The opportunity of local food networks
Joe Manning, The MJ, 31 May, 2013

From the days of ‘Dig for Victory’ to the modern obsession with ‘Five-a-day,’ food has always been at the crossroads of government policy and individual wellbeing. The on-going horsemeat scandal has again put the nation’s diet in the spotlight.

With public trust dented there is a growing consensus that it is time for a change in how we produce and consume food. To date, the majority of new thinking has been driven by communities and businesses and the focus has been overwhelmingly local. Wide-ranging issues, from civic pride, to public health, to economic and environmental sustainability, have been addressed. It is essential that local government find ways to scale these solutions for long-term impact.

In recent months, consumer trust in the food industry has fallen by a quarter and six in ten shoppers report changing their buying habits. International supply chains have been singled out for criticism due to their lack of transparency and authenticity. In reaction, food produced closer to home has been championed. Whether it is farmers markets, seasonal produce, or supermarkets stocking 100% British Beef, all are local phenomenon influenced by local tastes, networks and heritage.

In the vanguard of community initiatives is Incredible Edible, founded in the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden five years ago. The scheme encourages the cultivation of any available plot of public land. Food is grown at the health centre, the church and at the police, bus and fire stations. It has given the town a new sense of civic pride and is being rolled out across the country, from Lambeth to Lancaster. Another example is provided by the Casserole Club, which allows people to share extra portions of home cooked food with neighbours who might not always be able to cook for themselves. It uses a compelling mix of an online platform and offline engagement to bring communities together to eat and in doing so helps tackle loneliness and isolation. Albeit on a small scale, community solutions have changed the way that food is produced and consumed.

Charitable giving to such schemes has long been regarded as a way for the largest customer-facing part of the food supply chain, supermarkets, to invest in communities. By way of example, an Asda Foundation grant to the Watford New Hope Trust, which operates services for homeless and vulnerable people, led to the development of herb and vegetable plots on a piece of land donated by the local council. Morrisons has taken a different tact, working to educate school students on sustainable food. To date, approximately 26,500 schools have signed up to the supermarket’s ‘Let’s Grow’ scheme.

The private sector is also looking for opportunities beyond the philanthropic. Large food retailers, at times criticised for their impact on community shops and small suppliers, are now making localism core to business. Asda claims to stock 6,000 local food items in its stores. Since fuel prices rocketed in the late 2000s, the supermarket has worked hard to cut food miles and stocking local produce provides a means to this end . Waitrose champions local produce too. Notably, it has just announced that it will open ‘The Farm Shop, Leckford Estate’ in Hampshire this summer. It is expected to sell more than 1,000 products with a commitment that at least 40% of the range will come from within a 30 mile radius of the store.

The home-delivery of fruit and vegetable boxes, with many ingredients sourced locally, has also increased in popularity. This has provided new opportunities for SMEs, exemplified by Abel and Cole reporting sales growth of a third in 2012. But perhaps most striking has been Tesco’s recognition that it has to have a “new conversation” with Britain. The supermarket is looking for ways to serve communities, rather than simply offering promotions and price reductions.

Local food networks could be used to improve public health through supporting better diets or to help residents’ reduce the spiralling costs of the weekly grocery shop. Equally, food production and consumption has a direct impact on local economic fortunes. Jobs are created across the skills spectrum, from science labs to shelf stacking.

A number of councils are taking advantage of the opportunities of a more localised food supply. By way of example, Bristol City Council and the north London Borough of Enfield have both set out ambitious strategies that build on their unique strengths. All local authorities have the tools, from licensing and land, to planning and procurement, which can help make visions a reality. If these tools are coupled with catalysing community and business action, then local food networks could have a positive, sustainable impact on people and place.

In summary, consumer preferences are changing and the market is responding. Innovators vary in scale from small social enterprises to large multinational businesses but they all recognise the value of the local. “It could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion,” wrote George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. “Yet it is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognised.” Some front-running local authorities have set out compelling strategies for local food networks. It is time that others recognise this all-important opportunity.