Working through the pandemic: follow the money
Tuesday, 2nd June 2020 by Julie Brown
Julie brown growing communities office

Julie Brown, founding director of Growing Communities, has kept a diary through the rollercoaster of Covid-19, providing an insight into what it's like being at the helm of a sustainable food enterprise through these turbulent months and what all this could possibly mean for the future of food and farming in the UK


Week beginning 2 March 

Start the week with the intention of reviewing all the planning papers and budgets submitted by project coordinators. Looking forward to finalising the budget forecasts for 2020.  

On our weekly management team agenda we have two ‘big discussion’ items listed: ‘Planning – next steps’ and ‘Coronavirus’. The irony of those two items being next to each other is not lost on me. 

At this stage our Coronavirus thinking is about our sick pay policy and basic hygiene procedures – nothing too dramatic, nothing that alarming…. 


Week beginning 9 March 

I continue with my budget forecast. By the 11th my bottom line is showing a 6.8K surplus which I’m quite happy with (we generally aim to cover our costs and make a small surplus as a buffer). Plenty of time for final tweaks and to get things signed off by the end of March deadline. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us start to think and discuss the virus; who might be vulnerable, how we could work at home if we needed to and generally trying to make sense of what’s happening. 

We're fairly certain that we are considered essential services but aren't sure if we will fall through the government cracks and be ordered to shut down. We start doing business continuity planning by identifying essential activities and who can cover in the event of sickness and redesigning the market to include handwashing and discourage physical contact. 

After a sleepless night on the 12th, I decide the critical issue is to identify first which tasks cannot be done from home eg packing, delivery, packing management at the Shed and running the market. Watering and some harvesting? Are we missing anything? Alongside that, we need be able to identify when people will have to self-isolate.  


Week beginning 16 March

All hell breaks loose. Social distancing introduced. The next month is a blur of activity.  

We do many things not previously on our ‘to do’ lists. 


Week beginning 23 March

Lockdown begins. The government confirms that as producers and retailers of food, Growing Communities’ work is recognised as essential and our staff recognised as keyworkers. We are well past being able to stop by that point but it gives us a boost nevertheless.  

Throughout this time we take apart and examine pretty much every aspect of our operations and then put each of them back together again.  

I pretty much work all my waking hours: feeling at times a certain joy – I am ‘in the zone’. We really can do this thing. Only to come crashing a moment later when presented with another seemingly unsolvable riddle, inside a puzzle, wrapped in a conundrum for which we can find no clear guidance about what to do.  

During this time, I find myself feeling angry with people who are making statements about how the pandemic is showing us this or that: it feels a bit premature and I’m suspicious about how they can find the time or the brain space to draw together any coherent conclusions about anything. And as for all the crafts and the listening to the sodding birds!  

I have become somewhat obsessed with the idea that anyone not practically and directly involved in moving food or other essential goods (or workers) from one place to another should go and get a proper job! Even my husband – he’s only working on sodding climate change, for goodness’ sake! 

Actually – I have a flash of thinking that this whole pandemic malarkey is going to make dealing with climate change seem like a bit of a doddle. If we just applied the same approach, the government could choose to throw money at transforming our food system: 

Hey everyone: here’s our strategic plan for how to make our food system fair, sustainable and carbon neutral by 2030: including how we will foster strategic industries and shorten crucial food supply chains.  

Farmers! Stop farming like that, farm like this – and here’s a substantial wodge of money to help you transition to this new way of working. And those of you who have been doing that all along, here’s £3 billion to repay you for all the great food you produce along with the soil you protect, the biodiversity you encourage and the carbon you sequester – and do make sure you pass that on to your customers in the form of price reductions where you can.  

Hey supermarkets and other retailers: thanks so much for all that great work you did during the pandemic but can you just stop selling all that crap processed food now. Here’s some guidance to help you and here’s some legislation that will require you (and prosecute you if you fail) to meet our very reasonable sourcing and procurement targets.  

Hey food manufacturers: really? Why are you making that? It no longer meets our guidelines for what constitutes good food so here’s a wodge of money (and some legislation) to help you transition your production line to producing this.  

And hey everyone: here’s some money in the form of living wages and decent welfare payments – no scrap that – let’s just go for a Universal Basic Income – so that everyone has enough income to be able to afford decent food.  

Oh and remember! You can touch each other as much as you like while you are doing all this! 

By the end of this period I have channelled some of my frustrations into a humdinger of a spreadsheet that aims to bring all our new systems and processes together in one place – it provides me with some comfort and helps to make me feel slightly less unhinged.  


