This cross-sectional study conducted during strict social distancing restrictions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic assessed consumer perceptions of possible strategies to build a more resilient and sustainable food system. Focused on Tasmania, Australia, our results provide an understanding of how consumers perceived the food system considering the issues they encountered during the beginning of the pandemic, in addition to offering potential solutions generated by consumers that could be further explored and evaluated by other food system-stakeholders and policymakers as strategies to increase future food system resilience and sustainability. Short and longer-term strategies spanning individual, food industry, logistics and policy levels were identified by consumers with a focus on addressing concerns of local versus exported food, cheap versus luxury food, supermarkets versus alternative food outlets, increasing supply chain transparency, and focussing on disaster preparedness.
Local versus exported food
A major finding of our study is the perceived tension that exists between consumers and food producers over whether to prioritise growing food for export or domestic markets. The vast majority (89%) of respondents to the Tasmania Project’s Food Survey reported that they valued locally grown produce, and more than half (54%) agreed that locally-grown produce had become ‘more important’ than before the pandemic . However, it is currently unclear how much food bought and consumed by Tasmanians is locally grown, undermining our understanding of the feasibility of local food systems for the economic viability of the food system. Reconciling tensions between domestic and export production is unlikely to occur in the short term, given that 78% of the food grown in Tasmania is exported to mainland Australia or overseas , putting producers in a dominant position over consumers. However, the implications of reducing food exports in favour of a local market are difficult to balance, given that the seasonality of locally-grown food production make export of food practicable and profitable. Indeed, in pure financial terms, the Tasmanian agri-food sector contributed AUD$3.95 billion in retail and food services sales, AUD$3.05 billion in interstate sales and AUD$0.77 billion in sales of overseas exports in 2018–19 , and the Tasmanian govenerment has a target of annual farm value of AUD$10 B by 2050 . From the perspective of government and industry, there would be little practicality in moving from an export-heavy to local-only food market. However, this study supports the findings of previous studies [45, 46] that suggest that making local produce more available in conjunction with better consumer education via improved provenance labelling and seasonality awareness could satisfy desire to purchase local food without compromising exports.
It has been reported that food producers are concerned that a localised food system based on local procurement may not be possible as it is perceived that the local market is not profitable enough . However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, small cracks in the export narrative appeared, reflected in that 43% of respondents to The Tasmania Project’s Food Survey reported buying either ‘a lot more’ or ‘somewhat more’ locally grown produce, and a further 49% reported buying ‘about the same amount’ . The claimed change in consumer behaviour may relate to the fact that interstate supply chains were disrupted, and this change may have been forced. However, it might have reflected how local food producers were able to innovate quickly to meet consumer demand , demonstrating a degree of supply-chain resilience, signalling that opportunities exist for the growth of shorter, more local, supply chains. Some businesses were able to quickly innovate by employing digital technologies and platforms for producers to sell directly to consumers; restaurants switching to providing take-out and home delivery; and farmers markets converting from open-air to box-based supply schemes . Further support for local entrepreneurship and innovation, including social enterprise within this sector, may strengthen the local market for locally-grown foods.
In our study, consumers perceived those businesses who focussed on local needs were better off during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. This approach contrasts strategies of building food systems resilience following the COVID-19 pandemic in international literature, whereby it has been suggested that export and trade of food “must be uninterrupted and even facilitated” through international cooperation . Replacing imports with domestic production may be a high-cost option of maintaining the food system in the longer-term , so the Government and producers might consider the balance between strengthening institutions that govern international trade or reversing the impacts of globalisation on their food systems . Continued support by consumers for locally grown produce would assist with strengthening the local market, especially if food exports and international markets continue to be disrupted by pandemics and natural disasters.
Cheap versus luxury food
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state was well connected to markets via sea and air, enabling ‘luxury’ foods to flow outwards and ‘cheap’ food, inwards. However, the pandemic interfered with these established trade relationships, at least in the short term, due to unpredictable travel restrictions and quarantine regulations within Australia and in major trading partner countries . Sectors impacted included seafood, red meat, and wine, which are among Tasmania’s biggest food exports. One paradoxical effect of this was that outward-bound luxury food items, including crayfish typically out of reach for many Tasmanians, were redirected for sale locally at heavily discounted prices . This both benefitted consumers and kept many small businesses afloat , indicating the strong local support of consumers for Tasmanian produce. Consumers in our study suggested that food producers could continue this supply of local affordable food while also diversifying supply. As Tasmanian previous research has identified that the most substantial barrier to consuming locally-grown produce is high price and limited seasonal availability, the identified problems are not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic . A challenge for food producers and consumers in the future is to work out a way to overcome these tensions between price, variety and locality . Conceivably, however, the steadily rising background demand for locally grown food  coupled with heightened awareness and pandemic-induced concerns among consumers over the operation of conventional, industrialized food systems could contribute to the development of a stronger local market.
Supermarkets versus alternative food outlets
In our study, consumers reported being somewhat concerned about the reliance on major supermarkets within a globalised food system, and perceived that re-localisation of the food supply chain and the development of alternative agri-food networks would be central to building resilience against future disasters . As elsewhere, consumers in our study tended to have very positive associations with local and small-scale farming ; however, similar to work prior to the pandemic, they reported difficulty identifying locally-grown produce, especially when sold through supermarket chains, due to a lack of clear provenance labelling .
