Attempts to find solutions to the problems we face in the current climate of economic uncertainty, energy insecurity and environmental concerns can seem overwhelming. One of the biggest challenges we face is that of food security – leading food producers have warned that unless the UK urgently develops a food strategy we will be left relying on imported food and without a sustainable future for British food production.
But it seems more and more people are taking notice. Across the country, individuals are coming together to set up their own food solutions – from community shops and co-operative farmers’ markets to community supported agriculture projects and veg box schemes. In fact, their impact is so great that they are considered a movement, with community food enterprises springing up in communities everywhere, from small rural villages in Cumbria to the busy streets of central London.
Making Local Food Work – a Big Lottery Fund funded initiative led by Plunkett Foundation – has worked with over 1,300 of these enterprises, reaching out to over 3 million people. Jennifer Smith, head of managing the programme, notes the real shift in momentum over the last four and a half years of the project: “The community food sector as a whole has grown significantly over the past four and a half years,” she says. “But interestingly, it’s not just that the number of enterprises has grown; we’re increasingly seeing communities linking up different activities to create a local food system, with the ability to offer their community a much broader range of services.”
One example of this is in the Colne Valley, West Yorkshire. A group of four local enterprises passionate about their community have come together to form ‘Colne U Copia,’ a local food system that has declared independence from global and industrialised foods. The four organisations – the Green Valley Grocer (a community-owned shop), The Handmade Bakery (a community supported bakery), Edibles (a food growing enterprise) and the Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns group – have been working together to develop a food brand and trading system with the aim of increasing the amount of food that is grown, produced and sold in the Colne Valley, with the aim of making the area self-sufficient within 10 years.
Steve Smith, of Edibles, says: “Currently most of the food consumed in the Colne Valley comes from elsewhere; transported from around the country and around the world. The local community has little idea how it was produced, by whom, under what conditions, how it got to the local shops and who profits from it.
“Local food is the opposite; growers and producers are known, there is a confidence in the quality of the food, it is highly seasonal, buying it supports the local economy and above all it is nutritious and tastes good. Buying local also builds community and the networks within it – already the Colne-U-Copia partners are building social, economic and environmental capital into the local area through better and more productive land management, people shopping locally, increasingly vibrant villages (where people talk to each other when buying vegetables or bread), and making sure money is both earned and spent in the Colne Valley.”
And they’re not alone. Community innovators like the Colne-U-Copia group are increasingly realizing that by scaling up, they are able to offer a real alternative to high food miles and large carbon footprints. Their message is beginning to resonate with more and more people, culminating in an explosion of enterprises and mainstream media coverage – The People’s Supermarket, a London-based co-operative, was the subject of a Channel 4 TV series in 2011, and this year is being hailed as the Year of Co-operatives by the United Nations.
But importantly, the potential of community food enterprises is being picked up by policy makers too. Last year saw the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commission some research to explore the impact of community food enterprises in the South West of England, exploring models like St Werberg’s City Farm in Bristol and Taunton Farmers’s Market. And March will see the final Making Local Food Work conference being attended by a senior government minister and Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University. Prof Lang was a founding member of the London Food Commission in the 1980s which conducted groundbreaking work on issues such as food additives and the effect of food poverty among those on low incomes. Coining the term ‘food miles’ to refer to the distance our food travels before it reaches our plates, his work made a major contribution to the Food Safety Act of 1990 and the creation of the Food Standards Agency in 2000. In 2007 he was inducted into the Observer Food Monthly’s Hall of Fame, and his appearance at the largest event for community food enterprises is a clear indication of how far the movement has come.
“There is a challenging but exciting future for local food,” says Jennifer Smith. “We’ve already seen the significant impact that community food enterprises can have, but our task now is to work out what direction the sector will move in the future and how best we can support it.”
If you would like to add your voice to the debate on the future of food, join us at Making Local Food Our Future on Tuesday 20th March, a free to attend landmark conference that will see 500 people in attendance, making it the largest community food conference ever to have taken place in the UK. This event marks the culmination of five years of the Making Local Food Work programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, which has helped over 1,300 community food enterprises across England to reconnect 3 million people with where their food comes from.
Katherine Darling works for the Plunkett Foundation which helps rural communities through community-ownership and advice.
Co-operative Pubs – with around 2,000 pubs closing every year, your local may be in danger. Ever considered a community-ownership model? If not, then have a look at these case studies put together by The Plunkett Foundation: Co-operative Pub Information and Advice
Community Shops – There are over 250 community-owned shops in the UK, and 97% of those opened in the last 25 years are still open now. The Plunkett Foundation have published a set of Advice Sheets designed to support communities through the stages of setting up a community shop from the initial community idea, through to successful trading guidance for established shops. They are organised in themes to take a community through the background of each issue, provide advice and guidance, links to practical guides and templates, and signposts to organisations and websites for further information.