Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Report

 

 

By Prof. Michel Winter

On the 7th April 2021, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a follow-up inquiry[1] to its initial inquiry in 2020[2] on the impacts of the pandemic on food. The focus of the new report is on food insecurity for individuals and the food supply chain. The report highlights how, in contrast to the first national lockdown when those shielding for health reasons received national food parcels, in the 2021 lockdown they were asked to rely on online delivery services or friends or family. The Committee highlighted concerns that this change of policy excluded people unable to afford retailers’ minimum spends and/or delivery charges. The Committee recommended that the Government should ask retailers to lower their minimum spend requirements and not to make delivery charges for shielding customers. Concerns were also highlighted around the issue of in-store COVID-19 measures causing difficulties for disabled customers and the need for retailers to make adjustments.

Not surprisingly, much of the report’s attention is directed to the shift in January from food parcels to vouchers for those families eligible for free school meals (the 1.7 million children in the UK living in households that are food insecure). As reported in the January version of this Bulletin, serious concerns, highlighted by Marcus Rashford amongst others, over the suitability of some of the parcels led to the reintroduction of a national voucher scheme. The Committee felt that schools should have multiple options for the provision of free school meals and be allowed to choose the best one for their own pupils’ needs. They concluded as follows:

It is therefore unfortunate that the failings of some suppliers, in terms of quality and value for money, led to a fall in public confidence in England given that parcels are the best option in some circumstances. It is important that the sector and Government learns from these failings and ensures that any future offering is consistently up to standard and delivers value for money.

The Committee took the opportunity to look beyond the immediate issue of dealing with food poverty in the context of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and highlighted the need to understand better the causes and consequences of food insecurity:

… the Government should … produce annual reports on food security under the Agriculture Act, at least in the short to medium term. Ministers have mobilised their departments to support vulnerable people to access food during the pandemic, but this impetus needs to be sustained. A Minister for Food Security should be appointed and supported by robust cross-Government structures to ensure that all interested departments prioritise the issue of food insecurity, and the Government should consult on how a ‘Right to Food’ could be introduced in England.

The final report on the National Food Strategy will make for interesting reading in this context as will the Government’s response both to this Select Committee report and to the National Food Strategy report.

The Select Committee report also confronts the problems – discussed in earlier bulletins – faced by wholesalers impacted both by the sudden switch from food parcels to vouchers in January 2021[3] and by the decline of the hospitality sector. It urges Government to urgently assess the impact of the closures to the hospitality sector on its suppliers and provide additional financial support to them during the period of reopening.

As ever, with Select Committee reports, the report contains invaluable links to the submitted evidence, 42 different submissions in this instance.

 

[1] Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2019–21, ‘Covid-19 and the Issues of Security in Food Supply’, HC 1156.

[2] Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, ‘COVID-19 and food supply’, HC 263.

[3] This was rightly seen by many as benefitting retailers at the expense of wholesalers.  The retailers which participated in the voucher scheme were Aldi, Iceland, McColl’s, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, M&S, Farm Foods and the Company Shop Group (a retail outlet for the redistribution of surplus food and household products).

Reopening of hospitality

 

By Tim Wilkinson

The 12th April 2021 marked Step 2 on the government’s Covid roadmap, giving us further possibilities of a less restricted life. Hospitality businesses were able to open to customers served outside. With non-essential shops and highstreets reopening too, the date was also something of a symbol of coming out of the pandemic in England. While this is welcome, change is not without difficulties. There are, of course, positives for food service businesses that are willing and able to reopen premises and serve customers outside. But beneath headlines about sky rocketing high street footfall and pent up demand, hospitality businesses and their suppliers, are negotiating a change that presents tricky questions about moving forwards.

 

Nervousness

To survive the last year, many food service businesses have found new routes to market and/or have rationalised their offer. For some casual dining businesses, takeaways or meal boxes have offered more than just a lifeline and have been developed into lucrative income streams, which look set to supplement income from restaurant diners going forward. The owner of pizza chain, Franco Manca, Fulham Shore for instance, are looking to expand and open new restaurants as takeaway and collection raise profits. Some food-to-go chains, like Pret A Manager, have started supplying supermarkets. Pret struck a deal to sell baked goods at Tesco’s, in March. Meanwhile, smaller, independent business have found new routes to market via coffee vans or by serving hospitals and key workers. For some, these changes of business model have worked well; others will want to return to pre-Covid practices as soon as possible. I understand from our Expert Panel that there is nervousness about the choices businesses have as restrictions lift. While shifting back to pre-Covid business models might be very welcome for some, it is not without risk. For smaller businesses the risk is greater and decisions about whether, and what, to change are more difficult. It seems likely food businesses will continue to need to adapt and be agile, but after an extremely challenging year, cash flow will be an issue, especially where additional investment is needed to reopen or where there are existing debts to suppliers.

There are questions and concerns about when to reopen businesses. Outdoor-only dining limits capacity so some businesses will choose not to reopen until they can serve enough customers to make a profit. While approximately 38% of licensed premises have outdoor space to serve customers, only 12% of casual dining restaurants do. There is regional variability too; outdoor space is highest in the South West where 51% of premises have space outdoors. But the Caterer reported that under a quarter of licensed premises in England opened for trade in the week following 12th April. Capacity limitations, mean some food businesses reopening in April and May will make a loss, despite being open (less of a loss than being closed, but still a loss). This has some financial benefits, and being partially open may raise business profile, but for some businesses, particularly smaller ones, when exactly to reopen will remain a difficult decision.

For institutional caterers, uncertainties remain around returning to the office and hybrid working patterns. What will office ‘rituals’ (coffee mornings, shared lunches and meetings) look like as offices reopen? How will hybrid working patterns impact the catering offer? The pandemic has raised levels of ‘at home cooking’, but might we see a future where institutional caterers could serve at home workers? We will have to wait and see. For the time being, pent up demand for casual dining seems to be in evidence. Perhaps the same will be the case when it is safe for a mass return to the office. Wholesalers have reported struggling to meet demand from hospitality and rising consumer confidence is a good sign for businesses, although there is a suggestion that we are witnessing a ‘K-shaped recovery’ where there is increasing divergence between consumer groups who have prospered over the last year and those who haven’t.

Finally, I thought it was interesting that two campaigns were in the news over the last few weeks about businesses supporting hospitality reopening. One was from wholesale, Brakes who launched their ‘Help for Hospitality’ Campaign cutting prices on 3,500 products, the other was Tesco’s national newspaper campaign encouraging its customers to ‘pop to your local if you can’ asking customers to support local pubs rather than go to Tesco’s. This continues a theme we’ve seen throughout the pandemic of food citizenship and support. Will this community spirit persist as we move into a post-Covid summer?