How is Covid-19 affecting people’s ability to feed themselves and their families?
We saw panic-buying in supermarkets, delivery slots full, and many elderly and vulnerable people left without essentials, writes Neil Parish MP. | PA Images
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee have launched a new online survey, asking members of the public to share their experiences of accessing food during the pandemic.
Just a few weeks ago, we were considering which inquiries to prioritise on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee. The impact of the Government’s immigration policy on the food supply chain, and the future of seasonal workers, was high on the list. But at that point, we were thinking about what would happen to food supply in 2021. Days later, members of the EFRA Committee- and our constituents- were shocked to find supermarket shelves emptied across the country.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how quickly our food system can be disrupted. We saw panic-buying in supermarkets, delivery slots full, and many elderly and vulnerable people left without essentials.
As the UK continues to grapple with the pandemic, our select committee has launched an immediate inquiry into the food supply. We are already taking evidence from the public and organisations. And we will be drilling down on the Government’s food policy in the coming weeks, asking the tough questions which need to be answered.
We must think about how best to get food to those who need support, and how to support our farmers and processors through this difficult time too. We have already seen reports of dairy farmers having to pour milk earmarked for shuttered coffee shops down the drain, rather than being able to sell it supermarkets. And we continue to see the risks of food suppliers going out of business because the restaurants, pubs, and cafes they usually supply have now closed.
Further down the supply chain, there are other ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic too. Closing borders throws questions about possible shortages of seasonal labour into sharper focus. It is well-known that we import labour on a seasonal basis to grow, pick and package food on our farms. Do we have enough labour to fill those jobs domestically? Can workers in the food supply chain be kept safe during the pandemic? Is there more the Government can do to ensure a base of skilled British workers in these jobs?
There are also serious concerns that those who are self-isolating or struggling to afford food may not get enough to eat. What about families who have lost their income during lockdown? What is the impact on foodbank supply and use? What about those self-isolating, committed to shielding themselves from society for a full 12 weeks? If the Government is to step in to aid those people, is the food being distributed adequate and healthy? And away from the headlines, how badly is the average shopper’s weekly trolley really being affected?
These are just some of the questions that need to be answered, but we can only build a full picture from across the country if we hear from as wide a range of voices as possible. We need to know how the pandemic, and the Government’s decisions, are affecting people’s ability to feed themselves and their families. That means evidence from members of the public and not just industry, which is why we launched a new online survey last week, asking members of the public to share their own experiences of accessing food during the pandemic.
It is imperative we hear from people across the spectrum of our society - from parents now struggling to feed school-age children at home, to the isolating pensioner who is in receipt of their council's food deliveries, as well as people who haven’t had any specific problems getting food.
We have already had some excellent responses. During this inquiry, the information we gather from individuals is as important as oral evidence received from Government and industry. Please continue to contribute your experiences so we can help ensure our food supply is secure now and in the future.
Contribute to EFRA's online survey HERE. The survey will be open until 5 PM on 28th April.
Neil Parish is the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.