Food for people in place - building resilient food distribution systems

Photo: Mark Stebnicki, Pexels.

Aotearoa New Zealand is a massive food producer. We are in the enviable position of being one of the few countries that can be self-sufficient as well as contribute to global food needs. With 45% of New Zealand’s arable land dedicated to food production, as well as supplying the domestic market, food producers annually export enough food to feed 20 million people.

Despite this abundance of nutrition, food security is not guaranteed in our country. The food price index has steadily risen, with fresh fruit and vegetables in particular becoming increasingly expensive. New Zealand has increasing issues of socio-economic inequalities which sees some people having insufficient resources to purchase or access food. Currently, almost one in five children (19.0%) live in severe to moderately food insecure households, while food surplus is dumped in skips.

Recent research led by Building Better Researchers Dr Kelly Dombroski and Gradon Diprose (University of Canterbury and Manaaki Whenua), shows that the COVID-19 global pandemic poses significant challenges to food security, particularly with regards to food access, availability, and stability. Soon after New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020, Kelly and Gradon pulled together a team of nine food researchers with pre-existing relationships with community food organisations. The team rapidly interviewed food rescue groups, urban farms, community organisations, supermarket management, and local and central government staff often by video conferencing. The team examined the diverse, rapid, community-based responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their findings reveal shifts at both the local scale, where existing relationships and short supply chains were leveraged quickly to ensure food supply continued during lockdown, and national scale, where funding was mobilised towards a different food strategy. The team then used these findings to re-imagine where and how the food distribution system might change to ensure resilience and care in diverse food systems in New Zealand.

Food insecurity in New Zealand

“The full global effect of COVID-19 on food systems has not yet been realised. What is becoming clear is that the pandemic has the potential to significantly exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities, impacting those who are already experiencing food insecurity disproportionately.

“Lockdown in New Zealand showed us that food insecurities are not shared equitably, with marginalised groups such as disabled people, Māori and Pasifika, and those in receipt of state welfare disproportionately experiencing food insecurity,” says Kelly.

The requirement to ‘shelter in place’ for eight weeks nationwide, with only essential services operating, affected all parts of the New Zealand food system. The nationwide full lockdown highlighted existing inequities and created new challenges to food access, availability, affordability, distribution, transportation, and waste management. While essential services did include food production and distribution, there were a number of food services that were excluded and had to close, including butchers, bakeries, restaurants, cafes, bars, and other similar small-scale food retailers that prepare and serve food. Significantly, social services were either temporarily closed or had to quickly adapt to the pandemic restrictions.

“While there was no actual shortage of food in the country, panic buying and stockpiling of products exacerbated supply-chain issues, as supermarkets could not replenish shelves as fast as they were being emptied.

“This significantly disadvantaged people who can only afford to purchase their immediate food needs. They did not have stockpiled items when supermarket shelves ran low.”

Geography matters

“Geography also matters when it comes to accessing suitable food. For example, even if we are not talking about the lockdown, ironically areas of higher social deprivation in this country tend to have greater density of food outlets, but the problem is that these tend to be a concentration of fast food and takeaway outlets, creating what’s called ‘food swamps’.

“The other geographical factor affecting food security is how far you are from suitable food. The car-dependent nature of transport systems also exacerbates inequities both through geographical access and the financial costs of maintaining a vehicle,” says Kelly.

Building a resilient food system

Gradon says the main solutions usually discussed are either increasing income for people or reducing other fixed costs so that people can afford to purchase food.

“While we wholeheartedly agree with these solutions, there is a role for alternative and non-market responses to food security. We suggest that food security has become a common good for the ‘team of five million’, like any common good, the community must pay attention to access, benefit, use, care and responsibility with regards to the resource being made common.

“Resilient food systems must foster diverse food access pathways, while working towards wider community food security in multiple, overlapping ways. There are important market, alternative-market and non-market transactions that go into securing food.

“These diverse transactions link people and organisations, and raise ethical questions about how we manage the commons of food, including food surplus and food waste.

“From the pandemic response, our research also looked at a range of emerging new relationships, practices, and transactions. For-profit enterprises took responsibility to develop new partnerships with government and community organisations to provide food, training, support, and equipment. Community organisations took responsibility and used their local knowledge, networks and relationships to support each other and food insecure people in their communities.

“These new relationships concern more than donations of food and equipment. They include commitments to ongoing training and professional development of staff, knowledge sharing, and the negotiation of ethical questions regarding establishing and managing food commons across the country, as evidenced most clearly by the emergence of the New Zealand Food Network.”

Gradon says there is no one solution to creating a resilient food system, but a combination of multiple solutions.

“Should we be advocating for increased incomes so people can purchase food through the market? Or should we train more people to become self-sufficient to grow food and provide secure access to land to reduce dependency on the market and charity? Or should we be better stewards of the food we do grow and ensure people have better access to quality surplus food? There is no one solution, but all of these and more.

“The lockdown showed the multiple ways that food security can be achieved through local production, local distribution networks and relationships, and food rescue infrastructure that can quickly respond to sudden shocks.”

People have different vulnerabilities with differing life stages, bodily vulnerabilities, incomes, and food preferences. This diversity of requirements requires a myriad of different tools and practices.

Read the research

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Date posted: 18 May 2021