Rethinking food – learning from the coronavirus
By Nick O’Doherty, Upper Master

Nick O’Doherty, Upper Master at Abingdon School, shares a lesson he has learnt from the coronavirus outbreak. (This blog was first written for the Abingdon School sixth formers who are remote learning as a result of the school closure.)

I’ve been thinking about food a lot recently. I refuse to panic buy and stockpile, however I confess to buying the last two packets of Mexicana cheese in my local Tesco the other day.

We all spend a bit more time doing certain things whilst confined to quarters. Rarely has my house been so tidy – if it’s marking or washing up, sometimes the latter is the better of two evils! One of the things that I’ve been thinking about more is food preparation. Even though I don’t want to believe that we’re going to experience genuine, long-term food shortages, I suppose that I’m subconsciously becoming a bit more self-disciplined. Meals have been better planned, portions controlled a bit more and best before dates assessed a lot more carefully. Under normal circumstances, I can be guilty of buying too much, eventually emptying the liquid cucumber from the bottom of the fridge into the food caddy or being fascinated at the fur that’s grown inside the half-finished pesto jar as I wash it down the sink.

The government body Wrap estimates that every year 10.2m tonnes of food is wasted in the UK, of which 7.3m comes from households. 4.4m tonnes of this is deemed ‘avoidable’ i.e. bread that’s been left to go mouldy, versus egg shells, meat bones or banana skins. Alternatively, we could think about the economic cost of this waste – £470/year for the average UK household. So, it’s possible for me to throw out half the food that I currently do and I have an extra £25-35 in my pocket every month – seems worthwhile to test this out over the next few weeks for many different reasons.

Alongside this, environmental charity Hubbub estimates 10.7bn items of mostly non-recyclable packaging are generated by the take-away industry every year. One survey last year (of more than 1200 workers) found an average lunch purchase included four packaged items, with 76% of shoppers picking up a main item such as a boxed sandwich, 70% a packet of crisps or another snack and 65% a napkin. Lunch-on-the-go items create huge levels of waste and unfortunately much of this isn’t recyclable as it’s made from mixed materials or it isn’t recycled due to contamination from food residue. I recognise that this is less relevant at the moment, but we can all learn things and choose not to return to all our bad habits when we re-emerge.

The average UK household spends 10.6% of their income on food and non-alcoholic drinks. However, for households in the bottom income quintile, this increases to 15.2%. There is, of course, socio-economic variation in our ability to cope with shortages of everyday products.

Food banks across the country are struggling to keep up with demand as donations drop during the pandemic. Some food banks are experiencing dwindling supplies of vital products as shoppers strip supermarkets shelves bare to stockpile. Food banks have also seen numbers of volunteers fall, as many are forced to self-isolate at home. I read an article in the Bristol Post last week, in which the manager at a Weston-super-Mare food bank was interviewed. They fed 5,775 people last year – an increase of 18% on 2018. She said that over the coming weeks, as the pandemic intensifies, she expected to see a change in the type of customer visiting the charity. “I think, as this crisis deepens, we will start seeing people who wouldn’t normally have to visit a food bank. It is likely to be a different demographic. This could be down to people losing their jobs, being ill and having their hours cut and struggling financially.”

In June 2015, an independent survey of 70 food banks across the country, conducted by the bank thinkmoney, found that benefit sanctions and late benefits payments were the main reasons people rely on food banks. Furthermore, 60% of food bank users are estimated to go without adequate levels of food on a regular basis to ensure their families are fed. The main way independent food banks acquire funding is through donations from the general public. I think it’s obvious what I need to do with that £25-35/month I can gain with better habits.

Again we should ask ourselves, after the current crisis passes, should we be turning our attention to people in our own society who worry about having not enough food on a daily basis?

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