The COVID-19 pandemic had disruptive effects on Australia’s food system, highlighting the weaknesses of traditional supply chains. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, panic-buying disrupted supermarket food stocks, and restricted trade flows and national lockdowns impacted food production, processing, transportation, and supply. In March 2020, the price of fresh produce in Australia tripled. These factors contributed to a worsening of food insecurity: according to Foodbank Australia, in 2019, 15% of Australians experiencing food insecurity sought food relief at least once per week, while in 2020, this doubled to 31%. Furthermore, the proportion of food-insecure Australians who spent an entire day without eating increased from 30% to 43%. With existing food system inequalities further exacerbated by COVID-19, alternative food provisioning systems can provide valuable lessons for how to realise a fairer food system, during and beyond a crisis.
My Honours research aimed to identify how local food networks in Brisbane have been impacted by COVID-19, with focus on their capacity to promote food justice and resilience during a crisis. I asked: how has COVID-19 impacted the ability of local urban agriculture initiatives and networks to ensure food ‘access’ in Brisbane; and how do these networks contribute to food system resilience and food justice during and after the COVID-19 crisis? Furthermore, how do these issues intersect with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and what are the implications for localising and implementing the SDGs?
Urban agriculture, food justice, and resilience
Urban agriculture involves producing, processing, marketing and distributing food in the city, with the aim of reclaiming the urban environment and making healthy, locally-grown food more accessible to city dwellers. Examples of urban agriculture are evident in intra-urban areas such as homes, food markets, schools, and community and rooftop gardens.
Food justice focuses on understanding and reducing systemic food system inequalities (e.g. the lack of availability of fresh produce in many low-income neighbourhoods) by encouraging sustainable, place-based initiatives. Community food network initiatives, such as urban agriculture, often align with food justice.
Resilience is commonly defined as a system’s ability to absorb and adapt to stressors, disturbances and change. It is a useful concept for understanding how communities adapt to shocks and crises such as climate change or global pandemics. Food systems must be resilient in order to cope during a crisis, and it is widely argued that local food networks are integral to improving such resilience.
How did Brisbane’s urban agriculture network operate during the pandemic?
This study explored how COVID-19 impacted urban agriculture initiatives in Brisbane, providing important insights into the ability of urban food networks to ensure food access and food justice during a crisis. Interviews identified 18 urban agriculture initiatives, located between 5-60 kilometres from Brisbane City, as a part of a wider local food system. Each farm operates with short supply chains that directly connect producers to consumers.
Research found that that these initiatives were able to respond to changing pandemic conditions with a high degree of flexibility and agility. For example, when lockdown restrictions forced most cafes and restaurants to close, many farms lost a major supply channel. However, they increased and diversified other initiatives (e.g. sales to speciality grocers and general public, introduction of box schemes), thereby maintaining production and ensuring food access for their network of consumers. Many urban agriculture initiatives were able to make these adaptations quickly, reporting no issues with production and diversification. This was not the case for larger farms with long supply chains, which experienced issues with logistics, food and worker shortages, and price spikes.
The introduction of a new local food sharing network (REKO Ring) is an example of this responsiveness and resilience. REKO Ring – a concept originating in Finland – is a version of an online farmers market, whereby growers advertise and sell their produce online and drop off presold goods at a predetermined time and place. It was quickly established in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is still expanding throughout Brisbane. As a case study, REKO Ring demonstrates that local food initiatives can not only thrive and expand during a crisis, but may contribute to building long-lasting food system resilience beyond the pandemic.
Furthermore, many farms reported actively engaging with their local community during the pandemic, with heightened community interest in local food production as a way of combating the food system failures highlighted by COVID-19. Many farms gained new volunteers, and were also able to combat local food insecurity by supplying food to an expanded local customer base.
Implications of this research
While food insecurity is worsening in Australia, the global situation demonstrates even more cause for concern: the World Food Programme estimates that 270 million people may have been acutely food insecure at the end of 2020. The UN Sustainable Development Goals include a commitment to achieving ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2030, but if recent trends continue, there will be more than 840 million people affected by hunger in 2030. Furthermore, SDG11 Sustainable Cities and Communities notes that hunger is likely to be significantly worse in urban areas, without measures to ensure that poor and vulnerable residents have access to food.
In order to address food insecurity and work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the need for fairer food systems – with urban agriculture initiatives playing a significant role – is more apparent than ever. This research has demonstrated the potential for community food networks to ensure food access during a crisis, lessening local food insecurity and building structures for long-lasting resilience beyond the pandemic.