Good Food Enterprises: Adapting to the pandemic, one year – A Summary/Commentary

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Sustain has issued a survey report exploring how good food enterprises have adapted to the pandemic one year on.

Good Food Enterprises: Adapting to the pandemic, one year on was published on the 16th June.

Sustain define ‘good food enterprises’ as ‘those that use farmer focussed supply chains, prioritise healthy and sustainable food, and increase access to, and the affordability of, good food. Good food enterprises may be non-profit, social enterprises or for profit food retailers and play a part in their community beyond trading.’

This report is based on a survey of good food enterprises in the Sustain network and the results are derived from 91 responses in March and April 2021, and covers a range of enterprises including producers, suppliers, bakeries, retail, hospitality and community assets.

The key findings are worth repeating in full:

Good food enterprises adapted and diversified to respond to the pandemic; most commonly by creating a delivery service (52%), online ordering (41%), and providing new or different products or services (35%).

63% plan to continue with their adaptations longer term, showing that these changes appear to have benefited their business model.

Almost two thirds reported an increase in customer numbers and just under half increased their revenue, indicating an increase in the use of local, good food enterprises during the pandemic.

There has been more collaboration between local food enterprises and other businesses locally, with 60% reporting increased collaboration between enterprises, organisations and others within their local food networks in the past year and 30% accessing new supply chains.

42% had supported the emergency food response, showing how good food enterprises can contribute to community resilience.

Over half had not accessed local or national government support, including financial support, business advice or access to council resources.

Much of the rest of the report is devoted to some case study examples, mainly quotations from respondents, and conclusions and recommendations primarily about encouraging the good food sector aimed first at local authorities and local enterprise partnerships:

Recognise the opportunity to build local community wealth and revitalise high streets through supporting good food enterprises to fully reopen and grow as we emerge out of lockdowns.

Ensure funding is more flexible to support different needs. A ‘one size fits all’ approach means many good food enterprises will fall through the gaps.

Prioritise the creation of good food jobs as we build back better, supporting community focussed, sustainable and ethical enterprises which are better for people and the planet.

Actively support existing, or the development of, local food partnerships and ensure members of these partnerships are involved in the development of local economic plans and other strategies and plans, as well as local Growth Hubs, to bring in sustainable food expertise.

And secondly directed to national government:

Prioritise investment in small, local food enterprises and initiatives. As part of the green recovery strategies as well as economic recovery/build back better funding including via the incoming Shared Prosperity Fund to ensure there is infrastructure, business support and resources for the creation of new, and support of existing, good food enterprises.

Review national planning policies to make it easier for small and medium enterprises to afford and access spaces and land, including making Community Asset Transfer more accessible.

Commission research to better understand the environmental benefits of small-scale, good food enterprises to help these businesses be recognised for their benefit to tackling the climate and nature emergency.

This list makes for familiar reading for those who follow Sustain and its key members but is none the worse for that. In such a busy and congested market place as food advocacy there is an understandable need constantly to reiterate messages.

 

https://www.sustainweb.org/publications/good-food-enterprises-one-year-on/

Labour Shortages in the Food Chains: COVID, Brexit or both?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter 

In recent weeks, the press has been full of stories about labour shortages in many parts of the food system. In another recent post on this site CRPR colleague Caroline Nye examines the farm labour situation. Here I will take a look at another part of the food system, transport and distribution. Although there has been much coverage of the labour shortages in the hospitality sector, the problems of the distribution sector are more potent in terms of an actual threat to getting products onto the shelves of retailers.

Logistics UK, the business association representing nearly half the UK lorry fleet (as well as members from rail, sea and air transporters and freight services such as retailers and manufacturers), highlights in its Logistics Report 2021 based on an industry survey, the current labour challenges in the sector. Take HGV drivers for instance. In order to drive an HGV, drivers must both pass a vocational driving test and then maintain a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) based on 35 hours of periodic training every 5 years. In the previous four years there was an annual average of nearly 43,000 HGV driving test passes in the UK (57.7% pass rate). The pandemic led to a suspension of tests between April and July 2020.  Consequently there were only 24,626 test passes in 2020 (63.7% pass rate). A further suspension occurred during the 2021 lockdown. There remains a significant backlog of drivers seeking tests, which is a contributory factor to the current shortage of drivers.  Logistics UK estimate 45,000 HGV driver tests were delayed due to Covid, and a further 79,000 European logistics workers returned to their home countries as a result of Brexit.  Moreover, the labour challenges facing the transport sector are not confined to finding drivers.  The report highlights an increased demand for fitter, mechanic and technician roles, and that these were the hardest posts to fill in 2020, presumably also partly Brexit-related.  Nearly a half of respondents to the Logistics UK Industry Survey 2020/21 indicated they had increased staff gross pay, which will clearly be an inflationary pressure in the food sector.

