The impact of Covid on the Welsh food industry: a view from Castell Howell

By Jane Powell

Castell Howell has come a long way since its beginnings on a Carmarthenshire farm in the 1970s, and is now one of Wales’ biggest independent wholesalers, with depots in Merthyr, Blaenau, Chirk and Avonmouth as well as its headquarters in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire. But when Covid struck, the foodservice business lost 60% of its business almost overnight. Their main customers are catering outlets such as universities, sports stadia, venues and school kitchens, and is not clear when many of these will start serving food again. The company has had to put 400 staff on furlough and doesn’t see sales returning to normal until 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s been challenging, disastrous,” says Ed Morgan, their Corporate Social Responsibility and Training Manager, “but that is shared by our customers, who are in a precarious position, and our suppliers. We’re not alone.”

The company has had to adapt fast and find new markets.  One step has been to open its wholesale business to the public, using ‘click and collect’ to maintain social distancing, and changing its purchasing to source food in smaller quantities for the retail market. They have also been supplying food banks and free school meals schemes.

A significant boost to their business has come from local authorities looking for ingredients for their emergency food boxes. At first the Welsh Government was supplying these directly, but Ceredigion County Council negotiated a cash payment instead and chose to give their business to Castell Howell as a local supplier. Other councils followed suit.

Ed sees this political decision as a significant step forward. “I’d like to think there’s more of an awareness across local authorities about where food comes from,” he says, referring to the way that staff have been taken away from their regular duties in order to meet the councils’ obligation to feed vulnerable members of society, by packing and distributing the food boxes. “Instead of being involved in transport or town planning, they’ve been hands on with food”. He hopes that food procurement will now receive a cross-departmental focus, reflecting its significance for the local economy and communities.

Public procurement – buying food for care homes, the NHS, school meals and so on – is one of the constants that Castell Howell sees as crucial to its future. “We have a team of three dedicated to this market, but recently they’ve been introduced to different suppliers and different ways of doing things and we’d like to maintain the momentum. And push it upstream of the Welsh supply chain,” he adds, citing the government’s support for the foundational economy, including a public procurement project in Carmarthenshire.

Castell Howell depends of course on a strong supply base. As Ed Morgan lists some of the products they source from Welsh companies – roast chicken, bottled water, desserts – it’s clear we aren’t talking farm to fork, although Daioni’s UHT milk is a recent success story. Even the iconic Welsh cake is made from global ingredients. This may disappoint those who would like to see Wales growing more of its own food, and particularly vegetables, but nevertheless, there are important benefits from having a strong food industry. “There are opportunities to add value here in Wales and that in itself brings economic and social benefits,” he explains. “If big factories close that can rip the heart out of a community.”

He points to the crucial role of Welsh food policy in creating the conditions for food businesses to benefit the people of Wales. Having taken part in the government’s consultation on sustainable brand values, he thinks that companies should be encouraged to do better. “I do feel environmental impacts need to be pretty much at the top of the list,” he says, suggesting that businesses might be incentivized to measure their carbon footprints and say how they intend to reduce them, and be audited on their green credentials. Good employee care and social benefits to local communities are also important, he thinks.

The government can do much to help food businesses by supporting public procurement, and this is one way that environmental criteria can be imposed. But there is a balance to be struck. “If it’s too stringent, it frightens companies off. They’ll say they’re better off supplying the pub down the road, or Tesco’s or Morrisons.” This is especially true as long as the margins on public sector food are tight, compared with the tourist trade. Understanding the environmental impacts of food can also be complicated and controversial, which is another reason for a pragmatic approach.

Another cause of hope that he sees is the Well-being of Future Generations Act, although it “probably needs to accelerate slightly”. Linking as it does economic prosperity with environmental sustainability and community cohesion, as well as promoting collaboration between government, business and communities, the Act is a foundation for a better Wales. Food is an obvious way of joining up all the dots and drawing people into its vision – an opportunity, therefore, for food businesses to build on recent public concern about food supplies.

“When Covid started, food and health care shot to prominence. Now we want to harness this. Where can we take this economic benefit of dealing with Welsh manufacturers and Welsh suppliers?”

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant, writer and volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto. Her website is www.foodsociety.wales

Food poverty is escalating in Wales – what should we do about it?

