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Strengthening our food system with community post COVID-19

By Carly Scott

During national lockdowns resulting from COVID-19, there have been notable increases in the demand for produce from community-led food initiatives. In the UK, veg box sales increased 111% between end February to mid-April 20201 and Scotland experienced surges of up to 3000% in some cases2. As people’s reticence to shop in supermarkets and public places increased and the necessity for home food delivery heightened, community-led food initiatives provided a sought-after service to the local community, in particular to vulnerable members of the community and those that we’re self-isolating.


It is well recognised that large food businesses and supermarkets actively responded and proved fairly resilient during the course of the early pandemic, ensuring that the majority of supply returned to normal relatively quickly3. However, with challenges arising in respect to panic buying4, crop harvesting and processing facilities5, worker safety in food supply chains6 and availability and access to food at the local community level7, the COVID-19 crisis has stimulated many people to reflect on the vulnerability of our existing food system and to question its capacity to ensure ongoing food security in the face of increasing systemic challenge. For others still, it has encouraged the placing of greater relevance and value on food and community and the key workers that underpin these roles, leading many to question whether the current food system, driven and optimised primarily for efficiency and profit, will provide the security and resilience needed for the future.

Community-led food systems place their efforts in improving the resilience of communities, food access and the local economy through a drive to build sustainable and dynamic networks between local food producers and citizens8. During the pandemic, local food initiatives demonstrated the critical role they play in the provision of good quality food and exemplified a values-led approach that expands beyond organisational profit to one that is centred around the protection and restoration of people, animals and the environment.

A recent FAI project carried out in partnership the sankalpa Foundation9 and the Oxford food co-operative, Cultivate10, explored the values that underpin community-led food systems, with key themes including i) Connection, ii) Shared responsibility and iii) Sustainable practices – values that are proving essential in today’s new era.


In our current socially distanced world, a sense of connection with people, the community and the surrounding environment is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. Community-led food systems create physical and relational connection that brings meaning to individuals and society through fostering a sense of identity and belonging within the community and with the land that feeds them, an outcome that is hard to achieve through the globalised, commodity-based food structure that characterises our wider food system.

Shared responsibility

In a time of heightened global uncertainty and collective action to protect population health, shared responsibility is a crucial value to thrive. In contrast to competitive supply chain management practiced by some large multinationals, community-led food systems and their members typify reciprocal commitment and shared investment in the gains and losses of food grown by local businesses. Commonly, those buying and selling community produced food were likely to prioritise ensuring a stable demand to producers, adapting to seasonal shifts or challenges in supply and ensuring their long-term security. Similarly, members of community-led food networks give precedence to ensuring a fair price for produce that is reflective of the true cost of production without externalisation of hidden costs that must be paid for by others, demonstrating an in-built responsibility assumed by the food citizen.

Sustainable practices

As we grapple with the impacts of our interaction with the natural world and its pressing effect on human health11, ensuring more sustainable practices of food production is one of the greatest prerequisites to protect the wellbeing of current and future generations. Unlike many of the detrimental practices involved in global commodity-based agriculture, community-led food systems more often than not support and provide access to nutritionally dense food grown under ethical farming principles that promote the health and wellbeing of people and animals, the preservation of local businesses and economies and restoration of the natural environment12.

As we look to ‘build back better’13 and understand what this entails, looking towards the mission and values of community-led food networks will help us shape a food system that emphasizes long-term shared values and responsibility and an obligation towards equity for people, animals and the environment throughout the supply chain. Through reflecting a core value of community-led systems to enhance people’s relationship with food, the natural world and each other, we may foster a connectedness that allows producers to become land stewards and consumers to become food citizens, creating a future of food that not only cultivates security and resilience of our food supply, but also of our communities and natural world.

1 Wheeler, A. 2020 COVID-19 UK Veg Box Report, Food Foundation.
2 Richards, X. 2020. Veg box market booms by 3000 percent as Scots source locally-grown produce.
3 University of Reading (2020). Food retailers winning trust through COVID-19 pandemic.
4 Guardian (2020) Panic buying sweeps stores despite appeal for responsible shopping.
5 BBC (2020) Coronavirus: Five ways the outbreak is hitting global food industry.
6 Guardian (2020)
7 House of Commons Committee (2020) What effect did the coronavirus pandemic have on our food supply?
8 Popham, G (2020) No alternative to sustainable agriculture: how community-supported farms show the way to food security in an uncertain world. Open Democracy.
9 sankalpa
10 Cultivate Oxford