Logistics UK propose the following reforms to help address the labour issue in transport:

  • Reform of the National Skills Fund to include priority Level 2 courses such as HGV driver: Currently only Level 3 courses are funded.
  • Apprenticeship Levy should become more flexible to suit logistics needs. Rigid rules on duration, training hours and work placements make the Levy hard to use.
  • Provision of access to qualified non-UK logistics workers through amended Skilled Worker Visa and T5 Visa arrangements.
  • Continued development of suitable Apprenticeship standards, T-Levels, and vocational courses in partnership with the education sector.

Speciality Food, have highlighted the wider ripple effects in the food sector including for firms with a short supply chain that did well during the early stages of the pandemic. They quote the operations manager of the fine food distributor, The Cress Company:

‘Although Cress are not a direct user of HGV drivers, the shortage of drivers with this type of license has also had a knock-on effect on the availability of good quality 3.5t van drivers. Drivers who have been successful at interviews are receiving counter offers as their current employers panic, potentially putting inflationary pressure on wages.’ 1

On the 28th June, Defra held emergency talks with industry leaders and according to The Grocer ‘a string of supermarket executives told Defra officials they were facing shortages. One retailer claimed this was the most pressure on the supply chain he had seen in 40 years.’2  This followed reports earlier in the week that food wholesaler Brakes had been forced to end its supply of goods to a range of its customers.

As The Grocer points out, the problem is not entirely new but has been severely exacerbated by COVID and Brexit. The sector has an image problem with an average age of 55 years and only 2% of HGC drivers being under the age of 25:

‘The answer is more apprenticeships; company sponsorship of licence attainment; and evolving vehicles, technology and working practices that will support and attract the next generation of drivers. In the near term it’s identifying those ex-drivers who have left the industry to persuade some to come back; and encouraging those approaching retirement to hold back. […]

There is no simple, quick-win solution here, as demand is set to outstrip driver capacity for many months to come. It is therefore important that we collaborate across the supply chain. Industry must work hand-in-hand with government, but to achieve this we must first make clear the serious consequences of a gummed-up and supply-restricted industry going into a summer period of significant staycation-based consumer demand. The industry community and government figured out how to keep the trucks and supplies rolling through the pandemic – we believe urgent collaboration is needed once again to keep the nation fully fed.’ ³

So the answer to my opening question is ‘both’. As we are increasingly finding in this project the COVID and Brexit effects are intertwined. Does it matter if we can’t easily tease out the relative significance of each factor?  Not really, as long as we recognize the complexities and the inter-relationships.

 

1.  Warning of food shortages “as bad as the first lockdown” | News | Speciality Food Magazine

2. HGV driver shortage: industry and government hold ‘constructive’ talks | The Grocer

3. The government must accelerate driver support to prevent food shortages | The Grocer

South West Farm Survey 2020: Selected Results

 

By Tim Wilkinson and Matt Lobley

Context

We sent 4000 paper questionnaires to land managers in the South West in late October 2020; sending reminders and receiving responses until early December 2020. We received 1117 completed surveys; a 28% response rate. The survey was distributed to farmers in the wider South West including Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly. We aimed to achieve a cross-section of farm type, size and farmer age group to ensure we had a variety of farms represented in the sample.

Any survey like this is just a snapshot in time and the results should be seen in the context of Winter 2020, when many were expecting a small but relatively normal Christmas and trade negotiations with the EU were yet to be concluded. If we asked many of the questions in the survey again today, we might well receive very different responses.

 

Respondent Profile

In our supporting material for the survey we asked that the person responsible for day-to-day management of the farm to complete the questionnaire where possible. Respondents were aged from 23 to 98, with a mean age of 63 years (slightly older than the national average). Respondents aged 54 years and under comprised 22% of the sample, 33% were aged 55-64 and 45% were aged over 65. The sample comprised 10% female respondents and 90% male respondents. Most of the respondents were intergenerational farmers; with just 15% reporting they were first generation.


 

Farm Profile

We received responses from a range of farm types, mainly comprising Grazing Livestock (37%), Mixed (29%) and Dairy (19%), but including Cereals (4%), General Cropping (4%), Specialist Poultry and Pigs (2%) and Horticulture (1%). This mix is broadly what we would expect from the region, given its topography and grasslands, and what we’ve found in previous surveys.

We had a good range of farm sizes represented. One quarter (25%) of the sample were farms under 50ha in size, another quarter (27%) between 50ha and 100ha. Larger farms were represented too; 14% over 250ha.

 

 

 

The Farm Business

We asked participants what the economic performance of the farm business was like compared to 5 years ago. Half of respondents said the business was doing about the same; 28% said they were doing better, 22% said they were doing worse.

