A new way to live

This article was published in  Countryside Voice in the summer of 2012.

You might be enjoying your breakfast as you settle down to read this. Delicious as it may be, how much of what you’re eating today is produced locally? Your bacon and eggs might be British, but are they from a farm down the road? Such questions lie at the heart of a new approach towards nurturing our environment and enhancing our national food security.  

In recent years, issues as diverse as rising food prices, unemployment, failing farms and the decline of town centres have all hit the headlines. To different degrees, they are all the results of a long-term food strategy that is based on internationally sourced, mass-produced cheap food, much of which is sold in large out-of-town supermarkets.   As Tim Lang, the influential Professor of Food Policy at City University London, says   ` We currently have a highly concentrated, oligarchic food retail market which is owned by very big and powerful food companies and supermarket chains who dictate what, how and where the British eat and shop. People have ceded responsibility to the power brokers within the food system.`

There is, however, a way to tackle such problems, and that is to go local.  CPRE [Campaign to Protect Rural England] has spent the past five years mapping local ‘food webs’ by conducting meticulous research, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, in 19 different locations in England.  In June, it published its findings in a national report From field to fork: The value of England’s local food webs , which you can download from the Resources section of the CPRE website.   It makes fascinating reading.

The report defines a local food web as ‘the network of links between people who buy, sell, produce and supply food in an area’, while ‘local food’ is defined as that with ‘its main ingredients grown or produced within 30 miles of where it was bought’.   It found that local food webs are often under-recognised – yet where they’re nurtured, then can help create vibrant town centres and a thriving countryside. The dominance of superstores has undermined their important role, which in turn has led to the need to map food webs and moderate local planning to protect the countryside.  

Beverly Kinnaird was one of a group of volunteers who undertook the research for Ledbury, south-east Herefordshire.   ‘It was a real eye-opener’ she says. ‘I hadn’t realised how much locally produced food was sold here.   I became fascinated by how closely local food and local jobs are linked.

‘We were given step-by-step instructions by the CPRE. We started by asking shops whether they sold any local food, then we’d trace the products back to the supplier,’ Beverley continues.   ‘Some of the products were processed food and some were direct from farms.   I hadn’t realised, for example, that my butcher sold local meat.   Yet I’ve been buying meat from him for 40 years.’

As in many English towns, few shops in Ledbury publicised the fact that they sold local food.   ‘There is often a perception that local food is very expensive and that supermarkets are cheap, but this is not always the case,’ says Thea Platt, CPRE’s Mapping Local Foods Webs Project Manager.   ‘For example, in every location we’ve mapped, there has been at least one community enterprise.   These have taken a new approach to supplying people with affordable food.’  

Crucially, the report found that pound-for-pound spending in small, independent local food outlets supported three times the number of jobs than the outlets of national grocery chains, while it also found that money spent on local food recirculated within the local economy for longer. It estimated that it could be contributing Ł6.75 billion a year to local economies.

Ledbury itself has changed as result of the research. Last year, its 10,000 residents were divided over applications first from Tesco, and then from Sainsbury’s, to open large supermarkets outside the town. ‘Without our research, we couldn’t have put the case against them opening so clearly,’ says Beverly.   “Even then, the Mayor had to cast the deciding vote.’   He voted against the Sainsbury’s development. Shops now advertise local products more, and residents have formed their own Ledbury Food Group to encourage local food sales through initiatives ranging from farmers’ markets to food trails.

The CPRE report has highlighted many such examples of communities in action.   Thea says, ‘I’ve been working on the project for five years now, and it’s been absolutely fascinating and very exciting. On the one side, the doom and gloom of the effect of supermarkets is a reality, but the flipside is that there are signs of local food networks nationwide and some are flourishing.   It’s a lovely thing to see the diversity of producers and suppliers, and the produce available.   Despite the recession there’s been a lot of innovation.`

Helen Truman, the woman behind Plenty Provisions in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex is one of this new breed of innovators.   ‘We opened in May 2009 and, despite the recession, our business has grown year on year’ she says.   ‘The area was being regenerated and lots of people advised me against opening here, but it’s a great little place and just felt right.   What’s interesting is that we now have all sorts of really interesting, quirky little shops around us, and when we started opening on Sundays, they followed suit, so now it has a lovely atmosphere.`

Quality local food was part of Helen’s vision.   ‘We probably stock about 20-25% local produce in the shop.   I try to source as locally as I can, although produce can come from Kent and other parts of Sussex.   I provide an outlet for small producers and I think that can make a real difference when you’re starting out.’

