Our Deputy Chair and food sector lead Sarah Louise Fairburn reflects on how COVID-19 has affected the food sector over the past four months.

Food and farming form a key part of the Greater Lincolnshire economy and the sector has played a crucial role in keeping our supermarket shelves stocked during the pandemic.

On behalf of the Greater Lincolnshire LEP I would like to extend thanks to all those involved in the food chain, from field pickers to engineers, programmers, factory workers, delivery drivers and shopkeepers, who have worked tirelessly to keep the nation fed.

We also welcomed the socially distanced-reopening of the food service sector on 4th July and we’re working to help rebuild this sector locally.

Farmers and food producers have kept the country fed, and COVID has highlighted the value of the work that our global agriculture community plays. Our work as an industry, and our ‘hidden heroes’, were acknowledged by the Environment Secretary George Eustice for delivering a vital service at a time of need.

The LEP has recently developed an Agri-Food Recovery Plan to support the food chain post COVID, to build on the increased demand in some areas, and to mitigate the impact to other parts of the supply chain where demand has fallen.

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of robotics to upskill the existing workforce and drive up productivity and the growing role of digitalisation in the food sector, including new online marketing channels and more efficient systems to control the flow of food in the supply chain.

In response, Lincolnshire is leading the way globally with one of the world's largest agri-tech research groups in the world: over 50 engineers and scientists are working on robotics and autonomous and digital technology across the supply chain.

Meanwhile at the University of Lincoln’s Riseholme campus PhD students are studying agri-robotics and there is a £15m investment in place to develop new facilities and programmes.

In the private sector some exciting projects are evolving: Beeswax Dyson will construct a six-hectare glasshouse near Boston to grow strawberries year-round for the UK market, using technology to minimise environmental impacts, and the University of Lincoln’s Agri-Food Centre of Excellence is taking shape at the new Food Enterprise Zone in Holbeach. The centre will be the linchpin of the FEZ, delivering innovation support services, pioneering research, skills provision and knowledge exchange for agri-food businesses across Lincolnshire and beyond.

The development of our three Food Enterprise Zones will support both existing agri-food businesses as well as those looking to invest and relocate. They will unleash food entrepreneurs, bringing together researchers, farmers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers so they can improve productivity.

The future will bring robotics, digitalisation and automation, but the food sector still requires real people to bring in the harvest. In early summer we ran a #StudentLandArmy campaign across social media, signposting workers to the Pick for Britain website and supporting the national #FeedTheNation campaign.

The campaign was given a boost in May when HRH The Prince of Wales posted a video on the Pick for Britain website endorsing the campaign and urging people to sign up for harvest work. Worldwide Fruit in Spalding commented that the campaign provided the additional stimulus that was needed, and within 48 hours of calling for students they had received 30 applications.

Willows Farm near the Lincolnshire coast, which would normally employ Lithuanian and Bulgarian workers on the 15-acre farm, has also benefited from an influx of student workers. This year they sought more local labour to pick the fruit and the #StudentLandArmy campaign boosted this workforce with both 6th form students and university students.

The UK harvest is now in full swing in Lincolnshire and Pick for Britain is reporting a fantastic response, stating that many vacancies for the next few weeks are now filled. However, the harvest season continues all summer and links will regularly be updated as new roles become available.

A rise in demand for food has certainly been evident during lockdown. Our food processors supplying food retailers are reporting that sales have risen by between 15% and 30% since early March, and some products have enjoyed even higher growth. Food retail sales are up nearly 20% overall, and online deliveries have increased by 80% since early March.

Many companies have adopted new online business models for the first time during lockdown and may retain these services permanently and help to accelerate the move to a digital economy.

In the last four months UK online sales jumped from 19% to 33% of all retail sales, and we are seeing unprecedented rates of change in how retail operates.

One example is Brown's Pie Shop in Lincoln which innovated its business model and launched an online ordering system three weeks after the start of lockdown. The restaurant is now reporting higher sales than before the pandemic.

At the same time coronavirus has pushed many people into food poverty. In Lincoln the combined food banks (Lincoln Food Bank, Lincoln Community Larder and Lincoln Mosque) have joined forces and are working with the Mint Lane ‘waste food’ café to respond to this need.

Demand for the food banks rose by 70% in the year before the pandemic and doubled again during the pandemic peak. Coordinated by the Lincoln Food Partnership (LFP), the food banks are now opening a membership supermarket for those who qualify for food support and seeking low-cost stock to allow access to cheap food.

The LFP wants to source food for the supermarket and is calling for farm surpluses that would otherwise be ploughed back or composted, processed food that might not be suitable for full retail, and retail food that has not been sold. If you can offer any of the above please email amy@lincolnfoodbank.org.uk.

In the near future we will continue to face labour challenges, and Greater Lincolnshire is working hard to accelerate the adoption of robotics and automation to address this. This will also be good for workers as we create higher skilled and better paid jobs in the food chain.

As a LEP we continue to work closely with businesses and the Government to address the impact of COVID-19 on the food sector. Look out for the latest updates on our website and follow us on Twitter Facebook and Linkedin.