LAST month, Ireland spent 27% more on grocery shopping than on average.
The upsurge in spending has been linked to the wave of uncertainty that came with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a nation, we were unsure how access to food would be affected, so we bought more than usual to bolster our stocks of food.
A kind of primordial hoarding instinct that is a part of our innate crisis response, so say the experts: “a dramatic event requires a dramatic response,” (Bryan Lufkin, Coronavirus, The Psychology of Panic Buying, BBC Worklife, March 4, 2020).
I did it a bit myself. My collection of tins, dried pasta, grains and pulses swelled beyond regular quantities. And as social distancing gave way to lockdown, my social media feeds began to swell equally with videos and photos of parents baking with their children or people finding time to start their #sourdough project, (2.7m posts on Instagram this week and counting). Is it any wonder that anecdotal reports abound of a shortage of eggs and flour?
So, how much of our homemade efforts are part distraction, part education or part about feeding ourselves? How much of these public displays of kitchen affection is eaten and how much gets lost to the bin?
In more normal times, Ireland has a food waste problem. 1 million tonnes of food per year is thrown out, or just under 1 tonne per household per year (StopFoodWaste.ie). The fear is that, with increased grocery buying comes increased food waste. The U.S is noticing an increase in food waste and, closer to home, in Northern Ireland the usual quantity of food waste for any given April, (around 20,000 tonnes), is expected to be “eclipsed” this year.
Of course, it’s not just in our homes where food waste is going to be an issue during this pandemic. Restaurants, forced to close, have been left with perishable stock. Growers and producers find themselves left with high quality foodstuffs but no ready market. Even the dairy sector is struggling to find a way to reduce milk output at a time of year when its production is at its peak.
From the consumer perspective, a few weeks in and food supplies seem largely unaffected. Shelves are restocked daily in supermarkets; growers and producers have innovated to find a way to sell direct to consumers, and restaurants have become takeaways. We are also good for toilet rolls.
The irony, however, is that those of us who can stock up, cook or look at a bunch of random bits in a fridge and rustle up something tasty, do. But at the same time, FoodCloud, the food redistribution charity, has seen an increase in demand for their services amid the context of losing 40% of their supply partners due to business closures and a 50% decrease in surplus food donations from supermarkets as a result of stockpiling.
A week ago, 283,000 people had applied and were in receipt of the emergency Covid-19 welfare payment. For many, this will help; but for others the payment will not cover everything so turning to food banks and initiatives like FoodCloud is becoming a part of their new normal.
I asked Keelin Tobin, researcher at the Clean Technology Centre at Cork Institute of Technology, how her perception of how behaviour around food — food waste in particular — may have changed since Covid-19 emerged in Ireland.
“I would consider the current situation both threat and opportunity. Although we are living in a time of great uncertainty, it may be possible to keep some sort of routine or normality around meals.
“Planning out what to buy (without panic purchasing) and agreeing on what will realistically be eaten in the household will help to avoid additional visits to the shops and may provide some structure to the day.
“For many, budgeting is even more important now so writing up and sticking to the shopping list will help with that too. Many people are noting the incredible signs of spring all around us and that extends to local food producers and wild foods also. If it’s possible, sourcing food locally is worthwhile.
“Now probably isn’t the time to go on a diet or cut out sugar. It’s a time to take some comfort from food and to eat the things that we’re familiar with, whether that’s Spaghetti Bolognese or Beans on Toast! That’s perfectly fine. It takes a lot to put food on the table and I think we can all reflect a bit more on the centrality of food in our lives.
“Amid this crisis, I certainly value food more. I believe that in general, if we value food more, we will take more care and do more so that it does not go to waste.
“I think we are all experiencing some very real emotions right now so it’s really important to take some pressure off ourselves — we don’t need to become Cordon Bleu Chefs!
“If cooking will bring you some comfort and enjoyment, do that. If going out to the garden will bring you a sense of accomplishment, go for it. If using up those bendy carrots at the bottom of the fridge will bring you satisfaction, super. If you need some help, seek it out.
“Right now, there are so many people with a willingness to offer expert advice on food growing, cooking tips, practical assistance such as help with grocery shopping. Tap into this community in whatever way you can. That might mean picking up the phone and asking your mum exactly how she makes her Irish stew.
“It’s really nice to see people posting clever tips across social media, such as blitzing oats to make flour for pancakes or using up leftovers in creative ways. Many people are finding the positives. I think that’s really important and it reminds us that we're all in this together.”
If you’re looking for a really helpful, unbiased and accessible one stop shop for great resources on everything, from meal planning and shopping, to seasonal eating and great tips and hacks on reducing food waste in your home, the EPA initiative, www.StopFoodWaste.ie is my recommendation to you.