We asked participants how they saw the economic prospects of the farm business over the next 5 years; answers were on a linear scale from bad to excellent. Just over half (51%) said the business prospects were ‘fair’, however 27% said ‘poor’, 6% said ‘bad’. There were those who expected a brighter future; 15% said they thought business prospects were ‘good’. Just 1% said they thought business prospects were ‘excellent’. We compared these results to data from the 2016 South West Farm survey; they were almost identical for every category (poor, fair etc.). Looking at the 2020 data by farm type for Livestock, Dairy and Mixed farms, Dairy farms were the most confident with 21% saying they thought their prospects for the next five years were Good compared to 11%  and 13% who saw their prospects as ‘Good’ on Grazing Livestock and Mixed farms respectively.

 

Covid Impacts

Farmers reported a wide range of problems and benefits arising from Covid. We thought it was interesting that 12% of respondents reported neither problems nor benefits arising from Covid, suggesting that Covid did not seem to be impacting a small percentage of South West farmers in Winter 2020.

If we just look at the question we had on problems arising from Covid, 38% of farmers said they had no problems. Of those who reported problems, 21% said they had lost non-farming income such as from tourism rental. Reductions in the price of farm products was reported too (15%), as was reduction in the price of milk (12%). Less time being available due to caring responsibilities (such as childcare, or caring for relatives) was noted by 11%. A large range of other problems were reported, including public trespass, stress, lower staff productivity and availability, shielding and production being capped.

Answering a question about any benefits arising from the pandemic, 25% said they were seeing no benefits. Of those who reported benefits, 24% reported higher prices of farm products. Interestingly, several of the other most noted benefits were about relationships; 23% reported improved relations with the local community, 9% reported more positive interactions with other farmers and 9% reported closer relationships with buyers. New markets (7%) and demand for direct sales (1%) were mentioned, but certainly not as frequently as one might have expected from looking at media reporting around direct sales.

 

Plans for the Future

We asked respondents a number of questions about what was influencing their plans for the future. Almost half of farmers (49%) disagreed with the statement that the impacts and uncertainties of Covid were influencing their plans for the future. Nearly a third (32%) were ambivalent, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Given wide ranging impacts of Covid, it is interesting that only 20% of farmers agreed that Covid impacts and uncertainties were influencing their plans for the future. This may be partly a factor of the timing of the survey – perhaps some felt that the pandemic would soon be coming to an end. But it may also relate to the outdoor nature of much farming work. Compared to the role of future ELMS schemes and climate change, Covid impacts and uncertainties seem to have had less influence on plans.

 

Disagree Neither Agree
Future ELMS schemes 23% 32% 45%
Climate change 26% 33% 41%
Reducing carbon emissions 30% 33% 37%
International trade deals 31% 40% 28%
Covid impacts and uncertainties 48% 32% 20%

 

Brexit

South West farmers were broadly ambivalent about how they thought their farm, the South West and UK would fair outside the European Union. A quarter of respondents strongly disagreed that their farm would struggle outside the EU. The timing of the survey (Oct/Nov 2020) should be noted here; we wonder what respondents would say if we asked this question again now.

 

Strongly Disagree Disagree Neither Agree Strongly Agree
My farm will prosper outside the EU 13% 16% 43% 15% 13%
My farm will struggle outside the EU 25% 18% 33% 14% 10%
Farming in the South West will prosper outside the EU 14% 19% 42% 15% 11%
The UK will prosper outside the EU 14% 19% 42% 15% 10%


Data and Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Vanessa Rowan Johnson and David Andrews for their generous support of the South West Farm Survey 2020.

Please do not reproduce these figures without permission; contact Timothy Wilkinson

Please note that figures have been rounded to the nearest whole number; so totals may not sum to 100%.

Further considerations around labour in agriculture: New report released examining labour issues and workforce solutions

 

By Caroline Nye*

The Centre for Rural Policy Research recently published a new report, Farm labour in the UK: Accessing the workforce the industry needs, commissioned and funded by The Worshipful Company of Farmers with additional funding from The John Oldacre Foundation. The report sought to do two things. The first was to determine what the current labour situation looks like across all sectors of British agriculture and to understand how the industry has arrived at its current ‘point of crisis’. The second aim was to examine potential solutions to the labour crisis, especially with regards to matching domestic workers to the more permanent positions in the industry. While a number of reports related to farm labour in British agriculture have emerged since the referendum in 2016, few have collated the existing data in such a way as to not only represent all sectors of the industry, but to highlight the sociological drivers behind both permanent and seasonal labour shortages, as well as the economic. Rather than throw out blanket solutions to the labour crisis, as so often happens among some commentators and public figures, researchers spoke with individuals who are already running initiatives to match people from different sections of society to careers in farming, providing a deeper and more accurate understanding of how suitable these different groups are for farm work, what the barriers might be for the differing initiatives, and how best to go about facilitating the matching process.

