I am sure that most people will be aware of the successful campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford to persuade the government to rethink its intention to let the vouchers available to families eligible for free school meals lapse for the summer. (Holiday hunger has generally been seen as a matter for charities to attempt to address, with varying degrees of success).
Many MPs, including a lot of conservatives, have understood that many families in their constituency are or will be in financial difficulty as a result of corvid-19 and they have persuaded the government today to find the money to keep the vouchers running for the time being.
I have been thinking about what the implication of this might be for local food businesses. My first question was “where can these £15 vouchers be spent?” This provides some answers https://www.gov.uk/government/news/voucher-scheme-launches-for-schools-providing-free-school-meals It looks as if the voucher system is aimed entirely at supermarkets. It mentions that the government wants to look also at involving other shops, but it is not clear that that has happened. Should local food businesses be in a position to accept vouchers, would they want this?
Another thing that has been made clear by covid-19 is that the virus has magnified the effect of health inequality. A key factor in health inequality is access to and affordability of healthy food. Professor Marmot, who is the leading authority on health inequality was talking on the radio BBCWATO today (43 minutes in), about food affordability. He quotes the food foundation Families with the lowest 10% of household income would have to spend 74% of their total income to buy healthy food. Many simply cannot do this and they buy what they can afford, leading to the increase of diet related illness, including diabetes which has greatly increased the threat of covid-19 for many individuals.
It seems clear that we are heading for a pretty serious financial depression It made me think back to the impact of the 2008 financial crash on local food businesses. My own experience at that time was that people were anxious about money, but there was also a commitment at that time by many people to want to support the local economy. The government deliberately stimulated the economy by reducing VAT.
My memories of the time from 2008-2010 was that many people made an effort to shop local and trade actually increased. That changed after the 2010 election. VAT went up, the costs of many supplies increased, market stall fees increased, and there were a lot of jobs lost in the public sector which meant many people who had been in safe jobs were very much less secure. My impression is that public perception of the farmers markets changed around this time. They started being seen less as community events, and more as businesses that were selling “nice to have” food that was often too expensive for large sections of the community. In Stafford at any rate footfall fell, takings were down and many key stall holders simply stopped coming.
We have seen with Covid-19 that a lot more people within our communities have understood that it makes sense to try to support local food businesses but will this last when the economic effects of the virus begin to bite? In a recent survey apparently 67% of people assumed their jobs would be safe. For many commentators this seems over optimistic.
My questions to other food businesses are this.
· How do we see out future role?
· Are we happy to continue to provide food to people who can afford the prices we need to charge to keep our businesses afloat and make a profit?
· Are confident that there will be enough people to support local food businesses in their current form?
· Do we want to be able to provide good food to a wider range of customers?
· If so then how can we make this possible and affordable.