How has Covid impacted on the UK Food Culture?

Although we are still in the grip of the global pandemic Covid 19, the three months lockdown from March 23rd 2020, which in the UK saw all but “key workers” confined to their homes, has now ended and some initial analysis of the impact is possible.

Our food culture is constantly being shaped by changes in our wider social, political, technological, and economic environment. When you look back, the differences between the food culture of one decade and another are quite marked and, whilst Covid is unlikely to prove as significant an event as, for example, the Second World War; this period when all “normal” activity was suspended is sure to have left its mark.  The two other significant influences working at this time are climate change and the role that agriculture plays within this; and our withdrawal from the European Union, leaving us free to determine our own rules, such as how we subsidise farming, but also with whom, and on what terms we will trade.

The Campaign for Real Farming has, since its inception, called for a radical rethink about the way our food is produced and distributed. It has long since given up hope that the level of radical thinking this will require is likely to be achieved by any political party, and instead recognised that change needs to be driven by “Ordinary Joes”.  Covid has already achieved what would have been unthinkable to anyone only a year ago, in that it has forced governments worldwide to put human issues ahead of financial growth; although the desire appears to be a return “to normality” as quickly as possible.  But, having been given the opportunity to step off the treadmill, some of Joe Public appear reluctant to step back on.

The obvious reason for this is a continued fear of catching the virus.  Medicine has made tremendous advances in the last century and we have almost come to expect that it can cure any illness.  Certainly, we do not live with an expectation that a proportion of our family will die prematurely owing to disease.  Beyond this there are many other forces at work, some of which are intimated in this poem, which has been widely shared during lockdown:

And people stayed home
And read books and listened
And rested and exercised
And made art and played
And learned new ways of being
And stopped
And listened deeper
Someone meditated
Someone prayed
Someone danced
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed
And in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
Even the earth began to heal
And when the danger ended
And people found each other
Grieved for the dead people
And they made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of life
And healed the earth completely
Just as they were healed themselves.

Kitty O’Meara

 

Working from Home

Almost 50% of the workforce worked from home during lockdown (compared with about 4.7% in 2019) and many of them have decided that they don’t intend to return to the office.  Above all they want a better work/life balance, having realised what can be achieved by releasing an extra hour or two a day that was previously spent commuting.  Financially, those furloughed on 80% of their normal salary, realised that the cost of going to the office accounted for at least the other 20%. They were saving more than this in transport costs, office clothing, buying lunch and coffees.   On average, people were able to reduce their personal debt by £1000 during lockdown.   Of course, this lack of spending in cafés and restaurants was a major driver in the government wanting people to return to work, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Meal Deals.

Whilst not every job can be done from home, and not everyone wants to work this way, employers too have found that, thanks to modern technology, home working can be remarkably productive.  Providing office space, especially in cities, is hugely expensive and it is predicted that some 20% of current office space will remain vacant.

If these predictions are correct, and estate agents are confirming a rise in enquiries for properties further from cities and suitable for homeworking,  it will surely impact not just on those businesses that currently exist mainly to service office workers, but also on our food culture, which is what I am here to consider!

 

Home Cooking

Around a third of our household expenditure on food and drink is spent on “out of home” meals.  This caused one of the biggest difficulties for our food distribution system when suddenly all of the food that had previously been destined for the wholesale market was instead required at home.  Meanwhile, those at home found themselves required to cook for the whole family three times a day, day after day.  This came at the time of year commonly referred to as “the hungry gap”, when our winter store of fruit and vegetables is nearly depleted, and the seeds for the current year’s crop not yet planted.  We are more dependent on imports at this time of year than any other, and some produce, most notably flour, became in truly short supply.

People coped brilliantly.  From the National Food Strategy report¹ we learn that people were more likely to have cooked from scratch, eaten together as a family, cooked meals to freeze for later, eaten more healthily, shopped locally, and thrown away less food.  From social media we saw that making bread, especially sourdough, was particularly popular, and it seemed that everyone used up bananas by making a loaf.  If people needed advice they could always ask, and there was usually an on-line video available.  The lessons learnt during lockdown are now there for life, and pretty much everyone now has a repertoire of dishes that they can easily reproduce when the need arises.

