In May 2021, my local council in Frome – a small town in Somerset – asked me to file a report around what producers we had in our area, and whether they could supply the town with more food.
It wasn’t long before this became about more than food mile anxiety. During the research period, empty supermarket shelves had exemplified some of the fragilities of traditional distribution, for example, and it became apparent that a more localised supply chain could help stabilise any future shocks.
But how? What barriers were between local producers and provisioning the town with local food? What standards could they meet? And could residents afford it? Each time I interviewed a key stakeholder in the local food system, or observer of it, they revealed a new challenge. Like how to revive interest in the farmers’ market; what could be done to improve the woeful food served in the town’s schools; or where to look for help during a labour shortage.
There were some common threads, however. Farmers either had no time or didn’t know how to get word out about what they produce and how they produce it. Delivery networks were disjointed and overlapping each other. And producers, retailers, and restaurants needed certain skills, but didn’t know how to ask for them.
Long before the report was published, clear courses of action started to appear, whether it was collaborating with a local agency to offer marketing support with help from the Lottery Community-funded Future Shed, researching dynamic procurement options that could collate produce from smaller, individual producers into larger and more efficient deliveries, or starting up a WhatsApp group for every member of the local food network from growers to restaurateurs to better share knowledge and expertise.
Across the country, actions and connections like these are undertaken by, or within, food groups local to their respective areas. Tamar Grow Local in South Devon, which helps locals grow and sell food under a co-operative, and the Bristol Food Network, which strengthens the connections between businesses, individuals, and communities in the area, are among the examples of a well-functioning food network.
To whatever degree can be realistically managed, and regardless of experience, I’d encourage citizens to embark on something similar within their respective town, village, or neighbourhood. Start having conversations with your local council, or failing that, start putting together your own group of individuals campaigning for more local, sustainable food, finding what connections are there, and helping make them should gaps appear.
Creating a stronger, more resilient network ultimately helps local residents have a better connection and relationship with local food – rather than passively buying from producers, for example, it can be an engaging two-way street of interactions from buyer to producers. It is also a good way to support food initiatives wanting to operate more sustainably – connecting a veg grower with a livery yard so they have a local supply of organic manure, for example, is preferable than them having to ship in bags of synthetic nitrogen.
Though a tiny town, Totnes’ example of this is among the strongest and easiest to follow. In mapping out the food web, a joint force of local initiatives was able to submit clear recommendations to local businesses, citizens, and authorities on how to strengthen their local food system.
Within the Frome Food Network – a citizen-led group which emerged from the research Frome Town Council commissioned to me – learning from examples like Totnes has helped bring to fruition such things as a recipe book focusing on seasonal, local produce for the lonely and isolated; a newsletter exploring the benefits – and obstacles – of local produce; guidance in stocking more local, ecologically-friendly products in stores; organising farm visits; and potential for a community cafe.
However, there will be limitations. Local food networks can at times be as vulnerable as national ones. Hyperlocal food often makes sense, but not to a point where it’s putting unnecessary strain on the environment.
Demand for salmon in Frome, for example, has sent our fishmonger to source via courier from Wester Ross, a salmon farm 600 miles away on the northern coast of Scotland that prides itself on sustainability and animal welfare. From an ethical and flavour standpoint, this is still preferable to salmon sold by the local branch of Marks & Spencer, known to be connected with pollution and disease outbreaks.
Though funding can be found for research support (ours from Be The Earth Foundation), there’s also the issue of who can commit to what might end up being unpaid work. In Frome, and despite months of researching and interviewing key stakeholders in the local supply chain, many of the questions we wanted to approach – such as what exactly locals understand by local food – currently remain unanswered.
For a town of fewer than 30,000 people, Frome has multiple successful ventures within local food – Chris Smaje at Vallis Veg runs a working model of how farms could function as small, diverse, ecologically regenerative societies; the town is home to the UK’s first community fridge; and as part of the South West Grain Network, Rye bakery is on the cusp of growing and milling their own grain for their bread.
Even though various other towns have examples like these to look up to, there’ll likely be significant problems in the local food chain that need solving. With authorities and so many of the conventional systems powerless or failing in that department, perhaps it’s time for people to shape their local food microcosm in ways they see fit. Sometimes all it takes is one concerned local citizen to step up and lead the way.