COVID panic buying 2.0?

By Tim Wilkinson

With additional national restrictions, rising cases of Covid-19 and the prospect of a potential second lockdown, one has to wonder what the effect of additional restrictions might have on the food system.

Signs in the supermarket read “be considerate while shopping”. While such imperatives are now a familiar part of the retail messaging, in the last week the emphasis on customer behaviour has once again been in the news. Retailers have been urging customers not just to be considerate while shopping, but to refrain from so-called ‘panic buying’.  There have been reports of fears of panic buying and rumours of stockpiling in the last few days, but so far it seems the supermarket aisle scenes of March 2020 have not been repeated. I noticed that several online news outlets reporting on panic buying and stockpiling, used images of empty shelves with captions saying the images were from March 2020. I’m sure there have been empty shelves in September and while it is natural to recall empty shelves in March, it seemed unhelpful to include these images in reports of potential stockpiling in the last week. Circulating fears and rumours of panic buying seem to me to be part of the cycle that create temporary shortages. Anyway, beside the morality of online news outlets image selection, I think it is interesting how sensitised both consumers and the media now are to stocking levels in supermarkets. Among other things, I think it shows how habituated we were to fully stocked supermarkets before the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but when I go to the supermarket now, I don’t expect to be always find what I want, in stock.

Our collective experiences of buying food over the last 6 months, seem likely to be the reason why, 66% of respondents to a YouGov poll this week said they are worried about the impact of a second wave on UK food supplies.  As we know, one way that consumers managed the impact of Covid on the food supply chain in March and April, was to shift towards local, independent shops. A Twitter thread  we came across this week, suggests that some small businesses who had new customers as a result of the first lockdown feel let down that consumers shifted back to the supermarkets over the summer. Comments from consumers show that some people felt they could afford to shop locally during the lockdown as they were saving money on not going out etc., but as these opportunities have returned, the perceived cost saving at supermarkets has become more appealing. Consumer’s old habits returned. The thread implies that some business owners have mixed feelings about customers returning to their shops if there is a second lockdown – there would be the financial benefit of course, but this is tinged with the disappointment and frustration of feeling dropped by customers who shopped with them earlier in the year. One wonders, what the impact of new restrictions and a potential second lockdown might have on local shops.

With pubs and restaurants now closing earlier, what and where people eat may well change. But how? Will the nation return to the home baking and scratch cooking we saw in March and April, or have many people found alternative interests and activities that can be done at home? Will comfort foods, bought in large volumes in March and April, be as popular if there is a second lockdown, or have we collectively found a healthier way of managing anxiety about the pandemic?  Have opportunities to eat to help out in August re-ignited consumers love for restaurant food enough to retain rising levels of out of home eating? Will more people order takeaways now that many businesses have improved their online platforms and delivery processes? Will the rise in food box meals change? I don’t have answers to all these questions, but it feels to me that many people have found a new normal in terms of the way they want to shop for food and what they want to eat. We will undoubtedly see some trends consolidating and accelerating, and of course new developments emerging. And how we collectively choose to be considerate while shopping remains to be seen.

Sausages + Venison

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

A meat theme to my blog this month and, in particular, a couple of stories that have come my way, one that shows that not all change and innovation is driven by COVID. There are other issues that still matter as well.  The second is an example of an unexpected impact of COVID-induced dietary change.

First to sausages. Sausages are one of those foods that have done well in the market place as a result of COVID and the growth in home cooking. In August, the Evening Standard reported that food producer Cranswick had seen a surge in sales, of 24.8% in the 13 weeks up to June 27th compared to the same period in 2019.  Some of that was because of new acquisitions so that the like-for-like increase in revenue was 19.2%.  But it’s another sausage story that I want to highlight now.  Alongside the challenge of dealing with COVID, there are other priorities that cannot, and should not, be forgotten, associated with climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental deterioration.

One issue that was receiving a great deal of attention during the months immediately prior to the pandemic was the scourge of plastic packaging.  In attempting to reduce the use of plastics in the food sector, meat products pose a particular challenge because of the nature of the product.  But a family-owned sausage manufacturer located just down the road from Exeter in Newton Abbot, Westaways, has pioneered a solution and in June started using the first certified compostable packaging for a retail chilled meat product in the UK.

In partnership with an Italian packaging company Fabbri Group, they have developed and introduced a new wrapping film certified to EN13432, the EU harmonized standard for compostable and biodegradable packaging. Quoted in the trade magazine, Meat Management, Charles Baughan Westaways MD, sums it up as follows: “Visit the meat and dairy produce aisles in most retailers and you are surrounded by plastic of many different types. Plastic is without doubt an easy solution to preserving and presenting food. However, I think most people realise and understand that not all packaging ends up where it should. My team wanted to develop a format for our sausages that meant wherever our packaging ended up it would degrade, leaving no harmful residues or microplastics behind.”

