It’s been over a week since the Suffolk Local food Challenge began and it feels like it’s received quite a lot of interest from the local media. My home hosted BBC Radio Suffolk for a local breakfast on the last Friday in August just before the challenge began, despite being given short notice I found that most of the ingredients needed for a decent cooked breakfast were already in my larder. Although I’m one year into a PhD in local food and have long been interested in where my food has come from I haven’t really been sourcing that locally for that long. When I found that I had most of the ingredients to hand for a thirty mile breakfast without even thinking about it the realisation dawned on me that my food sourcing had become overwhelmingly local since I’d embarked in last year’s local food challenge which had mad me not only think about my shopping habits but challenged me to act on those thoughts.
Breakfast with the local radio was followed up by a 2 page spread in yesterday’s East Anglian Daily Times all about the challenge and it’s launch on the 1st of September. It seems people (apart from myself and other local food types were keen to promote local food). The reality of the challenge though will be much harder for many others to swallow. It would be disingenuous to say that buying local is easy, put simply it isn’t. You not only have to think about what you’re buying, you also need to plan where you buy it from, a trip to Sainsburys or Tescos will see you walking out with some fairly light bags if you’re buying exclusively local. However as a veteran of last years challenge I would say sourcing locally is easier than you think and also cheaper than you think. Possibly the hardest part is actually making the decision to do it in the first place, once you have you simply plan your food shopping (and or food growing) accordingly. The temptation of convenient and cheap food is difficult for all of us to ignore and we are far removed from the consequences, be they on the land, poorly paid workers or our own health. The gap that exists between most of us and our food is not just geographical but cognitive.
A common response to health problems associated with diet is that people need to be better educated about food but the causes relate to circumstance not just our ability to understand food. Two snippets of last nights TV underlined this point nicely. First of all Jamie’s Money Saving Meals which tries to help us save money by using the food which gets thrown away. The rationale is obvious: If people had a greater knowledge of food they might be more capable of thinking of eight different ways to use that half a cabbage festering at the back of the fridge. True but have we really become any less educated about how to prepare food, popular media is swamped with articles and information about food and if that’s not inspiration enough we can have a recipe on our computer screen for almost anything in thirty seconds. This makes you wonder whether it’s a lack of cooking skill that’s to blame or unbelievably cheap food, throwing away half a cabbage might not be such an easy option if you’d just spent a more substantial chunk of your weekly budget on it. The wider consequences of squeezing prices down in an effort to encourage consumption were highlighted by Robert Peston goes shopping. The rise of Primark as a highstreet giant largely driven by price was a focus of the programme, as one shopper observed if you only pay £5 for an item of clothing then you don’t feel so bad about throwing it away if you’ve only worn it twice. So what are the consequences and who’s to blame the consumer for buying such low cost goods or the retailer for selling them? Well ultimately we’re all complicit and unfortunately we’ll all pay the price, unless we decide we’re not so sure we’re getting good value for money after all!
Last week the Oak Tree Low carbon farm played host to a TV crew from ITV’s tonight show, who were making a programme about Local Food. It definitely says something about local food that it is moved beyond programmes like River Cottage to a documentary show aired on mainstream TV. Could this be signs that local food is moving beyond the middle class niche that is often characterised as, and what does this illustrate. I think it is a little un-balanced to suggest that local food is purely a middle class niche, since show’s like River Cottage are also drivers of some fairly significant political campaigns to change some of the legislation around food and agriculture (e.g. The Pig idea and Fish Fight).