The report drew upon previous studies, as well as providing additional empirical evidence from 21 different stakeholders in the industry, including farmers, initiative operators, industry experts and labour experts. While multiple conclusions were reached as a result of the analysis and in-depth interviews, the key message from the report is that things need to change, and this change needs to occur rapidly to prevent the potentially significant repercussions of farm labour shortages across the industry. The research team identified that such change must occur at farm-level, local-level, and national-level as there is no single solution to the multi-faceted issues around farm labour. And this is the case for both the seasonal and permanent workforce. For example, at farm-level, employers need to not only make obvious adjustments such as better working conditions and pay, but they also need to create a more attractive farm culture by becoming better managers, offering more training and creating a more dynamic and forward-thinking working environment. In addition to this, at a more national-level, it identifies how the image of farming needs to change. It details how key influencers, such as parents, teachers and careers advisors to whom young people turn in the pursuit of advice on future opportunities, need influencing so that archaic perceptions of farming are replaced with more realistic understandings of what a career in farming might entail in the 21st century. One of the key messages that the report, and the associated launch which occurred on the 17th June with a broad and well qualified panel, tried to get across was that employers should be looking beyond the limited pool of potential recruits ‘from a farming background’ and open up to offering opportunities to people from all backgrounds. With this in mind, the report examined in more detail how this might be achieved through various initiatives aimed at young people, career changers, service leavers and ex-offenders, among others. The common theme throughout was that farming for many of these groups is an ‘invisible career’ and that more needs to be done to facilitate the matching process between people from a non-farming background and careers in agriculture. How do we connect that young person who has been volunteering on a city farm in London for five years and wants to do nothing else but farm, to the farmer in Devon who needs a dairy worker? This is a key issue which needs addressing. It is all very well improving education, awareness, pay and conditions, but if the matching process itself does not improve then all other efforts could easily be wasted.

It is important to note that the report does not ignore the immigration question entirely. It acknowledges that almost all sectors in the agricultural industry have relied upon migrant labour, whether for seasonal or more permanent positions, for a number of years, and so states the importance of the current immigration policy being both fit for purpose (which it currently is not) and not biased towards any particular sector in agriculture, or against agriculture as an industry. Automation, migrant workers and domestic labour will all be required to contribute to the country’s food production, and while young people, career changers, ex-offenders and service leavers can each form part of the wider solution, no cohort in itself is currently capable of filling the shortage gaps. Farms, the agricultural industry and the government need to stay vigilant, be flexible, and get creative before the crisis damages the structure of the industry permanently.

To read the report in full, please click here: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/research/microsites/centreforruralpolicyresearch/pdfs/researchreports/Farm_labour_in_the_UK._Accessing_the_workforce_the_industry_needs_.pdf

 

* Dr. Caroline Nye is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses  on agricultural labour in the UK, landscape-scale farmer groups (or Farmer Clusters), farmer attitudes to conservation, and methodologies involving social research in the agricultural sector.

The National Food Strategy: rural communities, urban food and good food jobs. What can be done? A Note

 

By Prof. Terry Marsden*

It will be important for the National Food Strategy to explicitly address and propose a new vision for British food and farming; to outline in some detail where we should be trying to get to, what are the end goals (by 2030, and 2040); and to outline how a combination of market, state and civil society actions can be formulated to achieve these ends. There is always a danger to avoid such an approach, but now is the time to develop a truly radical and innovative food strategy in the UK, and to specify its major goals.

This was the task of equal significance to that which the ‘Scott Commission’ (1942) addressed in the depths of war in its ‘Report of the Committee on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas’ (1942), which then laid the foundations for the immediate post-war agricultural, food and rural development policies thereafter. Today, the challenges are probably even greater, but certainly more diverse as we are expecting far many more sustainable functions to be achieved from our food and rural systems, not least meeting climate change (net-zero) targets, reducing food poverty, increasing dietary health and restoring ecological biodiversity. There is also, as we shall see here the structural question of restoring a vibrant farming sector.

I will focus here upon the domestic food, farming and the rural economy, and base this note upon my recent and continuing researches in these fields.[1]  I will raise ten key points which need addressing and prioritising in the NFS.