Week beginning 13 April

I emerge (28 days later…) from self-isolating with my family for 14 of those 28 days. Two of us really quite ill; the other two (including me), asymptomatic or mildly ill. I’m able to return to the office for my stints doing on-site cover and feel grateful to be able to do that. On the Friday, I positively enjoy wandering around the now completely empty community building we occupy and go up the fire escape to look out over locked down London. I notice with pleasure (and a wry smile) that I can hear the birds singing.  


Week beginning 20 April

Have our first full team meeting. Everyone has been missing each other.  

I let everyone know that my next task is to get to grips with where we are financially. I’m pretty sure we will qualify for the 10K from the government, we’ve definitely sold more fruit and veg and we have reserves (so there is no immediate cashflow issue) but we’ve had to spend quite a bit too. I’d love to be able to draw a financial line under that, and be able to pay staff for all the extra hours they’ve done – hours they gave willingly, with good cheer and humour (if black at times) and with no expectation that they would be paid for them.  


Week beginning 27 April

I finally start attempting to get a handle on what’s going on financially. Never in my time at GC have I ever gone so long without feeling on top of the budgets. I’m keen and a bit anxious. 


Week beginning 11 May

Finally finish the budget for 2020.  

Our bottom line has changed from a projected surplus of 6.8K to a deficit of -37K. Fortunately 20K of grants from the government and Esmee Fairbairn take us up to -17K.  

We’re lucky to have built up some reserves over the last 20 years of trading so we'll be able to cover our costs this year – but clearly the additional costs to manage social distancing will continue for months, possibly years, to come so we will need to think carefully about how the economics of our business can continue in the future. 

Bottom line is that we need those customers who ordered more and more veg from us as the pandemic took hold, to stick with us in the months ahead or we’ll be a bit screwed.  

And I decide to apply to Farming the Future’s emergency C19 fund to contribute something towards our ongoing C19 costs and ask for more cash that we could redistribute to our fellow Better Food Traders who have also worked so hard to keep supplying people with fresh, agroecologically produced food through this incredibly demanding period.  


Week beginning 18 May 

With the bulk of the budget work out of the way I have time to reflect. 

I think the following are some of the reasons the GC system has so far proved to be resilient: 

Our members and customers live locally and can mainly walk or cycle to our collection points. They trust us.  

Our farmers and suppliers are close too – not all of them are geographically close (we still import some produce) but the relationship is close. There's trust, understanding as well as physical proximity there.  

And while GC staff are paid ‘workers’ wages – unlike many of the workers in the capital we have access to good food, we eat well and we are purposeful and driven in relation to our work. Many cycle or walk to work.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has highlighted for me the whole issue of proximity and closeness. We need all the things we rely on to be close (just not too close right now…)  

But these elements of our model are not coincidences. They have been built into the GC approach from the start to help tackle the climate and nature emergency. They just happen to be also – so far – helping us be resilient in the face of the C19 pandemic.  

And there seems to be an increasing body of evidence showing that ill health and in particular diet-related health problems (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension) make people more vulnerable to the virus.  

I know it’s not this simple but it seems to me that we need to eat more fresh food and less crap! And for that food to be grown and raised in a way that protects nature and the climate. But that's easier said than done in the toxic food environment we’ve created, which results in the most unhealthy food being the cheapest and the most available (and the most profitable for the companies producing it) and where fresh fruit and veg is more expensive, harder to access and less profitable for those producing it.  

The food access/food poverty issues exposed by the pandemic highlight both the compassion of the charity sector but also the complete madness of the food bank world we find ourselves in – using a sector run largely by volunteers (many of whom from vulnerable groups) to physically move food from the retailers to people who can’t afford to buy it themselves. Why can’t we just provide people with sufficient wages or benefits so they can afford to buy that food from the supermarket (or from us) themselves?  

As we emerge from the pandemic, I really don‘t want us all to return to our economic ‘duty’ as consumers. I hope we'll notice what has happened in terms of the response from communities; we recognise that we're all connected and in this together; that as individuals we can take action that can be part of creating wider systemic change. The economic system may be the mother of all systems, but it is not fixed; we’ve designed it to be the way it is. We can choose to redesign it. 

As I finish this piece, things are indeed settling down for GC, while all around us lockdown is easing. I feel a bit protective of this safe space we have created here at the Old Fire Station and a little fearful of how things will move forward. I head up to the roof of the building again – and notice that the sound of the birds is starting to be drowned out by the noise of the increasing traffic….  

Author name: 
Julie Brown