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From Grower to Grocer: Building Community Food Systems

Across the UK the food sovereignty movement is growing. A budding plethora of networks are challenging the current corporate control of the food system and sowing the seeds of structured community food chains and holistic food economies.

What roles do these small food chains and alternative distribution networks play within the UK food sovereignty movement? And what further collaborations between the ground, the grower and the grocer are there to be cultivated and nourished?

Setting up shop

In 2001, a number of organisations came together to generate The People’s Food Sovereignty Statement which in part, calls for the development of “local food economies based on local production and processing, and the development of local food outlets.” Within this framework The New Leaf Co-op, a whole-food store and workers co-operative in Edinburgh, of which I am a founding member, is one example of a growing network of small businesses that are seeking ways to connect spade and spoon.

The New Leaf Co-op

Consumer and worker food co-ops, markets and online food distribution hubs are cropping up around the UK. Their aim is to satisfy an increasing demand, from both producers and communities of eaters, to make accessible fairly grown, fairly traded and fairly priced local produce.

Under a food sovereignty framework, these small-scale grassroot outlets prioritise working with equally small-scale growers and producers (both locally and further afield), independent wholesalers and co-operative food networks.

Getting to market

The food sovereignty movement advocates for democratic control of an agroecological food system by the communities who grow, produce, trade and eat food. Small-scale food economies cannot compete with agribusiness, supermarket conglomerates and the industrialised food system – nor does it aim to. Often unable – and in many cases unwilling – to meet the terms, conditions and pricing demands of supermarkets, co-op, hubs and online distribution networks provide a much more accessible and fairer way for small producers to sell their goods.

Edinburgh based Wild and Scottish are a group of foragers who head out each autumn to the beautiful sandy beaches that run between Edinburgh and North Berwick to pick the berries of the sea buckthorn bushes that line the dunes (a harvest that requires a skilful and prickly dance). A small project, they specialise in making sea buckthorn juice and only have capacity to sell their product on a seasonal and local scale. They do not have the resource or infrastructure to distribute large amounts of their product throughout the UK.

It is essential to be able to provide ways for small-scale producer initiatives such as these to be able to distribute and sell their goods outside of the dominant supermarket economy. So in tandem with the movement for access to land and farming and food workers’ rights, there is a need to drive forward the effort on building and collectively coordinating the increasing network of marketplaces to support and sell these goods.

Online food hubs

As well as co-operative stores and buying groups, there is an increasingly diversified number of online models and platforms aimed at small and local food distribution, sprouting throughout the UK. Using different software models to create online catalogues and ordering systems, these hubs are connecting producers and communities to buy, share and eat food. They are becoming an increasingly successful method for creating access to small food markets.

TNLC 14One example is The Food Assembly, a web-based network of communities where people can buy direct from producers, and producers can set their own prices for their goods. The Food Assembly claim that producers are receiving over 80% for every product sold, compared to the 15%-25% that most supermarkets offer. Because there are minimal staffing and running costs, the mark-up on products is low and the majority of each sale goes directly back to the producer.

Using an online database, producers can upload what’s for sale and members can order it and pick it up weekly from an arranged drop-off point. People working for a local Food Assembly coordinate these logistics.

Responding to and supporting this growing market, The Open Food Network, an Australian based non-profit programming project, has created an open source software program which can be used to create online catalogues and ordering systems. The network seeks “to develop and protect a commons of open source knowledge, code, applications and platforms for fair and sustainable food systems.” Co-ops and hubs in Australia, Canada, Norway, South Africa and the UK are in the process of starting to use this software.

The flexibility of having an adaptable online catalogue means that it is accessible and inclusive for the seasonal jam maker, crafty forager and local farmer to make their goods available on an ad hoc basis. This is different to supplying a store that has regular stock lines and which (for the most part) require consistency from producers and suppliers. It also means that a glut of courgettes from a hot summer’s week or a cancelled order for a crop of broccoli, do not go to waste. As the growth of these distribution formats increase, it is important to consider how these hubs can function alongside and in collaboration, rather than competition, with other food distribution models like food co-ops and small independent retail.

The strength of short food chains

The benefits of these various structures are numerous. While strengthening the local food sector, short food chains challenge the increasing corporate control of the food system and work to re-localise the food economy. They give a platform for producers to sell their produce direct and enable consumers to create a connection with the food they are purchasing and the stories, faces and labour behind it.

Building new models of distribution and access into a dynamic local food market economy has huge potential to connect the grower, the grocer and local communities.

To evolve this further, we need to explore to what extent these online hubs and alternative distribution networks have the capacity to offer a fairer price to farmers and producers on a secure and regular basis.

It is essential to situate the development of online, co-operative and community food outlets within a wider framework in order to consider how communities themselves are exploring and shaping what food democracy looks like and, how these hubs can organise in a way that creates positive dialogue as part of a resilient community food chain.

Photographs: Rob Bertholf and Dee Butterly

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