Across the country there has been an outpouring of food responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the last few weeks. From innovative emergency food provision programmes to ensure vulnerable people are fed, to novel food distributions channels to support local businesses, community organisations, businesses, local authorities and citizens are stepping up. How can we ensure these responses are founded on food citizenship thinking and build resilience into our food systems? 

We hear from Sara Venn, founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, about how Bristol’s food response has built on existing networks and infrastructures to quickly adapt to the changing environment, ensuring efficiency, collaboration and resilience when looking after its most vulnerable people. 

The last few weeks have revealed our most admirable and deplorable traits, from stockpiling essentials to an enormous community effort to support the most vulnerable members of our society. Interest in local economies and locally produced food has surged like never before. Some of the behaviours we have seen are far from the food citizenship approaches we want to encourage, founded on individualism and self-interest. They show us that we have quite a way still to go in the transition from consumer to citizen thinking. However, it’s useful to remember that these actions are rooted in fear, fear at not being able to access the foods we are used to, from the system we are used to. Food insecurity, or the prospect of food insecurity, suddenly affects a greater chunk of the population than usual.

Our last-minute, long distribution chain food system has struggled to meet needs. This is not because we are all buying too much, but because the chains of distribution are complex. One minor disruption to large distribution chains can have a significant ripple effect further down the line, putting whole chains at risk. However, when the distribution chains are shorter, whilst there are still challenges of delivery, it is easier to be more agile, increase capacity and, where necessary, change business models very quickly in order to survive.

Bristol’s independent food providers have risen to the challenge and pulled together to ensure the city’s most vulnerable are fed, that food isn’t wasted and that local businesses survive. In a very short space of time, they’ve had to drastically change business and delivery models to meet changing needs.

Within the first week of the crisis, Bristol Food Producers created an online platform linking farmers and producers with communities across the city. We saw a 100% increase in use of local box schemes and ensured produce was utilised and not wasted.

Within the first fortnight, the Bristol Food Union had come onboard. A new, informal collective of independent food retailers, suppliers restaurants and community organisations, they created a website to promote the Bristol Food Producers as well as information on how people could support local businesses, many of whom were already offering free or cut price food to front line workers. A crowdfunding campaign provided funds so more restaurant and community kitchens can concentrate on feeding front line, and especially NHS workers, the homeless and the most vulnerable.

In the meantime, organisations like Fareshare SW, Feeding Bristol and other grassroots community organisations, have worked tirelessly to ensure groceries arrive regularly to the those who cannot leave the house for essentials, whilst also continuing to support Food Clubs across the city. These food clubs give young families access to very affordable food and empowers those people to be a part of a local food community.

At the same time, urban farmers and producers across the city have increased their production, and Bristol is looking at increased access to land for urban production. Community groups such as Incredible Edible Bristol have stepped their work up to produce more food to feed into the system and are working to create online resources or people who want to grow food in their gardens, allotments and even on balconies and windowsills. Whilst all that is happening, Bristol Food Network has reconfigured its website, signposting people to where they need to go.

These multiple, simultaneous and fast-moving changes are only possible because they build on the long-term work of Bristol’s food movement. This is a well-connected network of people, projects and organisations who are constantly in touch with each other and where if there is a gap, someone will step in and pick up what needs to be done. As such, they can support, adapt, upskill and respond as and when a need emerges. It is a system which can easily gather and distribute information, sharing where there is a supply or a need, and so connecting people and projects who can help each other out. This is efficient, building on what already exists to ensure new initiatives have maximum impact.

This is what a coordinated, flexible response looks like, centring food citizenship thinking from the strategic to the grassroots level. Of course, the challenges we face are huge and we still have a lot to learn, but through close collaboration, empowering citizens and strengthening the infrastructures of collective care, we are building resilient food systems in Bristol. These will help us look after the most vulnerable in our immediate response to COVID-19 and protect our independent food businesses. They will also help us respond to future shocks, in the knowledge that we have close-nit, well-functioning networks, to distribute resources, expertise, support and food to where it is needed most. This is resilience in action.