The resilient brilliance of Brighton’s food businesses

Alex Ward looks at how our local food system has changed over the last few months, and the local business heroes who have responded with new & innovative offerings.

How did Covid-19 change our relationship with food?

When lockdown was announced on Monday 23rd March 2020, our relationship with food, how we access it and our understanding of where it comes from changed for almost everyone. Shelves in the shops started to empty as people panicked and the cracks in our high import, just-in-time food system widened. Those who could afford supermarket delivery fees moved online, which quickly exhausted delivery slots. Others started to look to smaller, independent retailers to stock their kitchen cupboards. Those with gardens turned to growing their own and sales in vegetable seeds and compost rocketed.

barcombe nurseries workers with food boxes

Credit: Barcombe Nurseries

Local box schemes received a huge surge in calls from those unable to get supermarket deliveries, or perhaps feeling the safety in a shorter, local supply chain. Despite it being the hungry gap in the UK, many of the farms and box schemes in the area such as Ashurst Organics and Barcombe Nurseries more than doubled their customer base, investing in more delivery vans and equipment to meet demand. Brighton Community Supported Agriculture (aka Fork & Dig it) planted more food than ever before and started producing hamper packs to help people grow fruit and veg at home.

It was not just panic buying that meant supermarket staff were suddenly working relentlessly to restock shelves. People were buying more because they were home for three meals a day, children were no longer eating lunch at school, and the out of home sector, which usually sees 1 in 10 Brits eating out once per week, was quickly shut down.

While supermarkets increased sales, what happened to the food destined for restaurants? While food was flying off the shelves in the shops, restaurants and their suppliers (farms, wholesalers, producers alike) saw their stocks start to pile up. As local restaurants closed, many donated surplus food to the city’s emergency food response but suppliers of restaurant veg, meat, cheese and more had to solve the problem of finding new buyers for their products.

And in the middle of this systemic shift was us. Brighton and Hove residents either attempting to shop as we always had in a challenging & fluctuating setting, adapting to new ways of purchasing our groceries or struggling to access food at all due to self-isolation, illness or increased financial pressures.

How did Brighton and Hove respond?

The rate at which Brighton and Hove responded to the Covid-19 food crisis has been both tear jerking and inspirational. Businesses, charities, community groups and individuals have adapted, diversified, innovated, given money and time to ensure nobody is #HungryAtHome.

Small family run businesses such as Clark’s Butchers on Lewes Road were quick on their feet to purchase fruit, veg, eggs and flour to sell in store along with their range of meats to plug the gap left by struggling supermarkets. They offered a free delivery service and 10% discount to NHS staff.

Adam’s Wholesale, also family run and delivering to the whole of Sussex and Kent, saw their 400 restaurant customers diminish to 20. They started an online ordering system and switched their industry sized products to those suited for individual households. They’ve been working with the local council to provide boxes to those in the ‘shielding’ category. They have felt so supported by the community at this time that they plan to continue providing grocery boxes for households beyond the Covid crisis.

florence road market veg boxes

Credit: Florence Road Market

Florence Road Market responded quickly to the need to isolate by switching to a box scheme delivery service. In no time at all they were running a fully functional operation out of One Church providing boxes full of local produce. They created a buy one, give one service – meaning customers can pay for a food box for those who are struggling to afford their own. They worked with Chomp to deliver to low income families and Pro Barista to deliver to unemployed workers in the coffee industry.

Innovative new businesses popped up across the city, such as Social Box CIC who provide grocery boxes and homemade ready meals to the community. This fast-growing initiative offers free home delivery and donates 5% from every box ordered to fund free groceries for NHS workers. They responded to the hot weather by adding a BBQ box to their product range.

Businesses showed support for each other too, with many restaurants quickly switching to a takeaway/delivery service, ensuring suppliers were kept in business. Others, such as VH Café used their local produce to create a new business model, providing a grocery collection and delivery service with the option of baked goods and pre-prepared food. Nutritious Fish teamed up with a local butcher, baker, Sardinian deli and YouJuice to offer a grocery box for their increasing customer base.

Many of these businesses invested in more equipment, vehicles, website changes, staff and whole new ways of working whilst putting in place new safety measures. Plastic screens went up, cash stopped exchanging hands and staff members sat outside whilst long funny looking queues formed down the street.

The list is not exhaustive and there are many businesses not mentioned here who have collectively been the key to the city’s resilience at this time.  Most experienced an overwhelming increase in demand in March and April, but if customers revert to old ways of shopping over the coming months then their investments may not stack up.

There are many benefits to buying locally. For every £1 spent by an ethical local business like Hisbe, 57 pence is spent in Sussex on stock, wages and services, while supermarkets take most of our cash elsewhere in the country and internationally.  As we’ve seen, independent, local businesses can adapt quickly to change, whilst interacting with different areas of the food system.  We want to see these local food heroes survive and thrive.

We will be working with some of the local food businesses to try and understand more about what their new customers want and need, what has been positive about the changes they’ve made, and what has been challenging.

We’ll soon be asking for your feedback on experiences with new ways of buying food, but for now please share with us any other local food businesses that you’ve seen trying new and innovative ways to get good food to people who need it here in Brighton & Hove, using hashtag #GoldFoodCityBid.  Help us to celebrate our local food heroes.

The city of Brighton & Hove has bid to become the UK’s first Gold Sustainable Food City. We want to celebrate the wonderful people and organisations in our city that go above and beyond to improve our food system and support people to access healthy, sustainable food. These stories bring to life what a gold sustainable food city really looks like. To help inspire others please share on social media using #goldfoodcitybid any good food work that you’re involved with or that you see around the city.

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