The furore over Tesco’s use of British-style ‘farm’ brands has led to more attention being placed on local produce, and already the number of initiatives connecting consumers with producers is steadily increasing. Produce Business UK learns more about the resurgence of the local sourcing movement and some consumers’ apparent desire to move away from traditional supermarket shopping
As indicated by Shane Holland, chairman of Slow Food in the UK, demand is growing in this country for local food, alongside an understanding that what we choose to eat affects local landscapes and jobs, as well as cutting down on food miles.
“People are demanding fresher, tastier food and this is more likely if the food-to-fork distance is lower,” Holland says.
Moving towards self-sufficiency
In Cambridge, attempts are being made to minimise food miles as much as possible. Farmer and local resident Anthony Davison, who also heads up local food sourcing website BigBarn, has just launched a Crop for the Shop initiative to make the villages of Alconbury and Alconbury West as self sufficient as possible.
The aim is to encourage local farmers, allotment holders, householders and the village school to sell surplus produce within the village. The local school is already planning to increase its growing space by adding a polytunnel and container gardens.
And Davison is not alone – other locations have already expressed an interest in setting up similar schemes. “People are waking up to the idea of a better way of shopping,” he says. “There is a subconscious feeling that something is wrong with the supermarkets and the high profit margins that they achieve. Everyone is interested in the scheme.”
Although Alconbury school and its local people are already growing a small amount of food and vegetables – plus the area has a forgotten community orchard – Davison claims knowledge about food and its provenance is still lacking.
“The vast majority of people are disconnected with where their food comes from and they lack the knowledge and the will to cook with fresh, seasonal ingredients,” he explains. “The village shop has given us some space to sell local produce at 15% below the supermarket prices. And a local asparagus grower has already agreed to supply the pub and the shop. Others are interested in joining us too.
“The school, local people and farmers will be encouraged to grow and trade food so that everyone is reconnected with where their food comes from, cooks seasonal produce, wastes less and saves money.”
Within days of the initiative being launched, Davison received requests for information by other locations keen to set up their own schemes. This has included a shop in Lincolnshire and a store in London, which is partnering with local schools and people in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.
Supporting local suppliers
Crop for the Shop is a project that taps into the growing demand for local produce and local shopping, especially in rural areas, as a way to help maintain local community facilities. Davison has been at the forefront of this movement for many years. Some 16 years ago, he launched website BigBarn after discovering that onions grown on a family farm in Norfolk were sold for £120 a tonne, but retailed in the supermarkets for the equivalent of £850 a tonne.
The BigBarn local food and drink website was designed to provide a way by which consumers could be linked directly to producers in their area. It now receives over 3,500 visitors a day and continues to grow in size. There are over 7,000 producers involved selling over 14,000 products.
The BigBarn MarketPlace describes itself as the ‘Amazon of local food’. Users can search by product or by postcode to discover who’s involved within their local community, as well as special deals and discounts being offered.
Website partners include Pipers Crisps, Delicious magazine, River Cottage, the Soil Association and the Great British Food Festival. The intention is to promote the Crop for Shop scheme on the BigBarn website, creating newsletters and providing advice on best practice.
“We want to keep growing the links between the consumer, shops and producers/farmers,” Davison explains. “We have converted BigBarn to a community interest company and the profits go back into the business.
It’s all about community spirit, and trying to get as many local businesses involved. We also do deals with organisations like celebrity chefs and the media to create maps of local food producers for their websites.”
Getting access to local produce
A Defra survey in 2015 indicated that nearly 80% of British consumers believed that buying local produce was important – but only 30% managed to do so. Much of this is due to the fact that consumers are accustomed to visiting the supermarket for their shopping.
It’s also a matter of education – there is far less awareness of seasonality as supermarkets stock products like strawberries and asparagus on sale throughout the year, having sourced the produce from all over the world.
The movement does benefit from popular online delivery services, such as Abel & Cole and Farmdrop, which stress local produce. Other variations on local produce distribution and sales include the Stroudco Food Hub, which enables local shoppers to have local food and drink delivered to their door. With no retail shop, and no personal stock, costs are kept to a minimum. It forms part of a worldwide movement to improve food production and distribution, and it makes its software available for other communities to download free of charge.
However, the big problem for rural consumers wanting to use online shopping facilities are the varying broadband speeds. Some areas are, after all, still on dial-up systems and reception can be poor.
Giving produce authenticity
As Holland at Slow Food in the UK points out, an added advantage to these local initiatives is that it ensures the authenticity of the produce. “Projects such as these give a guarantee of authenticity – major retailers are using the words ‘local’ without consumers knowing what that means,” he comments. “For instance, Tesco is labeling produce with ‘farm’ names, which have turned out to be brands, as no such farm exists,” he comments.
Local sourcing projects therefore offer scope for long-term growth, according to Davison. “Crop for Shop and BigBarn offer massive opportunities for local businesses to connect with local people and develop local sales. It cuts down costs for everyone and delivers a fairer deal for farmers, local retailers, producers and consumers.
“It also helps to unite communities through food and the difference it can make. We are hoping that what we have started at Alconbury School and within the community will encourage more schools and local communities to do something similar.”