Sunday, 03 March 2013 20:30

Local food webs

Local food webs

LOCAL food sales are strong generators of jobs, among other benefits, according to research reviewed by Brian Wilson.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has published a report called From field to fork: the value of England's local food webs. This is the result of a project conducted over five years, which recruited 262 volunteers to research and map the links that exist between the people who buy, sell, produce and supply locally sourced food.

With widespread concern over the loss of independent food shops and with the provenance of food now such a topical subject, this can be seen as a timely piece of work. Despite the popularity of farmers markets – some 700 are now operating – most of our food supply has become de-localised.

The CPRE report brings together findings from nineteen locations across the country – ranging from smaller settlements to metropolitan neighbourhoods – which explored the nature and benefits of local food purchasing and supply chains.

For the purposes of this research "local food" was taken to mean food or ingredients that were supplied from within a thirty mile radius of the place where they were bought.

The origins of this project go back to the work of Caroline Cranbrook, who in 1998 undertook some research on the value of local food networks around the Suffolk market town of Saxmundham when a new superstore was proposed. The recent CPRE report lays claim to be the first to gather strong evidence from across England about the scale and attributes of local food webs.

In the nineteen areas studied independent food outlets had a total turnover of £132 million per year. A surprisingly high proportion of this – just over half or £68 million – related specifically to local food sales.

Equally telling, this turnover created over 2,600 jobs (both full and part time) in total, with around 1,500 being attributed to local food sales.

Independent food outlets were found to support one local job for every £46,000 of annual turnover. A comparable figure for supermarket chains is around £140,000 (albeit this comes from a different source).

The report contains some interesting material on the habits and attitudes of shoppers. Unsurprisingly, supermarket shopping was a dominant feature in all locations, with shoppers citing convenience as its main attraction. Somewhere approaching a quarter of shoppers used independent stores for all or part of their main shopping.

However, a majority of shoppers claimed to buy some local produce. A wide range of reasons were given for doing so, but the most common were to support local farmers and producers, to buy quality products and to help the local economy. These indicate an intriguingly strong attachment to place. The main reasons for not buying local produce were its cost and lack of availability.

Independent retailers who were interviewed felt the level of service they could offer was critical and enabled them to build a loyal customer base. Those coming through the shop door valued contact with friendly staff who were knowledgeable about the products they sold. Indeed, many examples gathered show staff going the extra mile: for example, delivering shopping to elderly customers at no additional charge.

For food producers it can be hard to find local retailers willing to stock their products. The dwindling ranks of independent retailers make this an uphill task. Attending farmers markets and regular markets can therefore be a means to overcome such barriers, though in a number of cases market sites were not felt to be sufficiently central or prominent.

This CPRE report claims a range of 'softer' benefits for local food outlets. These include contributing to the local character of market or other town centres, acting as a draw to visitors and tourists, offering a means for local suppliers who are micro-businesses to reach market and creating better opportunities for product innovation.

One recommendation of note for market towns is that customers need to be able to meet the range of their shopping needs within a town centre if it is to compete successfully with out-of-town or internet competitors. The report urges local authorities and town centre managers to use planning policies, business rate relief and other measures to support a range and depth of retail services.

The report also floats the idea of local authorities forming partnerships to promote local food strategies and action plans. If any RSN members have examples it would be interesting to hear about them.

The CPRE report adds to the evidence that there are some important economic, community and environmental benefits to be had from backing the efforts of local food suppliers, retailers and their customers, making sure that this is not simply a niche market.

Separate reports are also available about the nineteen research locations and there is a toolkit available online for any community group wishing to research their own local food webs.

This article was written by Brian Wilson whose consultancy, Brian Wilson Associates, can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Brian also acts as the RSN Research Director.

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