Consumers in our study appeared to be aware of trade-offs concerning these competing preferences. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most consumers identified that they had sought locally grown foods from independent supermarkets (75%) and major supermarkets (65%), indicating that even for consumers who would like strong local food systems, trade-offs occur between wider concerns of the food system and the pragmatics of shopping for food . Consumers in our study argued that supermarkets could further prioritize locally-grown produce for sale. However, supermarket retailers are not perceived as advocating for and supporting shorter food-supply chains via local procurement strategies. A finding of our study is that supermarkets have a clear opportunity to capitalize on the strong local-food movement by championing “buy local” campaigns. However, the efficacy of any such campaign would depend on unambiguous and agreed multi-stakeholder understandings of what ‘local’ means as otherwise there would be many options for ‘local-washing’, an equivalent to the more common ‘green-washing’ that occurs with environmental and sustainability reporting .
Supply chain transparency
Generally, consumers are increasingly aware of conventional food production processes and are concerned about their food choices . Results from our study suggest that respondents were somewhat knowledgeable about the Australian food system, and some were aware of challenges faced by the industry. However, the complexity and anonymity of food supply chains is still increasing and consumers in our study desired more transparency in the food production process in order to be empowered to make appropriate food choices that build resilience in local food systems . This finding aligns with a study of Australian consumer perceptions of the food system that showed 93% of respondents believed consumer’s lack an awareness and understanding of the food system, but there is growing public and political awareness and support for healthy food environment .
Consumers in our study identified that developing strong networks for advice, information distribution and sharing between producers and food system stakeholders—that is greater transparency—would be a strategy to build resilience and sustainability, which is supported by literature . Strong networks of “foodies”–those individuals and groups promoting more local, healthy, seasonal, resilient and sustainable food systems—would facilitate supply chain innovation and contribute to achieving mutually beneficial goals . Previous research shows that strong regional networks with a shared strategic agenda are characterised by greater transparency leading to ‘food democracy’ and improved equity and access . When markets are disrupted, such relationships enable local producers to leverage community networks to find necessary inputs, including labour, and to escalate word‐of‐mouth and social media promotion .
A final major finding in our study was the perception that stronger contingency arrangements at a government and business level would be required to support access to food during future disasters. Contingency plans and mitigation strategies must allow a more rapid response to extreme events and transform the food sector by making it more resilient . Targeted policies would be required to ensure stability of supply, physical access to shops and markets, and economic access to healthy, nutritious foods . Consumers in our study perceived that the restrictions on panic buying at a business level were ineffective and inequitable, and therefore governments must develop strategies to control a quick response, rather than leaving it up to businesses with vested interests in selling food. Representative, multi-stakeholder crisis committees could be established to ensure adequate and full implementation of regionally appropriate strategies , and could assist in developing plans for handling local supplier and transport disruptions and continue the innovative work on service models that reduce consumer contact. Strategies that were successful at maintaining the food system during the pandemic, including new online food sales platforms could continue to be supported going forward. At the national level, a national food policy could encourage innovation and coordination between national, state, and local government levels to support food system systems that deliver healthy food across the population.
Some consumers in our study suggested that disaster preparedness might be enhanced if individuals and communities were more easily able to produce their own food, which would build resilience and improve food security [59, 60]. Positively, it has been reported that over a third of respondents started growing more of their own food during the COVID-19 pandemic . Interestingly, 40% of respondents who were food insecure were also growing more of their own food during COVID-19. Many new gardeners may need further help to develop their knowledge and skills to maintain higher levels self-sufficiency in the future. To facilitate this, further investment in education and training programmes is required as a state and national priority . Programs that develop food literacy and food systems thinking could be useful in building food system resilience and may allow the Tasmanian community to respond to the impacts of pandemics in the future.
Lastly, while not a major finding, we note that a minority of respondents in our study suggested that while there some issues, overall, they considered the food supply chains to be resilient enough during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because they did not run out of food, even if they needed to eat different foods than usual. Indeed, shortly after the survey was conducted, grocery store shelves were replenished as consumers reduced the volume of food purchases after initial stockpiling. Given the convenient nature of our study sample, this divergent view should be explored in further detail by future research to determine the extent to which food supply issues impacted Tasmanian households, and the extent to which resilience is related to an individual’s food literacy. Our previously published work shows there was a disproportionate impact on access to food and the availability of food for food insecure households during the pandemic . Therefore, while some respondents to our survey perceived that they were not substantially impacted by changes to the food system, some groups of vulnerable respondents  may have been under-represented in our study.
Strengths and limitations
The strengths of this study include a strong response rate for the open-ended question and the generation of rich and meaningful data that was amenable to thematic analysis. The approach enabled insights to be gained into how people interpreted the challenges of feeding themselves and their families during the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak—that is, to the meanings they attached to food, food insecurity, local food, food exports, and the Tasmanian food system. The limitations include that a higher proportion of responses were from female, older, and more highly educated participants relative to the Tasmanian population. For example, our sample contained 79% female respondents compared with the demographic profile of the Tasmanian population (51.1% female), which may be explained by the nature of the survey and that women reportedly manage most household meals in Australia. Additionally, our respondents were overall very highly educated, with 69% having a university education, compared with 16% of all Tasmanians that have tertiary qualifications. This limits generalizability of our study findings to the experiences of other demographic subgroups in Tasmania such as males and people from lower education or socioeconomic backgrounds. The results may also not be generalisable to other regions across Australia given the difference in public health restrictions and differences in food policy at the time of the survey. As such, inferences about our study should not be drawn beyond the qualitative sample. Collecting open-ended responses to the questions may have limited respondents to feedback based on the immediate information they are accessing. It is conceivable that our respondents may not have understood the question or had little knowledge about potential solutions to the issue, which may have limited our responses. Such surveys are usefully supplemented by more deliberative approaches to understanding individual’s preferences such as Deliberative Valuation and Q-Methodology . It is hoped that follow up studies may be able to incorporate these additional approaches, time and resources permitting.