Local Food Business: Has Covid Changed Everything or Nothing at All?

Richenda Wilson of the East London community-led food enterprise Growing Communities (GC) describes how dealing with the rollercoaster of COVID-19 – aside from being ridiculously hard work – has inspired thoughts about the future of UK food and farming, about change, closeness and resilience.

March – all change

We started the year thinking the biggest issues in March would be reviewing budgets and planning papers for the coming year. How best to run our organic veg scheme, farmers’ market and wholesale operation to support the small organic farmers and growers we work with. How to expand our network of Better Food Traders. How to campaign for an Agriculture Bill that protects UK food standards and recognises social and environmental benefits as public goods.

How wrong we were. By the end of the month, we’d revised, rethought and rebuilt almost everything we do. We’d introduced new sick pay policy and hygiene procedures; identified all the critical tasks that couldn’t be completed at home and made sure they could continue; overhauled our packing and delivery processes and timings. (We pack 4.5 tonnes of veg every week which is equivalent to a 17 foot Bowhead Whale!). We reorganised our veg scheme collection points; redesigned our farmers’ market so it could stay open and keep farmers and customers safe; regretfully closed the volunteer and training programmes at our growing sites; and we’d drunk a lot of coffee!

April – follow the money

We started getting a handle on what was going on financially.

Some things were going well. Our wholesale arm, the Better Food Shed, had seen business increase by 50% since pre-C19 – good news for the organic growers that supply us and good news for the Better Food Traders who distribute the food. Some of the farmers at GC’s market had seen sales increase by up to 70%, but other producers had been unable to sell there and we’d had to close our café. Some of our other income sources had gone, such as restaurant and flower sales, and other costs had increased, such as our wages bill (mainly queue stewards) and office rent (extra space to allow socially distanced veg packing).

When GC’s Founding Director, Julie Brown, finished the 2020 budget, our bottom line had changed from a projected surplus of 6.8K to a deficit of -37K. Grants helped us up to -17K.

We’ve also built up reserves over 20 years, so costs will be covered this year. But managing social distancing will continue for months, possibly years, so we need to think carefully about our longer-term business economics.

Now we need customers who ordered more and more veg from us as the pandemic took hold to stick with us and the other Better Food Traders as the lockdown eases.We need them to recognise that the benefits of local, sustainable food from ethical retailers hugely outweigh the challenges.

That means there won’t be avocados on the table every week – but there will be ultra-fresh super-tasty London-grown salad leaves from February to November. The carrots will need more scrubbing than the ones from the supermarket. And yes, some of the veg look like rejected aliens from Doctor Who (we’re looking at you, celeriac). But they’re worth it!

May – the source of resilience

We recognised that GC was proving resilient in the face of C19 and we considered the elements behind that:

  • Members and customers live locally and mainly walk or cycle to our collection points and farmer’s market. They trust us.
  • Our farmers and suppliers are close too – not all geographically (we still import some produce) but the relationship we have with them is close. A long-term understanding exists.
  • While GC staff aren’t paid highly, we eat well and are purposeful in our work. We always knew we were keyworkers but have been fired up by that recognition. Most of us live locally and cycle or walk to work.

These are not coincidences. They have been built into the GC model from the start to help tackle the climate and nature emergency. And they’re working well for us now.

June – time for reflection

There is an increasing body of evidence showing that ill health and particularly diet-related health problems (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension) make people more vulnerable to the virus.

It’s obviously not this simple but one response is to eat more fresh and minimally processed food. And to make sure that food is grown in a way that protects nature and climate. But, as Julie says: “That’s easier said than done in our toxic food environment, which results in unhealthy food being cheapest, most available and most profitable for its mainly corporate producers, while fresh fruit and veg is more expensive, harder to access and less profitable for its producer growers.”

Julie offers another vision as we emerge from the pandemic: “I really don’t want us all to return to our economic ‘duty’ as consumers. I hope we recognise the connectedness embedded in the response from communities and mutual aid groups. As individuals we can take action that can be part of creating wider systemic change. The economic system may be huge and complex and powerful, but it’s not fixed. We designed it and we can choose to redesign it.”


Teaser photo credit: Growing Communities Facebook page.

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