  1. Current effects of both Covid and Brexit have only heightened the need for a radical re-formulation of domestic state policy regarding the food system, farming and rural development. This is necessary to arrest and reverse structural weaknesses in the food, farming and rural economy. The multiple and interconnected problems are now well articulated in a series of recent reports[2]. I need not dwell on these in detail here as many of the issues have already been raised in this group’s earlier meetings. However, I want to focus here on the severe need to address domestic food, farming and rural development policies, especially since we have now ‘taken back control’ from the EU in these policy realms.
  2. We are currently in, in my opinion, a policy vacuum relating to these fields, despite the ‘bare-bones’ of a new Environmental Land Management System’ (ELMS) being gradually rolled out[3]. These proposals alone, in my view, will not go far or be comprehensive enough to tackle the structural problems the rural and farming domain faces. They may turn out to be a valuable part of the mix, but they are too restricted on the necessary restoration of land-based environmental goods and services.
  3. Here we need to address both supply, demand, and particularly infrastructural factors affecting sustainable food, farming and rural development.
  4. If nothing is proactively done in these fields the UK will further experience, inter alia, the following reductions in its economic resilience; involving: (i) further concentration and oligopolisation of markets and food firms upstream and downstream from the farm sector; (ii) the continuing fall out and amalgamation of farm holdings and the continued decline in viability of small and medium family farms; (iii) the further outward mobility of the young from rural communities and labour markets; (iv) further reductions in the capability of the UK to be more self-sufficient in its production, and capable of feeding its growing urban populations with high quality foodstuffs. In addition, with pressure to convert more land for housing (300,000 per yr target giving 3 Million in the next decade, estimated to need 600,000 acres of agricultural land)[4], there will be intensive pressure on the agricultural land base. As the UK Climate change Committee recently reported (2020 Land Use: Policies for a net zero UK Jan 2020): ‘The way land is used must change to meet the UK’s net zero target. The current approach is not sustainable. Fundamental change in the use of land across the UK is needed to maintain a strong agricultural sector that also delivers climate mitigation, adaptation and wider environmental objectives’.
  5. All of this suggests the need for a new ‘Scott-type’ strategic approach to the rural and farming economy which addresses the priority for the UK to produce more of its own high quality and nutritional foods for its population.[5] Targets need to be set to enhance national and indeed regional self-sufficiency of its foods, to re-create local and regional supply chains, and to use new innovative public procurement policies to create more sustainable and nested markets. Covid has re-enforced the need to supply growing amounts of re-localised food to consumers through a variety of new retail and food outlets, using digital communications. These new short-chains need to develop a larger share of the total retail market and be more available on the high street.
  6. Similarly farmers will need to be incentivised to participate in these re-localised markets, and to diversify their food offer by adopting a variety of more agro-ecological practices. We need to embrace the ‘circular-economy’ in farming for sustainable food, and expand it as a mainstream activity. So far ELMS is too restrictive in this regard as it tends to ignore farmers market relations. I would propose that any further government funding for the farm population should be conditional upon farmers’ plans to adopt agro-ecological practices as well as to deliver ‘non-market’ public goods.
  7. As in the 1940s and 50s, government needs to take the lead in promoting and supporting these transitions; then an army of agricultural committees, a public farm advisory and extension service, and a wide geographical spread of ‘experimental husbandry’ farms were established so that farmers could share and learn good practice. This infrastructure no longer exists, yet it is again much needed in the new transitions the UK public now require from its farming and rural communities.
  8. All of this suggests a strong emphasis upon building and supporting rural and food- based infrastructures, not just in a physical sense, like creating new food hubs and wholesale outlets in both rural and urban communities, or in further developing broadband access. It also requires, market promotion, local branding and more skills training for young people. This is no more such a priority than in the horticultural sector – a sector which must now deliver and expand its UK production and supply base, with new targets for growth.
  9. In our recent WWF Cymru report we set out many of these areas of policy priority: Agro-ecological farming, and skills development, horticultural expansion of land area and markets, local food procurement, fostering food cooperatives and digital markets, enhancing and monitoring nutritional dietary guidelines, quality food standards, and promoting local and regional food cultures and cuisines.[6]
  10. All of the above priorities are indeed ways in which, our research shows, significant economic as well as ecological ‘added value’ and economic and ecological productivity gains can be achieved both in individual farm and food businesses as well as for rural development more generally. Food and farming, in this new era should no longer thus be seen as a ‘declining economy’. This notion should be reversed. Rather it should be positioned by the national government as a leading and vital sector for national wellbeing and restoring the Nation’s Public and Ecological Health.[7]

 

*  Terry Marsden is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at Cardiff University, and is currently involved in longitudinal research on rural and farming matters in England and Wales.  The above forms the basis of a presentation given by Prof. Marsden to the APPG National Food Strategy and is posted here with kind permission.

 

[1] See Marsden, T.K (2017) Agri-food and rural development: sustainable place-making. Bloomsbury, London. Marsden, T.K, Lamine, C and Schneider, S (2020) A Research Agenda for Global Rural Development. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham UK.

[2] See for instance, The Lancet Commission’s recent report on food, diet and health, and The Food and Farming Commission UK reports 2019, 2020.

[3] There are of course different variants of these schemes being formulated in the devolved nations.

[4] See Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (March 2021) ‘Future Rural Land Used in the United Kingdom: A review of pressures and opportunities. CAAV Publication, NO 246.

