They say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Well, our food system is broken, and it does need fixing…fast. The cogs of the 21st century global food system turn, but are in need of (sustainable) oiling to help transition smoothly towards a viable and secure food future. The Real Food Store in Exeter, Devon, is helping to unstick some of the global food system problems at a local level.
Keeping pounds in the local economy should be something on everyone’s mind in these dark days of double dip recession. The importance of spending your hard-earned cash locally was something the New Economic Foundation highlighted in their popular book, Tescopoly, five years ago. It discussed the ways in which large businesses, such as Tesco, drain a large proportion of consumers’ cash away from the local area. They do this through a combination of low wages, loss leaders pushing out local businesses, largely employing staff on flexi- and part-time contracts, and centralised finances. Remember those cogs in the food system? Well these are reasons why it’s no longer running smoothly.
New UK grocery retailing data from April 2012 indicates that on average, food and grocery expenditure accounts for 53p in every £1 of retail spending and, despite recession fears over the past few years, the grocery market is still increasing in value. There are now 88,441 grocery stores in the UK, split into four subsectors: convenience retailing, traditional retailing, supermarkets/ hypermarkets/ superstores, and online. Of this the largest sector was, not surprisingly, supermarkets/ hypermarkets/ superstores with 9,192 stores and a combined value of £111.4bn. However, a mere 216 stores, and £1.2bn of this were through independent stores. Clearly, ‘The Big 4’ supermarkets have a stronghold on our food retailing system. The damage big-chain supermarkets create is multi-pronged and far reaching. Many believe that we need to work to correct their unsustainable and irresponsible behaviour. Stir recently got the chance to explore one great initiative that provides positive grease to the growing number of food system alternatives that provide us with sustainable food retail solutions …
A strange breed of cow has been residing in Exeter, a quaint rural city in the heart of Devon. It has become a local icon. This cow, or Blush as she was fondly named, is very special not only due to her colour (a lurid pink) but also for what she represents — The Real Food Store. The Real Food Store is a unique community-owned local food store, bakery and café, opened in March 2011. More than a year on and, through passion and commitment to continually emphasise the importance of buying local produce, The Real Food Store proudly represents the South West region’s food culture, and is an example of a practical local solution to our current food system failures.
The seeds that grew in to The Real Food Store were first sown back in February 2009. The idea emerged out of a Transition Exeter Open Space discussion entitled ‘How can Exeter Plan a Sustainable Local Food Economy?’ This highlighted to members that, despite Exeter’s central positioning in fertile farmland, there were no real retail outlets for local producers to reach the city-centre consumers — a common situation in towns up and down the country that have had their independence swallowed by the national out-of-town supermarkets. Exeter was a local food desert.
And thus, a team of seven members decided to action improvements to the local food economy. Three and a half years on this same dedicated team is still active; six of the seven members now sit on the Board of Directors for the business. The Real Food Store is not just any regular business — it is for the community, by the community, taking action rather that accepting what they are given. After months of planning the wheels were set in motion for this pioneering retail outlet. Its visions were to become:
• the primary artisan bakery in Exeter
• a food store stocking the best produce the South West can offer
• offer stock at affordable prices for the community
• a café showcasing locally produced seasonal ingredients
• a community arts/education space for use in relation to food and farming.
One of the initial great success stories of this venture was the community financial backing — local people saw the value in such an enterprise and were willing to invest personal money to ensure that everybody in the city had access to an alternative food retail outlet that supported local producers. By the end of September 2010, 287 members of the community had contributed shares, ranging from £100 to £20,000 in value. This totalled a staggering £152,776 worth of financial backing for the project and the dream began to turn into reality!
Today the store is busy with regular customers popping in for their daily bread, milk and essentials, and visitors to the area stocking up on local delicacies and offering their words of support for ‘what a great thing you are doing’. Many Briton’s have abandoned their native gastronomy and little food culture now exists upon our shores. There is an absence of regional food pride, as the entire country is blanketed in mundane meal monoculture. Supermarkets now shape shopping tastes, creating short-lived food trends. They source products globally, relying on cheap imports to stock shelves. This inevitably reduces the quantity of British food available, causing difficultly to buy British even if desired. Any good food movement is perceived as being elitist and inaccessible to most. This is an unhealthy attitude towards British food. Our mindset towards buying local and seasonal food should be reconditioned. Reminding consumers of the pleasure gained by eating diverse locally produced, quality foods and reconnecting with farmers and the land are all important aims. Independent shops, such as The Real Food Store, fighting against the supermarket trend for out-of-town shopping can help make high streets vibrant diverse places again, injecting regional character. Local food outlets should be at the heart of these independent stores, re-inspiring and educating communities about what is produced nearby and even increasing culinary tourism, bringing increased wealth to the area. Clearly, there are many social and economic benefits to buying from these small ‘indie’ stores, and The Real Food Store is just one great example of this.
The general reception and enthusiasm from the community has been positive, and whilst there is always potential from growth and improvements, The Real Food Store is on the road to being one of the country’s finest examples of alternative food retailing. It runs a thread through the local fabric of the community and ties it together, providing an accessible interface for producers and consumers to re-establish understanding relationships. The Real Food Store is an example of a successful local business that is fighting back against the multinationals, and truly cares for both its suppliers and its customers.
End Note: Since Blush’s recent retirement to the green fields with our farmers, there has been an overwhelming response from the local community airing their concerns for her disappearance. This lively icon has united local people together in a way that faceless supermarkets cannot. The store acts as ‘social glue’, bringing the community together. This is just one simple example of the great many ways in which this community-owned enterprise is benefitting the local people, and we would like to take this moment to thank the people of Exeter for all their support.
Megan Saunders has been working at the community-owned Real Food Store since it opened 18 months ago. She is passionate about supporting local food businesses and has combined this personal interest into her academic and professional career, working to promote the importance of supporting local farmers within her local community.