The Big Picture

How is COVID-19 affecting how we feed ourselves?

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the UK food system. To understand what this will mean for citizens, we’ll be monitoring trajectories for these variables:

  • Infection and mortality rates – how will infection and vaccine developments unfold, and will these be mirrored in food system changes?
  • Civil cohesion and food poverty – will we see civil unrest if people struggle to afford food and prices rise?
  • Food prices – how will supply chains be affected; will export bans lead to price rises and shortages; will domestic production increase and will average prices of fruit, vegetables and other staple foods increase as a result?
  • Fruit and vegetable sales

Follow system-wide developments here as we track shifting challenges and demands, and look at how coronavirus-driven change is reflected in the food system.

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

Consumer Price Inflation data finds veg prices rose in April

Today the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released their monthly consumer price inflation data, finding that food prices overall fell very slightly between March and April this year – a smaller drop compared to the change between the same two months a year ago.

A closer look at different food categories reveals a more nuanced picture. The largest upward contribution came from vegetables which the ONS suggests could be a consequence of switching from imported veg to more homegrown produce. Our analysis (excluding potatoes and pulses, in line with the Eatwell Guide) shows an average percentage price change increase for vegetables of 6.25% compared to March.  Fruit, however, saw only a very minor increase compared to March, with an average percentage change increase of 0.52%.

Concerns have been raised about fruit and vegetable supply as the UK enters the summer harvest season, where an anticipated shortfall of seasonal migrant workers may cause supply shortages. The government launched their ‘Pick for Britain’ website just yesterday in an attempt to encourage furloughed workers to support the UK’s edible horticulture sector.

Our analysis also showed  price rises for food items with a longer shelf life, such as frozen chips, biscuits, breakfast cereals and cooking sauces, perhaps reflecting the increased demand for ambient goods and changes to shopping habits seen in the run-up to and during lockdown.

Overall, the UK’s inflation rate fell in April to its lowest rate since August 2016 as the economic impact of the first month of lockdown hit prices. The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) fell from 1.5% to 0.8% in March, according to the ONS. The government target is 2%.

WRAP calls for changing food waste habits as a result of Covid-19 to become the new normal

Research earlier this month from WRAP, the food waste NGO, has found citizens are wasting less food as a result of Covid-19 and lockdown measures. The survey found that respondents reported a 34% drop in how much food they throw away, with households reporting that they were doing more pre-shop planning, better managing food at home, and using more creative approaches to cooking.

New survey on consumer shopping habits shows many are finding shopping stressful

A new survey by the Brand Nursery (a marketing agency) of 100 shoppers across the UK has found the majority are shopping at the same stores they used before the crisis, despite shifts in buying and cooking behaviours. Only the Co-op was found to have attracted new customers. The majority (74%) reported finding shopping more stressful than before Covid-19, with almost everyone (97%) thinking more about when to shop. Around half of the sample reported doing more home baking and home cooking from scratch with many seeking out ‘comfort foods’.

More than a fifth of UK employers plan redundancies, with the low paid most vulnerable to job losses

A survey from the HR and recruitment firm Adecco, has found that more than a fifth of UK employers plan to make redundancies over the next three months with hiring intentions at their lowest level for 15 years. Official data out later this week is likely to confirm a rise in UK unemployment in March, but will not include the numbers of those furloughed or who have applied for the government’s new income support scheme as a result of Covid-19. Meanwhile, research from the Resolution Foundation has highlighted that job losses are not being felt equally, with lower paid workers more likely to have lost their jobs or been furloughed than those on higher wages.

Consumers switch to plant-based options in the face of meat and dairy shortages

Data from Kantar looking at the three months spanning February to April this year have found that sales of plant-based alternatives have surged. Sales of meat alternatives are up 25.3% year on year, with milk alternatives up 28.3%. A recent survey by the Vegan Society found  that 21.5% said they had cut down meat consumption during lockdown, with 15% saying they had cut down on dairy and eggs. 41% of those who had reduced their meat and dairy intakes said this was due to availability problems, with 43% citing environmental, ethical and health reasons.

UK food manufacturers push back against 14-day quarantine plan

The UK’s five key manufacturing sectors, including the food and drink industry, have warned of the potential for further job losses and supply chain shortages following the government’s 14 day quarantine ruling on travelling to the UK. Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said there were “major concerns” that such a scheme would cut off the expertise needed to maintain the specialist machinery and equipment used in UK factories. The quarantine scheme is designed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections as part of the government’s easing of lockdown measures.


Calls for UK to set up a committee to coordinate food policy during Covid-19

City University has called on the government to set-up a cross-government committee to coordinate food policy actions and responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. Pointing to analysis that shows ‘at least’ 16 different departments within the government currently have some responsibility for UK food, the Centre for Food Policy at City University has urged the government to adopt a less siloed and more coordinated approach.

European surveys suggest Covid-19 is impacting on eating habits

A survey of 23,000 people has found that 72% of European shoppers said they would make ‘greater attempts’ to eat and drink more healthily in the future as a direct result of their Covid-19 experience. However, shifts in citizen attitudes to food continue to be debated. It is not clear whether these self-reported intentions are reflected in actual behaviour. In a separate study, a survey in the Netherlands of over 1,000 Dutch adults found that most (83%) reported eating much the same as they had before Coronavirus. While 10% reported eating more healthily, 7% reported the opposite, citing boredom as their main reason for eating less healthily.

The average monthly percentage change in average retail prices (CPI) for UK fruit and vegetables

With Covid-19 continuing to impact on all parts of the food system and with the potential to impact on UK imports and exports of food, we’ll be monitoring the Consumer Price Index (CPI) average retail price data every month to track average UK food prices.

We’ll be focussing on fruit and vegetable prices, as we know that these are an important part of a healthy diet but are typically more expensive per kilocalorie than other more energy dense foods. As perishable items that are often heavily dependent on seasonal horticultural labour, they are also vulnerable to price fluctuations.

We first compared average percentage changes in price over 12 months compared to a fixed point in time (January 2019). We’ve done this for fruits, vegetables, and all foods in the CPI basket (143 items that have been consistently measured since January 2019).

We’ve also looked at month-on-month price changes for 2020 so far for fruit and vegetables. Here we’ve compared the month-on-month average percentage price change of all items in each category (fruit and veg) compared to the same month-on month average percentage price change in 2019.

To date, average retail prices of fruit and veg appear to have dropped very slightly since the start of the year. It will be interesting to see whether this trend persists as we enter the harvest season for the Northern Hemisphere.