[5] This will not only enhance the domestic farm sector and rural economy, it can also reduce global food miles and the externalisation of ecological costs and damage on sourcing regions.

[6] See A Welsh Food System for Future Generations: A report by the Sustainable Places Research Institute for WWF Cymru, Cardiff University.

[7] See the extensive analysis of the economic and labour productivity gains created with agro-ecological practices across European countries in : van der Ploeg, J,D et al (2019)The economic potential of agro-ecology: empirical evidence from Europe. Journal of Rural Studies, 71, 46-61.

Experiences of going out to eat

 

By Tim Wilkinson

The Covid road map is very date based. 12 April. 17th May. 21st June. It doesn’t say anything about how those changes might be experienced. In this short piece, I look at the experience of a business owner and at my own experience of going out to eat in the last month.

The reopening of indoor service on the 17th May has been long awaited for by many food businesses. From the customer point of view the rules are fairly simple – something you couldn’t do, now you can! Of course, there are various caveats: indoor eating is restricted to groups of 6 of up to 2 households, and wearing masks when moving around the indoor space is compulsory. An article in Big Hospitality gives more details from a business perspective, for instance on staff mask wearing, groups outdoors and track and trace. Reopening of indoor service has also been met by increased customer demand compared to pre-Covid; The Guardian reported, for example, surging reservations, spend and business revenue compared to the same week in 2019.

Behind the positives of the headlines has been a huge amount of hard work to ready hospitality for reopening. I came across Linda Anderson’s blog this month; which gives a fascinating insight into the journey of The Kitchen Croxley, a café and cake business in Rickmansworth over the last 18 months. The blog records and describes the numerous logistical and practical adaptations that The Kitchen Croxley has made including: pivoting to takeaway, expanding the takeaway offer and developing systems to manage social distancing across different lockdowns. But on top of that, what comes through is the lived experience of making those changes. Reading Linda Anderson’s blogs I got a sense of the energy it takes to run a small food business. There is the mental effort of checking government and industry guidance, the physical exertion of reorganising furniture and cleaning, and the emotional labour of trying to provide a familiar service to customers when so much has changed (e.g. the rising prices of supplies, new staff, new menu items). I thoroughly recommend tracking back through Linda’s blogs: they are a tremendous record of the ongoing adaptations and challenges faced by small business owners in food service industry.

For me, as a pre-Covid customer of cafés and restaurants, I must admit that I’m finding the lockdown mentality a difficult habit to break. Part of me wants to go out to eat but part of me doesn’t. I think it is mainly resistance to doing something I haven’t done for a while. Food critic and broadcaster Grace Dent wrote a tongue in cheek reminder about how to behave in a restaurant in A restaurant refresher course for anyone, like me, who might be struggling to get their head around it again. It has been a while! But I have been to eat out (in a restaurant, outside) and for a coffee (in a café, inside).

On the first May bank holiday, I went to a restaurant for a meal outdoors. The track and trace check-in was part of a cheery welcome and outlining of the rules and one-way system. I found it helpful to get that out of the way so that you weren’t wondering what to do once you were in the restaurant garden. I enjoyed the ‘small’ things like the staff coming to ask ‘is your food okay?’. That was great. As was the background noise of conversation from socially distanced tables – there was something familiar and warming in that. Unfortunately, the food did get cold in the wind though, and so did I. There was no inside option at this point and the restaurant doesn’t control the weather, so we made the best of it with blankets and coats.

Later in May, I met a friend at large café for a coffee indoors. There was a long-ish queue for the tills – it looked like track and trace was taking time to complete – with those taking orders also dealing with technical and check-in issues. The wait gave me a while to get my head around the scene beyond the tills – of perhaps 60 mask-less people eating and drinking indoors. Very novel! I felt for the staff who pre-Covid might have been focused on food service, but were now having to be app experts and explain Covid rules to anxious or confused customers. Once we’d got our hot drinks, we walked through into the hall-like cafeteria. It was noisy – not unpleasantly so, I think I had just forgotten how loud a room full of people with teaspoons and forks can be!

All this reminded me that going out for food is an experience – it’s not just about the food, but the atmosphere and being around other people. As a consumer, it is easy to forget the experience of business owners, staff and other customers – for everyone this is new phase. It’s not a return to ‘normal’, but a new encounter that comes with many thoughts and feelings about how it was before Covid, and how it should be now. We can expect to be pleasantly surprised, but there is a continued need for understanding as new processes are developed and refined. It would be easy to forget the last year, and the challenges that hospitality businesses have faced.

Consumer Trends in the post-COVID World

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

One of the tasks in this project has been to keep an eye on what is usually called the ‘trade press’. And one of the publications, which I confess I was unaware of prior to this research project, is Speciality Food.  For anyone who is interested in following food news, especially as the title indicates at the top end of the UK market, I strongly recommend this magazine. I get newsfeeds from it most days and it is really informative and usually gives its sources too, which is far from a universal practice in investigative journalism! In this instance, I have been able to use those sources to dig a bit deeper into the story headlines.

