COVID-19 Reset: Place-based food initiatives in a time of crisis

Food has become an organising principle through which we measure disruption in our lives in a time of multiple emergencies. From the supermarkets’ empty shelves to questions around access to free school meals, issues of food supply chains and food access have come to the fore during the UK pandemic lockdown[1]. The covid-19 pandemic crisis has created disruptions across the food economy, resulting in an upsurge of interest of consumers in buying local food, along with an increased reliance on alternative food networks and local food stores (Food Foundation 2020[2]). In the early days of lockdown, as the supermarket chains struggled to stock pasta, flour, rice, eggs and other essential food stuffs, many people turned to local food stores, food box schemes and local food distributors whose greater diversity of supply chains proved more reliable in sourcing produce. Research by the Farm Retail Association found that 92% of farm retailers reported a significant rise in new customers since lockdown rules began in March. Sales of veg boxes have soared by more than 100%2,3. Neighbourhood organising has been witnessed across the country, with legions of volunteers, working in collaboration with local shops and charities to deliver food boxes to those who are vulnerable and shielding.

As the economy begins to reopen, how can we use a covid-19 reset so that the consumer shift to sourcing more local food and neighbourhood networks of care can be supported to continue and become more systematised? The local food economy has, for many years relied on a narrow customer base of those already switched on to the value of supporting local agriculture and with an interest in healthy eating (Kneafsey, Cox et al 2008, Lobley et. al. 2009). As my recent paper Participatory Food Cities: Scholar Activism and the Co-Production of Food Knowledgeexplores, building interest in the local food economy has been supported by the work of nationwide bodies including The Sustainable Places Network (SFP), The Food and Farming Commission, The Soil Association, Sustain,  The NFU, The Landworkers Alliance and more. In different ways these organisations help to build capacity and develop networks of knowledge around best practices for supporting local food businesses. The SFP UK-wide network of 57 place-based food policy organisations works to support access to good food for all. My paper explores processes of place-based collaborations to co-produce knowledge, in order to take forward action for food policy and programme change. With the present food policy vacuum in England and in a time of social, environmental and economic crises, the need for place-based food policy organisations to collaborate and work towards change in food policies and programmes, has never been more important. Food policy organisations, I argue:

‘…intersect at a place-based scale where locally acting self-organising communities take forward programmes of work to enact local food change…[by] linking place-based, national and translocal scales, [they] are able to harness community-based knowledge and work to effect policy change within a nested scale by linking actors across these scales’ (Sandover 2020:2).

By supporting the upsurge of the local food economy during the covid-19 crisis and working to build more resilient place-based UK food supply chains, can food policy organisations and the local food movement work to enact a ‘politics of possibility’ (Gibson-Graham 2006)? Gibson-Graham 2006 called for this social-economic shift in order to create:

‘…a new political and economic imaginary formed by place-based community self-organising. Describing this as a “globally emergent form of localized politics”, Gibson-Graham sees creative, locally embedded movements as exemplars of “alternative economic activism”’ (Gibson-Graham 2006 in Sandover 2020:5)

My paper also focused on how academics use scholar-activist approaches to work with food policy organisations and networks within the food movement.

GFE Pinhoe Volunteers

Approaches that support this relocalised economic activity include examples of local food innovation and creativity that have emerged during the covid-19 UK lockdown. By exploring two examples, plus the networks and structures that have enabled them to operate during this time, we can begin to identify how to support local food innovation and an ongoing uplift in the local food economy.  The examples explored here include my long term research collaborator Food Exeter and also draw on knowledge of place-based food initiatives in Devon and South Somerset. The pandemic related upsurge in the local food economy has been based on the availability and quality of local food produce sold in a variety of ways that include those described as ‘Alternative Food Networks’ (see other CCRI blogs for more in depth discussions of the different local food production/retail models). In particular consumers have turned to veg boxes, farm shops, local shops, wholefood stores, local food distributors, farmers’ markets, CSAs etc. as a means to source a regular supply of produce, the majority of which is local produce. Early on in the lockdown local food distributor Somerset Local Food Direct had to restrict the signing up of new customers as they were overwhelmed with demand. At a similar time, Riverford Organics, the nationwide organic veg box producer and distributor announced that they would prioritise orders from existing customers only. In the South West, from Shillingford Organics near Exeter to Pitney Farm shop in South Somerset, local food producers have been reporting a huge rise in orders and consumer interest. For other businesses the pandemic created a need to adopt new ways of working. During shop opening hours, Jane Rodger who runs Cobbs Wholefoods in South Somerset, served socially distanced customers local cheeses, bread, cakes, flour, vegetables, eggs, plus dried goods and supplements. Then after hours, she and her team packed up boxes to deliver to vulnerable and shielding customers in the locality who had earlier made phone orders. Whilst supermarket shelves lacked flour, Cobbs had 4 different flours in 16kg sacks, which Jane had sourced from her bakery supplier. Each month she drove across Somerset to pick up 20 sacks of flour, which she and her team then weighed and packed for customers based on their needs.