Helen’s shop embodies a renewed sense of community that is forming where local food webs are growing.   ‘A lot of people really support local food,’   she says.   ‘They like to know how something like local honey is made and find out where it is from.   Quite a few customers tell us that they’d rather eat less of something that is really good quality, such as our local artisan bread, than more of something that is cheaper, but not as good, like a mass-produced supermarket bread.’

Local support has been key to other producers , such as farmer John Sherrell, who created a box scheme to sell his beef, lamb and free-range eggs from Great Prideaux Farm in South Devon.   ‘I had the idea 13 years ago during the BSE cattle crisis,” he says.   ‘All the surrounding villages knew that we’d never had a case and wanted to buy direct from us.’   About 80% of his sales are within six miles of the farm, but he stresses that it would much harder to do without the support of his local abattoir, which developed its butchery and packaging side, so that meat can be butchered and labelled to order.   Thus, his animals go from field to abattoir to cook, cutting out unnecessary food miles.

John says ‘One of the good things about a local food web is that it’s fairly resilient, in that if you’re supplying people with decent-quality food they will stick with you through thick and thin.   It’s been a tough time economically, but I haven’t lost any of my customers.   There is a great sense of loyalty.’ There is also the added benefit of understanding your customers, as he points out: ‘I know that I can sell X number of animals a year at a certain price, which allows me to plan for the future and gives us stability.’

One of the findings of the CPRE report is that online shopping will increasingly dominate how food is sold. Internet sales have doubled from 5.1% to 10.2% since 2000, and are anticipated to rise to 20% by 2020.   In theory, this could damage local high streets, but it could also be used to encourage local box schemes. 

Ginny Mayall, of Pimhill Mill near Shrewsbury in Shropshire has found that both have transformed her family business of growing and milling organic oats and wheat. ‘Box schemes have made a huge difference to us.   In the 1980’s when the supermarkets started to expand, we retracted our business to local trade, rather than sell to them,’ she says.   ‘However, the Riverford and Abel & Cole organic box schemes contacted us, and they now form the backbone of our business.   They gave us the confidence to re-brand and stay independent.

‘The internet has also made a huge difference to our business.   People like to connect with the person growing the food.   We’ll post pictures of the harvesting of the oats,’ Ginny continues.   ‘What’s amazing is that people are now starting to track down local foods.   One lady contacted us because she wanted to buy local food. She googled “ocal oats” and found us.’ 

Many would-be local food producers dip their toes in the water by signing up to Country Markets, an enterprise that organises and promotes events, such as the flourishing weekly market that CPRE’s research highlighted in Sheffield. Jane Stammers, Project Manager for Country Markets explains, ‘A lot of people want support to gain confidence.   It only costs 5p to join us, and we provide members with guidelines on everything you need to know, from how to get your kitchen registered for health and safety to public liability insurance.   We help members establish themselves in their own business.   Our ethos is that of a co-operative - you don’t have to do it on your own.’

Some members only sell their produce at certain times of year, such as when they have a glut of garden plums.   Others become dedicated stallholders, subsidising their household income by regularly selling a particular food such as Yorkshire teacakes or home-made chutney. ‘We’re now aiming to give our members another route to local markets, by opening a window for them to supply their local community shops, garden centres and farm shops,” add Jane.

If you feel enthused by reading about so many different sources of delicious local food, why not get involved in your own community’s food web by seeking out local products.   Quiz everyone from your local shopkeeper to the local publican about where their food and drink comes from and how it is produced.   It will not only link you closer to the land, but allow you to enjoy some fantastic English produce right on your doorstep.

Support local foods

1 Take CPRE’s 30:30 eating challenge: try to make sure that 30% of your food comes from within 30 miles of where you live.   Why not try it for a month and see what a difference it makes?

2   Ask in shops, supermarkets and cafes and markets for locally sourced food.

3 Grow your own food! You could get involved in a local Community Supported Agriculture scheme, or set up your own community enterprise.   Visit http://www.makinglocalfoodwork.co.uk for advice and support.

4 Map your local food web using the Toolkit in the Resources section of http://www.cpre.org.uk - the information could be used as evidence to shape policy and planning decisions.

5   Put local food on the agenda by lobbying councillors and your MP – if you care, they will care.





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