Fruit and Vegetables

How is COVID-19 affecting fruit and veg availability and access?

Tracking the pandemic’s impact on the UK’s fruit and vegetable supply chains means following the affordability and accessibility of fruit and veg, as well as labour supply and the quality of jobs in horticulture. We’ll be monitoring movement in these areas and watching in real-time as COVID-19 shapes the future of British horticulture.

Return to our homepage to view the COVID-19 Tracker in full.

Wales fruit and veg producers respond to demand

A survey of fruit and veg producers in Wales, conducted by Cardiff University, the Food Foundation, Food Sense Wales and Tyfu Cymru, finds:

  1. Most growers experienced sudden and dramatic increases in demand for their produce. These have continued beyond an initial phase of stocking up.
  2. Despite the sudden loss of usual trading routes growers have not been generating surplus. Producers responded quickly to find alternative sales routes, with many diverting from catering trade to home deliveries.
  3. Growers are experiencing strains on workload and capacity due to the combination of worker unavailability and pressures from additional or unfamiliar tasks.
  1. There is a clear willingness and potential to increase fruit and vegetable production in Wales. However, most growers lack the resources to achieve this, particularly at short notice.
  2. The sector is currently demonstrating its value as a supplier of fresh produce to Welsh consumers. With appropriate support this could become continued growth.

Support which could quickly expand production in Wales were suggested and included:

  1. Grants to enable new entrants to set up their enterprise.
  2. Services to match available farmland to growers seeking new or expanded production sites.
  3. Online skill-share networks or matching services.
  4. A Welsh marketing campaign to promote local produce.
  5. Coordination between growers and supply chain actors to allow complementary growing plans.
  6. Distribution hubs similar to Open Food Networks.
  7. Coordination to promote resource matching and equipment sharing.

The full report can be found here with thanks to Hannah Pitt from Cardiff University.

Concern over lack of fruit and vegetable workers in the UK

According to the head of policy at the Sustainable Food Trust, until the 1980s, seasonal jobs in horticulture were done in large part by UK students during university holidays. Large-scale fruit and veg production in the UK now relies on around 75,000-80,000 workers, the majority from the EU from Poland, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria. Early on in this crisis large-scale producers recognised that with restriction of movement due to Coronavirus, that they would not meet these numbers, although there has been some movement of workers to the UK via specially chartered flights and there were some workers who were planting and who are now staying to harvest.

Of course, the UK is not alone in the challenges faced by fruit and vegetable producers. In Spain it is estimated that tens of thousands more pickers are needed over the coming months to harvest the stone fruit crop alone.

On the 17th March HOPS launched a recruitment drive for British workers and by the 31st March 10,000 had been recruited. Gs Fresh Produce also launched a ‘Feed our nation’ campaign which has been inundated with applications. On the 26th March the NFU also launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign.  On the 7th April it was estimated that 26,000 UK workers had signed up to pick fruit and veg in the UK. Online job site Totaljobs has recorded an 83% increase in applications for farming roles. The Government has responded to the NFU’s request for furloughed workers to be allowed to work on UK farms and this is leading to increased applications.

It is anticipated that after Public Health England announce new health and safety guidelines on social distancing in farm settings (due the week beginning 13th April),  that the Government will announce the development of a new portal to match furloughed and other workers with fruit and veg producers in need of labour.

Even if just 10% of the new cohort of UK fruit and veg workers stay in the industry after the crisis this still represents a significant expansion in the UK horticultural workforce going forward.

188,576 tonnes of potatoes facing risk of landfill

An estimated 188,576 tonnes of potatoes are facing landfill in the UK due to the closure of chip shops. In Wales, potatoes from Puffin Produce are being bought and distributed as emergency food provision to people who are shielding. With much of the UK fruit and veg produce due to be harvested in the coming months, it will be vital to ensure that pre-coronavirus supply lines to the (currently closed) hospitality sector can be redirected where needed. See here for more news on produce being distributed in this area.

Supply is impacted globally

Head of Vanguard International, a US based grower, distributer and marketer says that given the nature of the food supply chain – “an incredibly connected web of agricultural inputs, fruit packers and processors, transportation, shipping, and more” – disruption to both supply and demand of fresh produce was inevitable, but that the “industry has been built on its ability to adopt, adapt, and change quickly.” In Europe there are warnings that fresh produce is set to become more scarce due to impacts on labour and transport.

High percentage of people in UK worried about fruit and veg access – findings from Food Foundation You Gov poll

Those particularly worried include the unemployed and those not working, so concerns are likely to be due to lack of income.

Also worried are 58% of NHS workers, more likely to do with lack of time and potentially empty shelves in supermarkets, as exemplified by this clip of critical care nurse Dawn Bilbrough crying as she can’t find any buy any fresh fruit and veg in the supermarket after a 48 hour shift.

Finally, 78% of parents whose children are entitled to free school meals were also worried that they wouldn’t be able to get enough fruit and veg. This is perhaps reflecting evidence that at this stage of of the  emergency alternative school meal provision across the UK is very variable and sometimes contains no fruit or vegetables at all.

Large and small-scale producers alike have to find new markets for their produce overnight as cafés, pubs and restaurants  are told to close

Small-scale and large-scale producers are innovating and re-organising themselves to find new markets for their produce. Asparagus producers are particularly concerned as a majority of their produce is destined for the out of home sector – consequently they are searching for alternative markets such as box schemes.

The Landworkers Alliance (LWA), Organic Growers Alliance (OGA) and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network UK set up a self-support online doc to help match businesses in need of produce to those with surplus.

Huge increase in demand for veg box schemes

Riverford see demand for boxes skyrocket with highest number of orders ever seen outside of Christmas. Abel and Cole, who usually delivers over 55,000 food boxes, see demand go up 25%. According to Riverford managing director Rob Howard “This has been driven by those self-isolating for coronavirus or avoiding public shopping spaces to protect themselves by choosing home delivery, as well as the demand for healthy, organic food”. Veg box schemes are responding to demand and increasing orders but some are having to close ordering intermittently and have waiting lists.

Food Foundation is working with other partners to gather data on veg box increases across the UK, as well as what box schemes are doing to help the vulnerable. We will be publishing findings in coming weeks – watch this space.

Empty supermarkets shelves as people buy more fruit and veg before the imminent lockdown

But increase in volume sales of fresh, compared to last March, is only up 14% – the lowest of all grocery categories. The greatest growth comes in healthcare 49%, household 40%, toiletries 30%, frozen 28%, ambient 27% and alcohol 18%.

Data provided by Kantar for Food Foundation analysis.