Meanwhile Food Exeter, supported the establishment of a new community benefit enterprise, Good Food Exeter that could take on the trading function of setting up of neighbourhood farmers’ markets in communities where good quality fresh produce was less available. With the uncertainties of lockdown and with the support of ‘Veg Cities’ funding from The Sustainable Places Network, Food Exeter decided to turn this into an online farmers’ market where customers made online orders based on what produce was available and then collected from a designated collection point on a set day. With 23 (and growing) Greater Exeter local and micro producers supplying them with affordable, high quality produce, the market has won a lot of support and good will from across Pinhoe, the neighbourhood where the main collection point is based. Good Food Exeter is currently building on these emerging relationships with community groups in Pinhoe to find solutions for vulnerable and shielding customers to access the market via neighbourhood deliveries. In recent weeks it also brokered sales of cosmetically damaged produce to community groups, who then distribute them to disadvantaged and vulnerable residents.

Whilst local food producers, distributors and shops have proved to be ‘small and nimble and people-powered’ (Tom Steele of the Kentish Town Box Scheme[3]), their ability to fill their shelves or produce boxes is based both on their adaptability and their community embeddedness. Taking Cobbs in Somerton as an example, a local shop that sources its produce from a diverse range of suppliers including wholesalers, local producers and micro producers. Their community embeddedness creates strong relationships both with their suppliers and with their customers. Whilst the Good Food Exeter online market is a new initiative, it stems from their sister organisation Food Exeter having enduring relationships with the UK-wide Sustainable Places network who host a range of channels for sharing best practices and learning from other place-based food policy organisations. Enduring relationships with local food producers, shops, charities and community centres in Exeter also created the local knowledge networks needed for the start up.  The networks underpinning the responsiveness and adaptability of the local food economy may be place-based and contingent, however sustainable food networks, producer membership organisations and associated charities enable the building of capacity within the local food economy, which has the potential to support food security at regional and local scales. Local food initiatives have proved themselves to be innovative, adaptable and creative in a time of crisis. However a longer term flourishing of the local food economy will require more than the dedication and ingenuity of local food leaders. In her new book, Sitopia, Carolyn Steel calls for a redesigning of the local food market in collaboration with local authorities, who have the ability to support the local food economy via policy and planning. Multi-purpose covered markets, rate reductions for local food shops, supporting pop up micro local food businesses, exploring access to land for new entrants and more, would enable the visibility of local food producers within our high streets. By providing access to popular shopping spaces, policies that support local food producers would also have the potential to boost the vibrancy of these spaces, in line with emergent thinking on the experience economy. A decentralised approach to food policy and redesigning local food retail spaces, needs to go hand in hand with national policies that support this sector[4]. The covid-19 crisis shows that an over reliance on the supermarket for the nations’ food needs has created fragile agri-food supply chains that are not only vulnerable to disruption but also hampers the placing of local and regional fresh produce at the heart of our communities.


Food Foundation 2020. COVID-19 UK Veg Box Report,

Kneafsey, Cox 2008. Reconnecting consumers, producers and food: exploring alternatives. Bloomsbury

Lobley, M., et. al. 2009. Analysis of socio-economic aspects of local and national organic farming markets, CRPR, University of Exeter

Sandover, R. 2020. Participatory Food Cities: Scholar Activism and the Co-Production of Food Knowledge, Sustainability, 12, 3548; doi:10.3390/su12093548

Steel, C. 2020. Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World. Vintage Publishing

All images courtesy of the author.

[1] I’m talking here about everyday disruptions, their impacts and potential planning for change. I would like to acknowledge the devastating health impacts of CV-19 including the widespread loss of life.

[2] Food Foundation 2020 – COVID-19 UK Veg Box Report, available at: accessed 24/06/2020

[3] Nina Pullman 2020. Support local food after Covid, shoppers urged, available,  accessed 24/06/2020

[4] This article is focused on local food retail and place-based food policy organisations. There is much more to do in order to transform the local food economy, such as addressing subsidies for maize production, supporting small abattoirs, integrate ‘Good’ food for local people into ELMS, support the growing of grains and pulses for human consumption, regional structures with food-planning responsibilities, and more. See Tim Lang’s book ‘Feeding Britain’ for excellent discussion on these matters. Thanks to Martyn Bragg for discussion on these matters.