This reflection is based on a piece entitled 7 Characteristics of the 2021 Shopper.  The piece outlines ‘seven key qualities of the modern customer that will help retailers succeed through the remainder of this year and beyond.’

 

1.  They’re optimistic despite Covid

 Notwithstanding the obvious economic impact of COVID and higher rates of unemployment, Speciality Food (SF) draws here on two recent pieces of market research showing a growing spirit of optimism among consumers. Firstly, research from Kantar[i] undertaken in late April involving interviews with a representative sample of 1,115 adults in Great Britain, shows the highly uneven impact of the pandemic on income. 62% report that their personal income ‘has not been impacted’ by coronavirus, and although 21% have seen their savings decline as a result of the pandemic, a similar proportion (20%) report an increase in savings with 41% reporting no difference. There is a marked age difference with older people more likely to have increased their savings: 30% of over 65s compared to 15% of 25-34 year olds, for example. Just 11% of 65+ year olds report a reduction in savings compared to 25% of 25-34-year-olds at 25% and 28% of 35-44 year olds. SF also cites evidence of growing consumer confidence citing the IGD’s measure of shopper confidence growing to its highest level in five years in April, since before the Brexit referendum in fact. SF concludes that ‘For fine food retailers, this could be good news as more shoppers may be willing to stick with the food and drink upgrades they made during lockdown in the “new normal”’.

 

2.  They’re working from home

Cut to another survey – this time of 2,000 UK companies by CIPD the UK professional body for HR specialists and we find strong evidence for a continuation of home working in some sectors of the economy.[ii]  Their research was based on interviews with 32 senior managers and directors between October 2020 and January 2021 and an online survey with a total sample size of 2,133 senior decision-makers in UK organisations, conducted by YouGov between 14 December 2020 and 4 January 2021. Key results of the research are as follows:

  • 63% of employers plan to introduce or expand the use of hybrid working to some degree.
  • 45% plan to introduce or expand the use of total, five-days-a-week homeworking to some degree.
  • 48% plan to introduce or expand the use of flexitime (formal or informal; employer-led or employee-led) to some degree.

SF conclude from this that food retailers can expect to see demand for restaurant-quality food at home remaining.

 

3.  They’re (still) shopping online

 Under this heading SF turn to work by Opinium Research for Barclaycard[iii] which found that almost 60% of British consumers expect to continue buying some of their groceries online even after all Covid-19 restrictions end. Of those using click and collect more often during the pandemic, 90% plan to continue. SF caters primarily for high-end independent retailers and therefore the message is clear: giving customers flexibility to choose the shopping method that suits them, with online as an option, will be key to maintaining market share going forward.

 

4.  They care about the planet

Under this heading, SF turn to the 2021 Global Buying Green Report[iv] based on a survey of more than 15,000 consumers from Europe, North America and South America:

  • 67% environmentally aware (same as for the previous pre-Pandemic year).
  • Fewer than a third of consumers de-prioritized Sustainable Packaging due to COVID-19.
  • 83% of consumers among younger generations showed a willingness to pay more for sustainable packaging.
  • 67% of consumers find recyclability of packaging important; however, the perceptions do not always match recycling facts.
  • 54% of consumers say the sustainability of the packaging is a factor in their product selection process.

 

5.  They’re cashless

 Given the drive to cashless transactions for hygiene reasons, contactless limits were increased to £45, and then again to £100 to support consumers and retailers during the pandemic. Again SF urges its clients to ‘keep up with this fast-evolving payments landscape in order to ensure customer transactions can be performed quickly and smoothly.’

 

6.  They’re happy to go al fresco

 Here SF speculates that even after inside dining is allowed, the move to and investment in outdoor activities and events will continue: ‘So if you created a temporary outdoor dining experience in place of your café or restaurant, consider if it would be worth keeping around in the longer term – or at least while the warmer weather remains. Stores can also consider boosting their food to go range as more shoppers will be keen to pick up a snack to enjoy while socialising with friends or family outdoors.’

 

7.  They’re spending more on food

Finally SF turns to Generation Z’s (i.e. teenagers) top spending priority being on food this spring. A survey, conducted between February and March 2021, in the United States found that almost a quarter of the spending of Gen Z shoppers was on food. How easily a US trend amongst young people translates across to the UK teenager is less clear.

