Rosemary's Blog

What is the future of local food?

I have spent quite a while thinking about this, probably about 20 years, and every time that I feel I am making some progress in my mind and actions, something happens to challenge me.

In the introduction to 
A Feast of West Sussex (pub. Summersdale March 2014) I shared my joy that the local food scene is much more vibrant than 10 years ago. More people are engaged with and talking about sourcing and eating local food, especially in the context of mitigating the effects of climate change. Here in West Sussex, a major fruit and veg producing county, we could significantly cut our carbon footprint by over 20% if everyone moved towards shorter and more local food chains. Now that’s the theory and it is a good one, but what does it mean and how do we actually make that happen?

The shorter the food chain, i.e the less steps in getting food from the producer to the customer, the better and fresher the food should be and, of maximum importance to a taste junkie like me, the fuller and more exciting the flavour. Without a doubt, ripe fruits and vegetables, harvested at their peak and eaten as quickly as possible without long periods of chilling and refrigeration, will always taste best. Now this should be achieved through local food shops, but they cannot afford to be in the centre of towns where the footfall is and people don’t want to carry heavy bags of potatoes more than a few steps to their cars. Town centres are full of chains offering fat and sugar-rich snack foods for everyday eating - and we are all getting bigger as a result. Only places like East Wittering, Emsworth and, further afield, Ludlow, have all the emporia to enable people to shop locally for the majority of their needs. Local shops, unless convenience stores owned by major multiple chains, keep traditional hours and seldom cater for the commuting local resident in out of town, dormitory developments (expanded traditional villages). Farm shops are the fastest growing sector of the retail market, but where are they? Out in the countryside, often off the beaten track and with little passing trade. Perhaps now there are almost too many of them in some areas, all competing for the same custom? Consequently, soft veg and staling bread will not incite loyalty in shoppers trying to wean themselves off the supermarket habit. Most people shop where they are or happen to be and will not travel to get their food. If local food is to succeed perhaps it needs to go to local people?

I recently did a book signing in a beautiful farm shop and, on a Saturday morning, fewer than a dozen people crossed the threshold in a hour. I have been a deli-owner: my heart broke for my hosts as they tried to put a brave face on their embarrassment at my time at their shop. I had no wastage: I felt sorry for the three producers sampling their wares (and they were new and excellent products that I was pleased to discover, so that was good for me and hopefully them too) as they were faced with standing about and absorbing losses from uneaten samples. A quiet Saturday is bad news for everyone. Perhaps new click and collect schemes like 
FarmDrop hold the answer in our busy society for people seeking local food? They will collate whatever is available locally for customers, including cheeses, fish and meat as well as veg: it is a development to watch. The hiSBe supermarket in Brighton is also offering an excellent model of transparent ethical retailing, dedicated to the promotion of seasonal foods and it is hoped that they might roll-out their ideas more widely in the years to come.

Local food is also facing a crisis of identity. Never mind the ‘how many miles?’ question; for me the challenge is how to stop flavoured marshmallows and popcorn, and yet more cup cakes and bakes, assuming the campaigning moniker of ‘local’ and therefore by association good? They are riding on the back of our current obsession with baking and helping us towards being a nation of diabetic, sugar obsessives. Somehow we have to get people eating vegetables again, with small amounts of locally produced protein and fruits. Dairy products play their part too, and the latest debunking of the whole low-fat theory might enable us to get back to the satisfaction and enjoyment of whole milk as a fabulous drink for children and adults alike, instead of fizzy pop.

Supermarkets have their local foods sections but they are not in the right eye-line to lure us away from the brand leaders or own-label products: shelf positions are determined by turnover, both of stock off the shelf and product placement payments for eye-level positioning. Thus lower volume, local lines make good PR for the retailer but are well down their list of priorities in terms of marketing support, which the smaller producers so desperately need. The exception that I know of is the local 
Southern Co-ops, who are actively championing regional food in many ways, including a distribution system. However, with the main Northern Co-ops also opening stores in our area, confusion reigns as to which shops belong to Southern. I was excited when the Co-op opened in our village - local cheese, chocolate, ice cream and frozen yogurt on our doorstep, hurrah! - only to find, you guessed, it is not a Southern store.

So how can we create a healthy market for local food? It has to be driven by awareness, desire and ease of access for the consumer, and relevance and reliability to market, quality and profitability for the producer. It also needs Planners to be aware of the importance of local food to us all, in terms of health, environment, economics and happiness - and not necessarily in that order! With so much of our countryside under threat from housing and development, access to local food needs to be an issue for all professionals approving planning applications. This includes retail opportunities and also space for communities to grow and garden together, and for market gardens to supply those who want to purchase local produce, possibly linked to rehabilitation programmes for those with physical and mental health and social rehabilitation needs.

Whilst most of the debate in the coming days over the future of the UK and Scotland in particular is focussing on other issues, the Scottish Government’s discussion document 
Becoming A Good Food Nation shows a determination to address the complex issues of food poverty and awareness whilst celebrating fabulous food and drink within a culture whose appetite for both is often questioned and ridiculed. It is my wish that we might move towards such a discussion here. Whether that ‘here’ is England or West Sussex I do not know, but we have to get the discussion started.

If you would like to explore this subject more in informed company there are still a few places left for the ECCB local food forum on Tuesday, 16th September at Brinsbury College. Please contact Katherine May to book a place katherine.may@westsussex.gov.uk