The recovery of food provision practices after COVID-19 resulted in ‘business as usual’ despite calls for ‘building back better’

Without a doubt, the pandemic has disrupted food provision in many ways. The lifestyle of grabbing a coffee or lunch on-the-go was temporarily suspended due to outlet closures and people becoming unemployed or working from home. Necessary as they were, the restrictions also exacerbated food insecurities with many more people becoming dependent on food banks and pantry schemes. A return to normality is an understandable appeal during a crisis. But were recovery measures also taken as an opportunity to make practices more sustainable?

A new article in Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy by researchers of the University’s Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) investigates organizational practices and socio-technical regimes of two food provision sectors before and after the disruption of everyday life and food provision through COVID-19.

The Sustainable Consumption Institute is part of the University of Manchester and researches how reconfiguring consumption and production systems can contribute to less resource-intensive ways of life.

Policy and civil society reactions to the disruption caused by COVID-19 did not only involve calls to return to ‘normal’ practices but also to ‘build back better’ towards socially and ecologically responsible food systems. Therefore, the researchers addressed two subsystems – charitable food provision and on-the-go food provision – and asked whether their pathways of recovery from the pandemic justified the frame of ‘building back better’. This would include wider sectoral and societal sustainability challenges such as the systemic reduction of poverty and waste.

The findings suggests that both sectors, though severely impacted on short term, were largely able to return swiftly to their organizational practices. While this prevented greater hardship by assuring short-term access to food, that ‘recovery’ also meant further solidification of a largely unsustainable welfare and food system: one which neither reduces poverty and people’s dependence on food charity nor addresses the linearity of disposable packaging provided by an energy-intensive, wasteful food industry that depends on globalised logistics.