By Pat Caplan

In the last few decades, Welsh food has changed out of all recognition, with highly successful branding of Welsh products being synonymous with quality. Examples include beef, lamb, fish, chocolate, wine, beer and honey but there are many more. Along with this has gone the revival of traditional foods such as laverbread, bara brith, and Welsh cakes, and many areas of Wales now have their own annual food festivals. All of this is good for tourism and exports.

Furthermore the Welsh government has been interested in a sustainable food strategy for Wales since 2010 and the growth of organic farms and smallholdings in Wales has been encouraged. Unfortunately, all of these welcome trends do not help with escalating food poverty.

The high rates of poverty in Wales can be seen from numerous reports issued during the past few years and published by the Welsh Government, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, WISERD (Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods); campaigning organisations like Oxfam Cymru, the Welsh Food Poverty Network, and Food Poverty Alliance Wales as well as national papers such as the Guardian and local papers including the Pembrokeshire Herald and the South Wales Evening Post.

Basically food poverty is caused by low income: high rates of unemployment, very low pay and benefit cuts. In households with low income, food may not be prioritised as highly as rent, council tax and other bills, since failure to pay these can have grave consequences. Food is seen as an elastic part of the budget, with parents reporting that they skip meals so that children can eat and that they have to buy the cheapest food available, which is not necessarily the healthiest.

But poverty is also caused by the high costs of housing, transport and food. In some areas locals, tourists and second home owners are in competition for accommodation, while poor public transport creates pressure to own a car, with its attendant costs. Furthermore, much of Wales exists in a ‘food desert’, particularly in the rural areas where it is difficult for many people to access shops, especially the supermarkets which usually carry a wider range of fresh foods. Small local shops are often very expensive and what fresh food they carry may not be very fresh because of the low turnover and the need to transport it over long distances. All of these tendencies are likely to be exacerbated by Brexit.

Poverty in general usually leads to food poverty which is also a public health issue. There have been reports of high rates of malnutrition and morbidity, and a decline in longevity. As  noted by Health in Wales, ‘Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is a leading cause of death in the United Kingdom, and particularly in Wales, where the death rate is greater than in the majority of the countries in Western Europe’.

Furthermore it is the poorest people who are most likely to suffer from obesity with levels higher across all ages in the more deprived areas (Welsh Health Survey 2013). The BBC recently reported that obesity is now overtaking smoking as the biggest risk to health in Wales and attributed this to the widespread availability of cheap junk food.

The case of Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire is where my research on food poverty has focused over the last few years. The Bevan Foundation noted in 2018 that ‘Pembrokeshire has one of the highest risks of poverty among people of working age in the UK, resulting from a mix of low wages and high housing costs’.

Pembrokeshire has a high number of incomers who are either permanent or temporary residents. There are retirees who can afford high housing costs, wealthier second home owners, and a big demand for holiday rentals. All of these push up the costs of accommodation, especially in tourist ‘hotspots’ such as Newport where houses have become unaffordable for local people.

There is a large amount of ‘hidden poverty’, especially in rural areas, but it also exists in the small towns, including those in the south where former industries have disappeared. There is a high rate of unemployment in the county, while those who are in work often have to accept low wages (sometimes below the Minimum Wage), seasonal employment (especially in areas of tourism), and precarity (e.g. zero-hours contracts).

The roll-out of Universal Credit in Pembrokeshire has further exacerbated poverty because of the long period between the ending of old benefits and the start of new ones, as well as the continuing of the punitive sanctions regime and the cuts in benefits more generally.

But there is another dimension to food poverty in rural areas and small towns and that is the reluctance to disclose it. As I have heard many times ‘You don’t want to be seen as poor’, which is considered stigmatising.

Food aid

For several years Wales has had an unusually high prevalence of food banks and the number of both Trussell Trust and independent food banks has increased since that time. In Pembrokeshire for example, Trussell now has four food banks as does Patch, an independent charity. Both are run largely by volunteers and receive their supplies from donors.

