I think it’s safe to say that we haven’t seen similar food-related scenes in the UK like those we experienced in the weeks after the COVID-19 lockdown since the Second World War. Images on the TV of empty supermarket shelves and panic buying – even people fighting for food – reminded me of a visit to Poland in 1981 during the Solidarity period where I saw vast food queues snaking around precincts.

LOCKDOWN SURGE

In the 17 weeks since the COVID-19 lockdown was announced on 23rd March, we have taken on 124 new organic vegetable box customers. And most of you are still with us, which is hugely rewarding for the Coleshill Organics team.

Speaking to fellow growers, it’s clear that local vegetable box schemes across the UK have not experienced a growth rate like it. In the first few weeks after lockdown many were dealing with hundreds of desperate enquires.

Supermarkets, deemed to be dangerous places anyway, were running out of key staples on a daily basis and their shelves were often bare, with minimal fresh fruit and veg supplies for days on end. Some even began to ration food and other essentials. As a consequence, people were turning to their local farmers and growers suppliers in droves to source their fresh vegetables, fruit and meat.

Empty supermarket shelves

Many supermarkets ran out of essentials

As a grower, it felt like the first time in my life that the public were regarding fresh fruit and vegetables as the hugely valuable, life-giving foods they really are. We were no longer taken for granted. We even had supermarket buyers calling us up to get our veg. They were, of course, given short shrift—my customers always come first.

KEY WORKER STATUS

Like farmers and growers right across the country, the Coleshill Organics team was classified as ‘frontline workers’. Matt, our head grower, was offered places for his children at their school as he was considered an essential worker. So despite the day-to-day exhaustion and head-spinning amount of enquiries, telephone calls and emails I had to deal with, we were, for the first time, considered to be important workers doing an essential job.

To see growing fruit and vegetables on that sort of societal pedestal was just mind blowing.

To see growing fruit and vegetables on that sort of societal pedestal was just mind-blowing. What is even more extraordinary is that small, local businesses like ours had the resilience to cope, too. Remember: at the start of the year we had not planned to take on an additional 120 or so boxes. In fact, we had planned to continue pottering along with 70 box customers a week. We doubled in size almost overnight and yet still had to sadly turn away many customers. But cope we did and we went on to feed almost 170 families weekly at a time of real need.

FOOD SECURITY

Producing and cooking food has become a national preoccupation—and rightly so. It’s so exciting to see food security and quality in daily discourse. With only 153,000 hectares of the UK’s total agricultural land (17.6 million hectares) devoted to fruit and vegetable production and a scant 56% of vegetables and 16% of fruit consumed in the UK is actually grown here, it’s about time we took things more seriously. So if you are doing your bit and buying local or growing yourselves I say well done and keep it up!

A scant 56% of vegetables and 16% of fruit consumed in the UK is actually grown here

But that raises a bit of a bugbear of mine: If you choose to buy ‘local’ food you need to answer this question: does the producer live close enough for you to visit on foot, by bike or a short car ride? Will they welcome you turning up? Are you able to wander around and see your veg growing in the fields? Is it a place you want to be? There is no legal definition for ‘local’ and anyone can (and does) make that claim. After all, even the most intensive industrial indoor pig farm is still ‘local’ to someone… Something for you to chew over.

RESILIENCE

It seems that many of the business survivors of this terrible time are the ones who have somehow managed to adapt and build a sense of community around themselves. The pubs that have become a community shop, supplying and delivering all sorts of essentials for their local community (The Royal Oak in Bishopstone) or offers amazing handmade pizzas and other delicious takeaway meals (The Wheatsheaf in Chilton Foliat).

The Royal Oak Bishopstone

The Royal Oak in Bishopstone

The Wheatsheaf Chilton Foliat

The Wheatsheaf Chilton Foliat

The Bristol-based cookery school that converted to cooking and delivering over 1,500 lunches every week to children who would otherwise go hungry without their school lunch (Square Food Foundation). The farmers’ market that turns itself into a click and collect/deliver food hub so the community can still buy amazing food and other goods and the producers still have an outlet (Stroud farmers’ market). The amazing volunteers at East Oxford Farmers’ and Community Market who ensure social distancing so customers can buy safely and producers keep selling.

By supporting organic growers like us you are taking responsibility for how your food is produced and helping to change the way we farm and feed ourselves

These are all examples of real food resilience; of individuals and communities taking control and ownership of their own food supply. If nothing else, I hope that last 17 weeks has taught us that growing and cooking nutritious food should occupy equal space on that societal pedestal and that in order to have real food security we MUST recognise that farmers, growers and those who cook using real ingredients must be at the absolute pinnacle of our communities. I might be biased but I don’t think there is anything more important to all aspects of human health and wellbeing.

The Western diet is costing the Earth…

We’ve long known that our poor Western diet—characterised by a high intake of industrial red meat, processed meats, processed and pre-packed foods, refined grains, high-fructose corn syrup, sweets and high-sugar drinks, combined with low intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, grassfed animal products, fish, nuts, and seeds—is slowly killing us and placing a massive strain on the NHS and society as a whole. More recently, we know that people with comorbidities—including preventable diet-related ill-health, such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease—are far more susceptible to COVID-19. Is this really the future we want for ourselves and our children? By supporting organic growers like us (and organic farmers for your meat, dairy and eggs) you are not only taking direct responsibility for how your food is produced but you are ultimately encouraging other farmers and growers to change how they farm, too.

STICK WITH US!

I must admit that when the rush of new customers first came in I was really worried that most of you would go back to the supermarkets once they re-opened their doors. But that hasn’t materialised. Since the initial lockdown surge, only a few customers have subsequently cancelled their veg boxes and most of them explained that, with all the extra time on their hands, they have taken up or increased their own vegetable production, which of course is wonderful!

We are so happy that most customers have decided to stay with us. I know many of you are new to the world of organic food and farming and especially veg boxes! But we’ve had such wonderful feedback: people are loving the taste of real, fresh veg (with no chemical nasties!), trying new things, the lack of packaging and, of course, the fact that we grow with nature. A huge thank you to you all. Maybe some of you wouldn’t have given us a go if it wasn’t for COVID-19. But I hope you will continue to stay with us on our journey to a more sustainable food and farming future.

A PERSONAL INVITATION

Finally, for various reasons, we have decided not to hold our planned celebratory feast and open day in September to mark 20 years of organic growing here at Coleshill Organics. It was a tough decision but we know it’s the right one.

Coleshill Organics

But I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage you all to come to the garden here at Coleshill Organics. Pack a picnic, bring a blanket and find a quiet spot to relax and eat, and just absorb the glorious peace and beauty before the summer ends. Find out where your food comes from and see how we grow it. Ask us questions if we’re about. And please bring your children, dogs, Grandparents and enjoy being at the heart of where your food comes from. You are always welcome.

Sonia Oliver
Coleshill Organics