 

[i] More Britons say their personal income is not being impacted by COVID-19 (kantar.com)

[ii] Flexible working: Lessons from the pandemic (cipd.co.uk)

[iii] Lockdown legacies: the 10 shifts in consumer behaviour for retailers to be aware of (home.barclaycard)

[iv] 2021BuyingGreenReport.pdf (triviumpackaging.com)

 

 

A bit late, but some more thoughts on the labour question

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Even in the best organised research project – and I am not claiming that epithet for our project! – it is  possible to miss some really valuable research. So back in June 2020 a report snuck past me and only came to light as a reference in a recently published journal article (Tougeron and Hance 2021). Commissioned by a consortium comprising the National Farmers Union, the British Growers Association, British Summer Fruits and British Apples and Pears, John Pelham of the consultants Andersons produced a report entitled ‘The Potential Implications of Covid-19 for the Costs of Production of UK Fruit & Vegetables in 2020’.

The report is based on a postal survey and follow-up interviews with 27 fruit and vegetable growers, with a combined turnover of over £600 million.  What is so useful about the research is that it really delves into reasons why labour was and continues to be such an issue for this sector, albeit looked at entirely through the costs lens. One sentence in particular caught my eye in this regard:

… the cost of labour for wheat production – the most widely grown crop in the UK – is typically in the range £80-150 per hectare; the range for field strawberry production, for example, is typically £40,000-70,000 per hectare.

 What a difference and to think that we bracket these two radically contrasting production systems together as part of the same industry!

The report details the various ways in which labour cost were affected by the first wave of the pandemic as follows (taken from pages 9-10 of the report):

 

Worker Availability and Recruitment

Whilst some growers have been able to recruit their seasonal workforces without extra cost, many reported incurring additional expenditure to acquire adequate staff, either from the EU or UK. Additional costs have included:

  • New recruitment campaigns.
  • Funding transport (including, in some cases, air travel).
  • Agents fees.
  • Processing, selecting and interviewing new applicants.

 

Training

One indicator that growers use in measuring labour productivity is the proportion of their workforce who have been on the farm in the previous season or seasons – the so-called ‘returnees’. This measure is important in that these workers have already been trained and gained the experience to be able to operate at productive rates. Many growers will target a 60-70% returnee rate.  Conversely, new workers lack both training and experience, so not only incur additional induction costs, but also – without experience – have much lower productivity. Some new workers may not reach commercial work rates until their second season on a holding.

For certain growers (although not all), Covid-19 has reduced the number of returnees, to as low as 30%; training costs, for new workers, have increased accordingly.  Ensuring that all employees are fully briefed on new Covid-19 procedures for social distancing and hygiene has also increased the requirement both for initial and continuing training.

 

Accommodation

Reasons for cost increases in this area include:

  • Acquiring additional accommodation to provide quarantine facilities for newly arriving workers / suspected Covid-19 cases.
  • Payment of workers’ wages during quarantine period.

Acquiring additional accommodation to reduce density of occupation and enable worker groups to be kept separate to counter potential cross-infection.

  • Engaging new employees specifically for additional cleaning/hygiene operations.
  • Setting up of on-site shop facilities to avoid workers having to leave the grower site.

 

Transport and Logistics

Where accommodation and working sites are close together transport is not an issue, but will be where workers have to travel (some growers will have working sites in both categories).

The two main increases in costs arise from:

  • Increased vehicle movements resulting from significantly reduced vehicle occupancy rates.
  • Cleaning of vehicles between trips.

 

Operations

All growers have seen cost increases in this category, both from new costs (e.g. additional staff or equipment) and from reduced productivity of existing or replacement employees.

Some examples include:

  • The need for additional training and supervisory staff to ensure that social distancing in the workplace is organised, understood and maintained; for nearly all growers their ratio of supervisors to operating staff has increased.
  • The introduction of new shift patterns for crop husbandry and harvesting operations to reduce/remove contact between worker groups (to reduce risk of cross- infection).
  • A higher turnover and significantly lower work rates in newly recruited staff.
  • The requirement in packhouses to introduce additional shifts to maintain social distancing, with additional overtime costs, together with the new cost of “deep cleaning” between shifts.
  • The cleaning down of operations machinery (for example mechanical harvesting equipment) at operator changeover.

 

However, despite these significant new costs Pelham also emphasised that labour costs had increased even more sharply as a result of changes in the National Living Wage which had seen an increase in labour costs of 34% between 2016 and 2020.  Returning to the strawberry example, Pelham estimates a COVID related increase in labour costs of around 8%. This is one of many examples of where COVID-induced changes have to be seen in the context of other changes, here labour costs, but often Brexit related changes.

John Pelham’s report bears the legend ‘A First Report’. John informs me via email that he has not been commissioned to produce a second report. This is a great shame because the issues he identified are certainly worth another look in the context of both Brexit and further rounds of lockdown.

 

Tougeron, K., & Hance, T. (2021) Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on apple orchards in Europe. Agricultural Systems, 190, 103097. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2021.103097

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Report

 

 

By Prof. Michael 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?