Yet there is still a perception that local food is only for those who can afford it. There is certainly some truth in this but we do also need to bear in mind the disproportionately low food prices (in comparison to the rest of this century) and the structural inequalities that create the gap in income in the first place. To think that the rapid industrialisation of agriculture and the commodification of food that has driven de-localisation of food is not part of the cause of such structural inequalities would be a case of not seeing the wood for the trees (see pig business for an interesting view on this). Some of the more community based local food projects are now starting to address issues of accessibility and helping to move local food beyond the farm shop or farmers market. At the same time supermarkets, ever conscious of customer demand, are starting to stack their shelves with local ranges. This does beg a question; if a supermarket could stock its shelves with local produce would we be happy to buy from them? To answer this question we need to know what we want from local food, do we just want food that is produced within a specific region. If so this doesn’t necessarily rule out food production that is not sensitive to animal welfare or the environment and could be on a large scale, not things you might readily associate with local food. I would suggest that people are expressing a desire for something very different to that when they buy local. If they object to industrial farming practices that create profits for large corporations it also stands to reason that they might question whether they want to source their food through giant corporate retailers that serve similar interests. This and other questions are definitely up for debate and it will be interesting to see the extent the Tonight programme speaks to issues like this, and if you want to find out – just watch ITV on the 12th August, 7.30pm
At the recent Food from Here Conference hosted by the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University, the first presentation by Moya Kneafsey raised the question of whether common European Union labelling for local food would be beneficial. Whilst the other presentations covered different dimensions of short food supply chains or local food they were all in some way related to this issue and the further questions it posed; what would a local food label convey, what is it that people value in local food and how might this affect the development of local food systems?
The discussions around these questions highlighted the amorphous nature of ‘local food’ and the need to understand the characteristics of local food systems that are considered to be valuable or valued. Whilst it seems that demand from the public for local food is increasing and interest from policy makers and academics is growing, determining the root of this interest remains difficult and there are many different models of food production that fly the local food banner.
The perception of local food as an alternative niche was challenged by various speakers, Damian Maye highlighting its relevance to the food security debate currently dominating the policy discourse. Typically food security is framed in terms of quantity and the need to produce more food, but this ignores the issue of access to food, sometimes described as food sovereignty or food democracy. The role of community led food initiatives in addressing this is potentially significant, particularly when you consider that the availability of food is far more dependent on unequal access or distribution than the actual quantity produced.
The ability of local food to challenge the systemic problems created by neoliberal agri-business that Tim Lang described as a ‘crisis of productionism’ lies in their potential to broaden access and democratize food systems. We might feel that much of what is termed local food is unattainable for those on lower incomes. However the rising food costs being brought about by economic and environmental crises (that have been driven by a Capitalist logic of intensive production at all costs) might soon start to reduce this price gap. More importantly we will continue to have very little way of influencing the price of food in the supermarkets. In contrast food production grounded in the local community might actually offer a more viable alternative and provide better nutrition for body and soul.
Interesting to see that the IGD reported and increase in consumer demand for British Food following a recent survey. The comments from the IGD’s Chief Executive, Joanne Denney-Finch, suggested that this increasing demand is linked to a desire for high quality food although price remains the decisive factor. The link between home grown and quality is a familiar assumption but the reasons behind this demand are more complex (Winter 2004). If it were possible to replace all the produce in the supermarket with home grown produce, one wonders how far this would meet people’s quality expectations amongst other considerations when purchasing food. If as Joanne Denney-Finch points out price remains the decisive factor to what extent would this consideration undermine any focus on quality food production – presumably to the same extent it does now.
Perhaps a bigger issue is trust, it seems likely that this is central to increasing demand for home grown produce. There can be no better example to underline the abstractness and the complexity of the food system than the recent scandal over horse meat. So surely it was no surprise that consumers turned to butchers as a more trustworthy food outlet and it seems probable that people feel that they can trust ‘home grown produce’ more readily than more far flung produce. However the problems highlighted by the commotion over horse meat seem more systemic and are not necessarily solved by turning to British Food. This suggests that we might need to think beyond production and re-evaluate the whole food system if it is to deliver quality food that we can genuinely put our trust in. Of course it might be that all we’re interested in is price, but if this is the case then we really need to understand is the real cost of cheap food (Carolan 2011, Guardian 2013).