additional food products on their premises. Food items are delivered as and when they are required and are stored in warehouses away from the supermarkets. When more items are purchased in greater numbers than normal, supermarkets are unable to replenish the shelves until they receive a new delivery.

Empty shelves have caused problems for some particular shoppers such as the elderly, the vulnerable and NHS workers. However, the elderly are already struggling. As a study by Purdam et al. (2019) noted, some elderly people already have problems with shopping for food, carrying items home and putting them away. The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating this situation further for them. Steps have been taken to address the issue of the elderly and vulnerable accessing food by the major supermarkets. Dedicated shopping hours in store are now being introduced for them and for NHS staff after one critical care nurse posted an emotional video online calling for people to stop panic buying. There are other issues with supermarkets which is making it difficult for people to access food. Online delivery slots are already booked for the next three weeks. This is creating problems for those who are unable to leave their house and usually have their shopping delivered. Online deliveries are fulfilled by using stock from supermarket shelves. In order for there to be enough supplies for all, many of the supermarkets have implemented their own rationing system to help prevent supplies running low. However, there are calls for this to go further and for the Government to implement rationing. Many of the supermarkets are also recruiting people into temporary roles to ensure shelves can be restocked, whilst opening hours have been reduced in an effort to enable staff to replenish stock.

What underpins some of the problems we are facing, is the fragile just-in-time food supply chain which operates in the UK. The problem of a lack of food in supermarkets is a result of this fragility. The main actors in the food chain are the retailers, food processors, caterers and financial speculators (grains such as wheat are now traded on the commodity stock markets). There are also a limited number of very powerful food conglomerates who operate the food supply chain. Our current shopping habits of panic buying is influencing how the food chain operates. The food industry is very consumer focused and will respond to changes in society and among consumers.

Food systems are not static and the relative significance of different actors within the system may change. Corporations who are producers, processers and retailers of food, play a more important and influential role. Therefore, as Lang and Heasman (2015) have argued, corporate interests are so important in the food system, that governments no longer play a central role in decision making. The key functions of governments in relation to food, are to negotiate trade agreements and to determine food standards. However, Lang (2003) claims this has created a duality. Whilst the government implement regulations, the food supply chain, particularly food retailers, are employing their own system of self-regulation. This duality ‘has compounded policy incoherence, because it fails to address a central feature of food policy, its inter-connectedness’ (Lang, 2003: 562). The connection between this duality of regulation is trust. Trust is important for ensuring public confidence. If there is a lack of public confidence in the food system, anxieties can be created. Anxieties around food supply are creating the perfect storm and resulting in panic buying.

Issues with the food system and the Covid-19 pandemic are currently creating problems for many of us with purchasing food. However, even before the pandemic, problems existed for some people with accessing food. The Covid-19 pandemic is bringing these issues into sharp focus. Many people were already facing poverty and having to use foodbanks (see Garthwaite, 2016). This situation will worsen as the Covid-19 pandemic starts to affect people’s livelihoods. Increasing numbers of people are going to need access to emergency food. Foodbanks are already beginning to feel the toll even though we are only at the beginning of the crisis. Food donations are urgently required by foodbanks in order to meet the growing demand. However, the reverse appears to be happening and instead, foodbanks are seeing a reduction in donations of food. This situation is also exacerbated by the fact that many foodbanks have online deliveries from supermarkets, and are now unable to access delivery slots because of the increased demand from shoppers.

There are around 2,000 foodbanks in the UK, organised by The Trussell Trust and many independent foodbanks. These are already inundated from dealing with the response to benefit cuts and the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments. Foodbanks will face an unprecedented challenge over the coming months as more people require emergency food aid. This is likely to coincide with the period when fewer volunteers will be able to help. Many volunteers at foodbanks are retirees who are at a heightened risk from the Covid-19 virus. This poses a difficult situation as many will not want to let those down who they are trying to help. The solution to this, is for more people to volunteer. However, the challenge foodbanks will face will be unprecedented and will require actions from the Government and the food industry in order to meet demand. FareShare, a food distribution charity, made an appeal for extra funding, food and volunteers over fears of the increasing numbers at risk of hunger. In response, Asda has announced it will be donating £5 million to The Trussell Trust and FareShare in order to help the most vulnerable.

Children from disadvantaged families are continuing to receive free school meals, although schools are currently taking different approaches in providing these meals. In January 2019 (latest figures available), 15.4% of the UK’s 8.82 million school children were eligible for free school meals (Department for Education, 2019). Currently the Government is working towards providing food vouchers for these families. However, what happens during school holidays remains uncertain.

As can be seen, there are many problems and issues currently facing us with our food supply and with the food system in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Access to food is currently very dynamic and fluid. Changes are being introduced daily by supermarkets as the Covid-19 pandemic develops, and it remains uncertain if the Government will take the step of implementing food rationing. At this time, collective responsibilities, not just for our families, but for our neighbours and our communities need to come to the fore.

The impact of food governance by environmental groups and consumer groups has already been increasing, and they are focussing on issues such as environmental protection, food safety, locally sourced food, corporate power, disadvantaged communities, world hunger, fair trade, diet and health (Lang and Heasman, 2015). If this momentum can be maintained, the involvement of consumer and environmental groups may help address some of the questions raised as to who is in a position to make informed decisions about food and accountability. Perhaps after we have got through this current pandemic, it would be a good time for everyone to consider how we would like to transform the food system so that it works for all. We need to start thinking about where our food comes from, how it is produced and how we are accessing food. After all, everyone has a right to food.


Department for Education (2019) Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019 [Online]. (Accessed 29 March 2020).
Garthwaite, K. (2016) Hunger Pains: Life inside foodbank Britain, Bristol, Policy Press.
Lang, T. (2003) Food Industrialisation and Food Power: Implications for Food Governance, Development Policy Review, 21(5–6), 555–568.
Lang, T. and Heasman, M. (2015) Food Wars: The global battle for mouths, minds and markets, 2nd ed. Abingdon, Routledge.
Purdam, K., Esmail, A., and Garratt, E. (2019) Food insecurity amongst older people in the UK, British Food Journal, 121(3), 658–674.


Catherine Price is a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia. Her research interests include the food system, science and society, human-animal relationships and the environment. She tweets at @CatherineJPrice and details of her research can be found at ResearchGate.


Image Credit: Author’s own