Wales is part of the globalised food marketing system, with supermarkets like Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Coop, Aldi and Lidl in the towns. Most of these cooperate with food banks to allow in-store collections of long-life food donated by customers. More recently, supermarkets have also been providing their surplus fresh food to charities, in some cases via the Food Cloud facilitated by the organisation Fareshare, in other cases with bilateral or unofficial arrangements between food outlet and food banks. The Food Cloud has meant that more fresh produce is available to food banks, but supplies are inevitably uncertain.

How then is it possible to bring good quality fresh food to people who need it but cannot afford it, without having recourse to food banks which risks the clients suffering from the associated stigma? One promising development is Community Fridges, open to all. At present in Pembrokeshire for example, these exist in Narberth, Fishguard and Haverfordwest.

Another is the setting up of regular community meals, available to everyone, not just the food poor.  These emulate some of the policies being adopted in Scotland which emphasise the links between food and community thereby ensuring both sociality and dignity. But more such initiatives are needed.

Pat Caplan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Further information on her research and writing is available on her webpage https://www.gold.ac.uk/anthropology/staff/pat-caplan/ and she blogs on http://sites.gold.ac.uk/food-poverty/.

Thanks:  I am grateful to the clients and volunteers of the food aid organisations which facilitated my research. Image: Pat Caplan.

Talking to the politicians

This article by Jane Powell appeared in the Daily Post on 1 October 2015

Next year, Wales gets the chance to have a new government. What would you like the politicians to campaign for in the run-up to May’s elections?

A group of food researchers are working on a manifesto that will tell them what sort of food system the people of Wales want to see in future, and we would like to hear what you care about.

Food touches every area of our lives. Take food waste, for instance. UK supermarkets run on a system where in order to keep the shelves fully stocked with fresh food, a high proportion of perfectly good food is routinely thrown away.

Action is being taken by the likes of FareShare Cymru to distribute the surplus food, but maybe it’s time for more drastic action.

In France, supermarkets are obliged to give their unsold food to charities or for animal feed, and are banned from throwing it away. Should we try that here?

Most of us waste at least some food at home, too. Maybe we bought too much. The government cannot do much about that, but how about more cookery lessons in schools and in the community to encourage people to prepare healthy meals, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating together?

There is increasing interest in growing our own food, too. But in Wales there are very few skilled horticulturists, and we end up importing most of our fruit and vegetables, even those which could easily be grown here.

This is a complex problem, one worth tackling by government.

Welsh agriculture is central to the food system of course, and it’s important to sort out our policy on land use. Do we farm for export markets, or for home consumption, or a bit of both?

What do we want our farmland to do? Grow food, encourage wildlife, prevent flooding, look beautiful and attract tourists? Government policy has a major role to play here, through subsidies and other forms of support.

Government can also affect markets, for instance by requiring local authorities and other public sector organisations to make it easier for Welsh food businesses to supply schools, hospitals, prisons and so on.

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

It might cost a bit more than imported food, but then it also gives farming a boost. Which do we want to see?

And then there’s the question of food banks. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Inquiry report, Feeding Britain, found that more and more people are turning to emergency food aid: wages are low, social networks are weak and the food system is no longer resilient enough. What are we going to do about that?

Partly it’s a problem of poverty, and partly it’s about the food system itself, which delivers high quality fresh food to some, while others live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh produce, and shops stock highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden products.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value our food, and that comes down to how we see our society and the environment.

In a recent research study led by Aberystwyth University, we shared meals with refugees in Cardiff and pensioners in Gwynedd, as well as schoolchildren, students, organic farmers and many others.

They all discussed how food connects them with family and friends, and how they wanted to see the best quality food available to everyone.

They wanted to see food skills being passed down the generations. They thought it mattered where food comes from – that it shouldn’t be an anonymous commodity, and that the person who grew it got a fair price.

Our food system doesn’t quite work like that at the moment, but it could.

It’s time to ask for change from our government, and it’s time to make changes ourselves. Start growing in your back garden. Join a community garden. Seek out food in the shops that fits with your values – animal welfare, local, organic, as it may be – and be prepared to pay a little more for it.

Find another way altogether of buying it, perhaps through a veg co-op or farmers market. Try out a new recipe and visit a food festival this autumn. Organize a community meal at your church, mosque, school or workplace. Donate some high quality food to your nearest food bank.

And write in to the Food Manifesto. It’s at http://foodmanifesto.wales and http://maniffestobwyd.cymru.