Scientists reading this will want to know which biodegradable route the firm has chosen to go down. Well it’s PBAT (Polybutyrate Adipate Terephthalate), a polymer that is broken down by microbial action. And here’s the twist – PBAT is partly derived from petrochemicals but is often added to other plant-derived bioplastics to improve biodegradability so that products comply with home composting criteria. As the Better Packaging Co, explains ‘when it comes to plant-based inputs there is a trade-off between renewability and compostability – the higher the % renewable, plant-based components the slower it is to compost!’  These issues certainly are complex!  Don’t forget that plants used in purely plant-based plastics are likely to be commercially grown, maize for example, and therefore subject to all the environmental challenges associated with modern agriculture including, of course, its dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers and fuel for agricultural machines.  Bioplastics without PBAT require high heat industrial composting to break down. Without such heat, they only degrade over a very long timeframe, and in marine environments function similarly to conventional petroleum-based plastic, breaking down into micro-sized pieces, lasting for decades, and presenting a danger to marine life.  And, given this project’s interest in the security of food supplies, plant based bioplastics have a knock-on implication for the amount of land devoted to food plants.  Many would argue that PBAT remains a valid call given this wider context.  And Westaways are to be applauded for their innovation and for pressing on with introducing a new packaging product at the height of the COVID pandemic.

For additional information on the food packaging issue see: UK Parliament POST Proposals to increase UK recycling of plastic food packaging  by Peter Border.

 

My second story concerns wild venison. The Mail Online (21st September) report that a decline in wild venison consumption, already in evidence because of cheaper, farmed imports from New Zealand, Poland, Spain and Portugal, was exacerbated by the collapse in the restaurant trade due to COVID.  With a glut of deer and no incentive for the usual culling, the deer population is growing at a time when the Government aspires to increase woodland coverage to help lock up carbon to combat climate change.  Too many deer (and indeed too many grey squirrels) make it challenging to establish new woodland and also to properly manage existing woodland including through natural regeneration.  Anyone who has ever visited a deer farm with existing woodland will know that deer, in sufficient concentration, like all grazing livestock, are not really compatible with natural regeneration or, indeed, optimal conditions for biodiverse woodland ground flora.  So in the absence of natural predators, like wolves, deer management is essential and close integration with the food supply chain important.  According to the Mail, citing the Game Dealers Association chairman Stephen Crouch, “600,000 deer need to be killed each year to control the UK’s population, which now stands at two million. But the amount stalkers are paid for carcasses has fallen from about £2.50 to £1 per kilo”.  A Wild Venison Working Group, chaired by the Forestry Commission, with representation from stakeholders in woodland management, shooting, gamekeeping, and venison supply sectors, is promising a “Wild Venison Week” early in 2021 to promote consumption.

A degree of hunger: COVID-19, food insecurity, and the higher education sector

An empty, dirty dinner plate

 

By Veronica White

This month, I will finish my master’s degree in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, taught in part by academics from the Centre for Rural Policy Research, including Professors Matt Lobley and Michael Winter. We never got a chance to say goodbye when campus closed in March, so I am glad to get this opportunity to work with Matt, Michael and the rest of the research team.

While there have been numerous media articles discussing food security concerns for school-aged children, I was curious about how the pandemic has affected university students. As European borders started closing in mid-March, I returned home to the Netherlands. I am very privileged to have a safe home environment, with parents who can afford to feed me and my sister (and our two boyfriends who ended up living with us during lockdown!). Sharing the cooking responsibilities between the six of us, I ate considerably better than I normally do while at university.

Other students did not have such a positive experience, as highlighted by the Food Insecurity and Lived Experience of Students (FILES) report. This research involved a survey of over 1,200 students across three universities in the UK and one in the US, throughout April 2020.

The survey found that almost 35% of students reported high or very high levels of food insecurity, with the highest levels of food insecurity reported by students who were living alone or with other students. The report also highlights the prevalence of poor mental wellbeing in students, stating that “one in five university students reported experiencing both low levels of food security and low mental wellbeing” during the COVID-19 lockdown.

With almost a quarter of students relying on employment as the primary means of funding their education, job losses associated with COVID-19 have had direct implications for students’ access to food. These finding are reflected in a separate study, which found that loss of income and changing living arrangements were the two strongest predictors of food insecurity among students at three American universities.

The findings from these studies, while alarming, are perhaps not surprising considering that food insecurity was already a prevalent issue within university students prior to the pandemic. Food insecurity has been linked to difficulties concentrating, higher rates of anxiety and lower academic achievements. And considering the racial and ethnic disparities in food security amongst students, increasing levels of food insecurity caused by COVID-19 could hinder efforts at closing the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment gap.

It is clear that universities welcoming students back this month must find long-term solutions to support students who are experiencing, or at risk of, food insecurity. The FILES report argues for the need to convene a special task force of national stakeholders to review the viability and efficacy of eight recommended policies. These include increasing hardship funds, lowering income thresholds for maintenance grants and establishing a campaign to reduce the stigma around food aid. I encourage university and student union staff to read the report and identify interventions that can be tailored to their student population. Additionally, more research is needed on the state of food security at universities in the UK, as most of the research has focused on students at American universities.

As a research centre based at a university with over 25,000 students, we must acknowledge that students arriving back to Exeter this month may be facing higher levels of food insecurity than pre-COVID*. With all of the uncertainty this new term brings, the last thing students need is to stress about where their next meal is going to come from.

 

*If you are a student at the University of Exeter with financial challenges that are affecting your studies, the university’s Success for All Fund is now open for applications.