 

Cooking from Scratch

39% of people reported cooking more food from scratch and buying less processed food ¹.  Ready meals have become a key feature of our food culture.  We spend 28% more on pre-prepared foods than France, 64% more than the Spanish, 101% more than the Germans and 178% more than the Italians ¹.

Why does this matter?  Health is usually given as the key reason as ready meals are likely to contain higher levels of salt, fat, and sugar than you might use if you made them yourself.  My brother made a birthday cake during lockdown and was astounded at how much sugar it used (he takes an artificial sweetener in his tea and probably therefore considers that he doesn’t really eat much sugar).  He lost weight during lockdown as a result of everything being cooked from scratch; although he was in the minority – 21%, compared with the 40% who gained weight during lockdown ¹.   However, under such stressful circumstances comfort eating (and drinking) is not unexpected.  A growing awareness of the link between obesity and poor outcomes for Covid sufferers has perhaps already seen some of this initial weight gain being shifted.  It will be interesting to revisit these statistics six months down the line.

My biggest gripe with ready meals is that we lose control of the source of the individual ingredients.  This bothers me most with meat.  Even in restaurants, unless the source of the ingredients is stated (and known to me), I tend to order a vegetarian option.  There is a lot of concern that when we strike trade deals with new countries, we will admit foods that have been produced to lower standards than we allow in the UK.  This is not an entirely new problem, and certainly food labelling does not make things clear. For example, whilst people might select an organic chicken if they were choosing  one to cook, when it comes to the chicken in their sandwich or ready meal they have no idea of its provenance and it is here that the most inferior produce lurks.  However, I would not classify all ready meals as “junk food”.  We might spend nearly twice as much on them as the Italians ¹ (presumably on twice the number) but following a delayed flight home from Italy the fresh produce and comparatively good quality ready meals available at Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in a motorway service station on the way home made me feel almost proud of what we can find here in comparison to Italy.

 

Sharing meals at the table

Our tendency to grab meals “on the hoof” is evidence of our weak food culture.  The French spend twice as long eating each day.  Here is an extract from the full table, showing the lowest and highest figures:¹

 

 

 

 

Country Minutes spent eating per day
USA 63
Canada 65
Ireland 75
   
Spain 126
Italy 127
Greece 128
France 133

 

 

Pre lockdown only 58% of families were able to routinely share weekday meals and long working days, including travel time, were the main reason for this. The rise of not only after-school clubs but also breakfast clubs, evidence the problem.  During lockdown 26% reported eating together as a family more often. ¹. Its not actually as great an increase as I would have hoped, but I have a hunch that those who did have seen the benefits of doing so, it may even be something that they felt guilty about before.  Research from the Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity in conjunction with Bite Back 2030 ² found that 60% of young people, when questioned about their eating habits during lockdown, thought that the increase in shared family meals had been good for their health and well-being.  Harvard psychologist Anne Fishel cites a daily family meal, during which children have a chance to share their feelings and be listened to, results in children who are more optimistic, do better at school and generally enjoy a higher level of well-being ³.  It is, she says, a warm and welcoming atmosphere at table that is most important, the benefits don’t spring from making a gourmet meal.

I normally look after my primary school aged nephews once a week and have been amazed by their fascination with our dining room and “formal” dining accoutrements such as knives and forks!  You only have to glance around a restaurant to see how many adults today seem never to have been taught to use them.  Laying the table is all part of the occasion and, I have insisted my husband join us even though it is earlier than our usual mealtime because I have seen how important it is to them.  The difference in behaviour between British children in a pub or restaurant and the behaviour of those native to the countries at the top of the table above cannot have gone unnoticed.

The current culture for feeding children seems to be “little and often”, yet our British snacking habit is one of the worst things about our food culture and a big contributor to type two diabetes.  At school too, “cafeteria style” options are now the norm and there seems to be little emphasis on the social side of enjoying a meal together.

I would suggest that if the government wants to tackle our obesity problem, they focus some attention here.

 

Growing your own

This is another aspect in which the government has a role to play.

Estate agents are already seeing considerable demand for properties suitable for home working.  Rightmove and Savills have conducted surveys into the changed priorities.4   The top priority, stipulated by 71% of property searchers, was a garden and outdoor space.  It is not clear how people intend to use this space although of those that already had a garden at the time of lockdown it was notable via social media how many began to grow their own vegetables for the first time.

