Local food networks are under-recognised and poorly supported, according to a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
After a five-year research project ‘Mapping Local Food Webs,’ CPRE has suggested a range of practical measures that central and local government should adopt.
“It has drawn on 260 volunteers in different locations, 800 businesses and 1,700 producers," explains Graeme Willis, senior food campaigner for CPRE.
"We have talked to and about 3,500 residents including people at workshops and meetings and shoppers.
“It is meant to reflect their views and voices.
“The report shows that in the 19 locations we were able to study, food webs exist - some are stronger, some are struggling for various reasons, but they have an important impact on local economies, supporting jobs in outlets and at local producers around the towns.
“That is really important, especially in areas where it is hard to get new jobs such are remote rural areas. Those smaller shops in towns keep the town centre alive which is a really big issue at the moment.”
CPRE had previously done some work in Saxmundham, Suffolk and that showed there was a strong food web there, explains Mr Willis.
“We did not have any evidence of those food webs existing elsewhere in the country so it was important to get evidence for that and then some hard facts about what they contribute in terms of economic benefits but also social and environmental benefits too.”
The report: ‘From Field to Fork: The Value of England’s Local Food Webs’, found that across England local food outlets serve an estimated 16.3 million customers a week and that local food sales through independent outlets are worth £2.7bn annually.
Mr Willis says 400 small village shops are closing every year, alongside a “massive loss of traditional specialist shops in town centres”.
Local food’s role in supporting local retailers is undermined by the dominance of superstores and the multiple retailers.
“The impact of superstores and the rise of convenience stores run by the big chains is that they are more likely to be using national and international supply chains. The issue for town centres is the move of trade and food shopping out of town - smaller shops can’t compete with car based shopping superstores.”
Mr Willis said that while 77% of the consumers they spoke to did their 'main shop' at supermarkets, the smaller stores are still play a role in people’s shopping habits.
About a fifth of those local businesses including markets for their 'main shop'.
“It might be some of those people are really committed local buyers,” says Mr Willis.
Many shoppers interviewed were able to source around 30% of their food from within 30 miles
Identifying food that has been locally grown can be tricky, but local specialist shops such as the grocer butcher or fishmonger are much more likely to be selling local produce, even if it is not labelled as such.
CPRE wants the big supermarkets to set themselves demanding targets for stocking and selling local food “in ways which reinforce consumer awareness and trust”.
The report found that local food sales in 750 towns across England through independent outlets, including social enterprises and cooperatives, support more than 100,000 jobs.
Money spent in a ‘local’ food shop supports three times the number of jobs than at outlets of national grocery chains.
Mr Willis said that planning has a key part to play in helping sustain local food webs.
“Food needs to be higher up the policy agenda generally,” he explains.
“When I looked that the new National Policy Planning Framework there were only a couple of references to food and only a couple of references to farming, when we know that food is increasingly important issue in terms of farmland as a resource and food security.
“It seems food should be pushed up the agenda.”
Government also need to “lead from the front” when it comes to procuring local food.
More could be done to get local authorities, the NHS and other public bodies to buy local produce.
“The rise of out-of-town supermarkets and insufficient leadership from government over many years have left many local food webs under siege,” says Mr Willis.
“Action must be taken to support them, revitalise our high streets and local economies.”
CRPE has welcomed the government’s plans for a Groceries Code Adjudicator.
“The key thing is that the adjudicator has the power to investigate and is going to be given information by various bodies be that industry, businesses, NGOs and trade representative groups,” says Mr Willis.
“We are calling for them to have the power to fine and it may be about naming and shaming, because reputation is very important in the retail sector. I would like to think that the big supermarkets care about how they are seen and that will be increasingly important. That could be a major way to call them to account.”
So what can MPs do to make a difference?
“Talk to their local authorities and support local food in local plans, that is a really important way in getting involved in this partnership,” says Mr Willis.
“We hope action will spread from national government to local authorities and partnerships and then down into the community – it needs to work on all fronts.”
Recommendations from the CPRE report:
Government should re-examine competition policy to support retail diversity and the ability of new local food entrepreneurs to enter the market; develop national planning policy guidance to provide stronger support for a sustainable food system; improve the ability of the planning system to ensure the vitality of town centres, as Mary Portas recommended in her recent high street review; and provide strong leadership on sustainable food procurement.
Local authorities and other public bodies should form partnerships to develop food strategies and action plans; local planning authorities should update their local plans and include policies to support local food webs.
Businesses should work together to promote awareness, access, affordability and availability of local food.
Supermarket chains should set themselves demanding targets for stocking and selling local food in ways which reinforce consumer awareness and trust.
Community groups should develop and engage in initiatives to shape their local food networks – case studies in the report and CPRE’s local food web mapping toolkit offer a range of ideas on this.
Consumers can support local food through our shopping choices, asking questions about where food comes from, and how it is produced. Many shoppers interviewed were able to source around 30% of their food from within 30 miles: we recommend people try a 30:30 diet for a month and find out more about their local food.