Like everyone else, I’ve changed the way I buy my food since the lockdown began. I’ve always tried to buy local, from smaller shops and the farmers’ market. Still, I went to the supermarket a fair bit too, for quick shops when I was in a hurry or for brands I couldn’t get locally.
A couple of things stopped me cutting out the supermarkets all together. Time and convenience are the obvious ones – one stop at the supermarket and you can get everything you need, while it takes a lot longer to get the same range from smaller outlets, and you might not find all you want.
The second is maybe less obvious. As a bit of an introvert, I sometimes find going into small shops or browsing market stalls a little awkward. What if you engage with the owner but then they don’t have what you want? – it feels rude to walk away. Worse, what if they have something that isn’t quite what you wanted but they’ve taken the time to tell you about it? Sometimes it feels hard to say no, and you come away with something you didn’t really want. Of course, these are little things, but they are still barriers to moving away from the safe anonymity of the big stores.
As we all know, with Covid-19, everything changed. The busy supermarket with queues, shortages, and panic-buying, became the last places people wanted to be in. At this point, there were two ways to go.
The first, was to keep using the supermarkets’ online services, with the food delivered to you. However, the capacity was not there, and there was a feeling that even if you got a slot, you might be depriving someone in a vulnerable group the option of a delivery. Of course, although home delivery still only accounts for a small percentage of food sales in the UK, the capacity of big stores is inevitably starting to increase as they adapt to the new demand. As in the delivery of all kinds of other goods via the internet, a new world is opening up in which our food arrives on our doorstep without much interaction, from who knows where. It is cheap and convenient.
Like the delivery of other types of goods that we order online, this world of food delivery seems to be dominated by huge international companies. There is no contact with the producer, no human contact at retail (unless there is something to complain about) and maybe just a quick thanks to the delivery driver. The whole process is a simple economic transaction with little or no social element. We don’t know anyone in the supply chain and they never see us; for them we are one of thousands of faceless profiles assembled from the data collected via our loyalty cards.
In this future of corporate home delivery, the fact that even more of the supply chain than before has become invisible to us, makes us more remote from the implications of our buying choices for communities, for the environment, and for workers in that supply chain. At the same time, we lose another reason to visit the local village or town, affecting other retailers and local services. This is another step towards the complete separation of our physical geography from the economic geography of the products we buy, and the places we buy them from.
That vision of home delivery of food by a handful of huge multi-national retailers, the completion of the de-humanisation of the food supply chain and of our insulation from its social and environmental implications, is to me a pretty bleak one. However, I think the current crisis, at the same time as it has bought this future closer, has also made an alternative way forward more apparent – because Covid-19 has also forced local suppliers to adapt.
I encountered the blooming of options for buying locally online in a number of ways. First, I saw a social media post from a dairy owner appealing for people to buy the stock that they would usually sell to caterers – I visited the website and got in a great variety of local, organic cheese. Next, the local farmers’ market set up an online food hub. You can scroll through the produce that would have been available from the different stalls, read details about it and view images. You place your order and receive a timeslot to collect it from a stall set up in the centre of town. Again, someone shared information with me about the local fishmongers, who had set up a delivery or collection service. I ordered and a couple of days later I got a friendly call saying that the local crab hadn’t come in but that, as they hadn’t delivered what they’d promised, I could have a lobster for the same price. The bar I used to visit with colleagues after work on a Friday set up a site too – a wide selection of bottled Welsh ales delivered to the doorstep.
To me, the striking thing about all these interactions with local suppliers was, that I enjoyed them. I started to think about why that was. It went beyond the products I was receiving – the food and drink was great, but you can enjoy a product wherever it is from and however you got it. I think there are three big elements.
The first, is that, as a customer, I felt empowered. I could freely browse the produce and read the descriptions of it, I had as much time as I wanted to check I’d bought what I needed and to decide whether I wanted to buy then or do it later with no extra hassle. Secondly, because I knew that the suppliers were small local businesses or producers, I felt as if I mattered to them. They were giving me a high quality product but, compared to dealing with a large retailer, the transaction felt more balanced because I knew my purchases could really help make a difference to their business, not only directly, but also through me sharing my experiences with others and spreading the word about their site. More than that, being in the same area meant that the friendliness and quality of our transaction was important, for me and them – I could become a regular customer, and I might well see them around the town in the future.
Finally, because payment was made up-front online, the subsequent interaction with the supplier, either when going in to collect my order or on the doorstep, was focussed on both the product – for them to say something about it, or go through the order with me to check it was right – and on the social interaction – thanking each other and asking how things were going. As a result, the economic nature of what was happening was pushed backwards, allowing a completely different framing and set of values to dominate the transaction.
This new framing of my interactions with suppliers reminded me of Plato distinguishing between a worker being the best they could be in doing their job and being the best they could be at making money. These are separate things and should not be confused. In my interactions with local suppliers, the separation of payment from the physical transfer of products meant that the quality of their produce could be valued for itself. They had a space in which they could feel satisfaction from having supplied those products, separate from the satisfaction of the money they had earned. I have a feeling that that is something vital; that in the longer term it can be a seed of a different type of economic system that we must nurture and allow to evolve.
Of course, services like We Deliver Local have been around for a while now, but perhaps Covid-19 means that the time for delivery and click and collect local food has come. With click and collect particularly, footfall on local high streets is retained, albeit in a different form. This path towards local food supply is not an easy one: there are extra costs for suppliers of putting together and delivering your order to you, different ways of working and new challenges. There will be innovation in finding solutions, from delivery companies specialising in the distribution of local produce, to groups of small businesses clubbing together to buy a van to enable shared deliveries and reduce duplication.
Underlying all of this, the issue of inequality cannot be ignored – that we are seeking a more sustainable food system in a society where many cannot afford the most basic items. Finding the solution to that problem is a much bigger challenge – but perhaps more local, higher quality food supply is part of it – after all, it represents a bigger share of the income of the better off going to small suppliers. And the focus on food quality might help improve diets and reduce the incidence of obesity and diabetes that is so costly to society – another issue highlighted by Covid. Maybe, after all, local food supply networks can be at least a small part of a wider change; maybe they should not be dismissed as an elite, middle class luxury.
I hope that in the post-Covid world, more people will think twice before they opt to get their food delivered from a big retailer: Are there local businesses offering high quality products and friendly service who you could go to instead? Businesses that really need your support? Who supply with sustainability and care for your experience at the front of their minds? As we are seeing again and again, Covid-19 is offering chances for new ways forward – it is up to us whether we grasp them or not.