The council houses that were built after the First World War always included generous gardens with the expectation that families would grow their own vegetables.  Horticulture is a difficult sector to make profitable on a commercial basis, the vegetables sold in supermarkets are so cheap that one almost wonders why anyone would bother to grow their own, unless of course you consider freshness and flavour within the reward!  People growing their own contributes to our food security but the connection to nature and the seasons is fundamental to good eating.  I would put a return to including gardens within housing plans top of the list of actions that the government could take to encourage the positive food practices that we saw in lockdown.  Where this is not possible, they should look at the provision of allotments.  Every school should have a school garden.  The contribution that gardening makes to mental well-being should amply repay the expenditure.  Even those without a garden should be encouraged to grow something – herbs or salad leaves are perfectly possible in a window box and unlike most vegetables, they are usually overpriced in supermarkets.

 

Obesity is not only caused by Gluttony

The final element of Part I of the National Food Strategy that relates to Food Culture has to do with our health, and particularly the impact that obesity has on Covid 19 patients.  Even before the report’s recommendations had been delivered the Government had announced a “new obesity campaign” proposing legislation to block TV advertising of “junk food”, displaying calories on alcohol and menus, and ending “buy one, get one free” promotions.

The National Food Strategy report expresses concern that the causes of obesity need to be more thoroughly understood and any campaign more precisely targeted and wholeheartedly agree.

It identifies 6 eater profiles and compares their typical BMI, both current(?) and projected at age 50.¹  This is a useful start point for considering the very varied reasons for weight gain, albeit of necessity still simplified into just 6 eater types.

Dr James Le Fanu, writing in the Daily Telegraph, expressed his own concerns about the likely ineffectiveness of the new Government Obesity Campaign stating that the tenor of the proposals, in attributing obesity to a combination of ignorance and self-indulgence, is patronising, moralistic and – wrong.  Whilst the average Briton may be a stone heavier than 50 years ago but, he cautions, as Cambridge nutritionist Andrew Prentice has pointed out we are eating one fifth less food than back in the Seventies.  The culprit, he concludes is not gluttony but a decline in energy expenditure and cites driving rather than walking as an example.

Exactly so, although the example that I most identify with is the introduction of central heating.  As a child in the 1960’s I vividly remember the ice forming on the inside of my bedroom window and a rapid scramble to dress in front of the living room fire.  Similarly, I remember the reluctance to leave the fire to visit the freezing bathroom when nature called.  By 1970, the point from which weight gain is being considered, 30% of households had central heating installed but the percentage increased rapidly from then – 60% a decade later and 95% by 2018.5  The 1970’s saw a plethora of convenience foods, “junk food”, the like of which I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole nowadays.  Yet I was a skinny child; and didn’t start to put on weight until I hit my 30s.  Of course, no-one would suggest we should abandon central heating, but perhaps turn the stat down a bit?  I find almost every public building unbearably hot and our planet might benefit too!

I’m sure there are changes to be made to our diet, which will also benefit the planet and our health, but the issues are complex and although Covid has provided a tremendous unplanned “teachable moment” we need to ensure we make the right decisions going forward – but I am sure Mother Nature will teach us more than any government could ever do.

 

 

 

References

¹ The UK has had no formal food policy since the end of the Second World War, but leaving the EU, who had been making the majority of our food decisions, had prompted government to call for a National Food Strategy.  DEFRA commissioned businessman and owner of the Leon chain of restaurants, Henry Dimbleby, to carry out a full review, which is due this Autumn.   Part One of this report, specifically considered the cracks in the food system exposed by Covid and mindful of the trade deals the UK is now negotiating, has been published.  The report contains some useful statistics relating to our food habits during lockdown, which I have referred to throughout this article. You can download the report at https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/

² Hungry for Change project https://www.gsttcharity.org.uk/what-we-do/our-projects/hungry-change

³ The Family Dinner Project  https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/category/food-for-thought

4 https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/05/revealed-how-lockdown-has-changed-house-buyers-property-priorities

5 https://www.statista.com/statistics/289137/central-heating-in-households-in-the-uk

 

 

 

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