Andrew Thornton on Covid 19 and the food supply

Covid 19 and the food supply – don’t panic and shop locally

empty shelves
Empty shelves at a large chain supermarket

Recent panic-buying has caused shortages of many household goods in large supermarket chains in the UK due to the Corona virus. But small, independent local shops are coping with demand. Why? What can we learn from this?

For a few weeks now, photos of empty shelves in supermarkets have shown that the large chain supermarkets have been unable to meet the demand for certain products such as hand sanitiser, pasta, toilet roll and disinfectant. Independent shops have not experienced this to the same extent, and when shortages have occurred, they have usually been able to fulfil demand again quickly.

One reason that independent shops are able to react so quickly is that they often have many small, independent suppliers themselves, who are based locally and provide many locally produced goods. This means that if one supplier is out of stock of something, the shop can quickly source it from another that they are already working with. Another reason is that without the bureaucratic processes of large supermarket chains, they can respond quickly with creative solutions to problems.

So, whilst big supermarket chains are struggling to meet the demand, with their online services being fully booked or unavailable, small shops are agile enough in their supply chains to cope, and can react swiftly to changing events.

Full shelves
Full shelves at Thornton’s Budgens, Belsize Park, London

One example is our store Thornton’s Budgens of Belsize Park, London, which is well-known for its plastic-free initiatives. For a brief period we sold out of toilet roll and hand sanitiser, but this was quickly rectified, because we have multiple supply chains.

Last week we took the step of setting up a free shop-by-phone service, to help vulnerable people who are self-isolating. It was easy to get this up and running quickly, due to our culture of flexibility and care for the community.

What can we learn from this situation? We can see that the current model of food supply from large chain supermarkets is not geared up to dealing with a crisis. The solution is to shop at independent local shops, who can quickly react to changing events. They are teaching us the best strategy for food supply – multiple suppliers and local suppliers as much as possible. 

In Ireland, the government asked people not to stockpile food. In the UK however, the government devolved this job to the supermarkets, when really it is not their role as commercial businesses. The vulnerable in our society will be the ones who suffer as a result of stockpiling, so we must work together, in our local areas, to ensure that our isolated neighbours get the supplies they need.

We are living in unprecedented times. Food is a right for all in our society, and it is clear from recent events that we need to do things differently. For the good of everyone.

For more information about Covid 19 and the food supply, listen to Covid 19: The Food Dimension, from the BBC [28 mins 15 secs].