A food network is born

Journalist Hugh Thomas helped unveil a local food network in his home town of Frome – here’s how he did it and advice for others to do the same.

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.

Community farming
 A close food network can cut food miles and enable a circular economy where different sustainable businesses can benefit from each other. Credit Frome Field 2 Fork.

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. 

Ian and Kerry
Local producers can benefit from having a closer route to market. 

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.

Community fridge
Frome is home to the UK’s first community fridge to help cut food waste. 

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. 

6 Comments

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  1. I am fascinated by this. Having just eaten my way through a super market curry as a “reward’ for surviving on my own for the weekend, I realise that the bigger part of my relationship with food is basically that I eat too much and thereby could reduce cost and reduce weight. So I wonder about the fact that maybe we eat too much generally and seasonality could, if we got used to it, play a significant part in consumption reduction. One of the reasons we get a Riverford UK box is for that very reason. I remember in the late 80s there was a guy somewhere down towards Dittisham on the Dart from whom we could buy a box of 3 or 4 different apple varieties. I loved the Russets… until he found a wider more lucrative market and we never had them again – or at least that was what was told had happened. As I get older I must admit I don’t need complicated/complex food (OK, tonight was bit of a lapse) and more often than not ‘going out’ is a bit of a let down. So buying less and locally and being able to share with other folk is a good way forward. A question.. My daughter’s partner is really into this and his guiding factor is ‘everything required within 15 minutes’ which if you are town or city based is good… but ‘out in the sticks’? How would that work?

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    1. In an ideal world, each area (perhaps, as you say, within a 15 minute drive) in each UK region would be supplied by a food hub run or owned by the community. Even in very rural areas, all this could take is one member of the community to team up with local farmers. Who’d do anything for an alternative to selling through supermarkets — a recent Sustan report said 88% of UK farmers would rather switch to an alternate route to market. https://www.sustainweb.org/publications/beyond-the-farmgate/

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  2. Hyperlocal food is the path to starvation. One flood and you’re stuffed. And somewhere in the country somebody will get a flood.
    So we need surpluses and we need trade.
    And so we need incentives for those who can grow and sell their surpluses.
    As ever, it’s a question of sensible balance.
    And then there’s democracy.
    There are those who prefer to shop cheaply in a supermarket and have Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV and whatever else there is (have I missed any out? Oh! Murdoch’s old lot, Sky).
    Just as there are those who voted for Brexit. That went well.
    And those who vote Tory. That’s gone well too.
    I feel guilty about driving our 14 year old car more than half an hour (unless it’s on holiday), but we have a Chancellor who spews out CO2 popping off to his 3rd (or is it 4th?) pad in California. Can I force him to behave differently?
    I’ve got used to cooking with a veg box because I’ve learned from the Italians – have enough methods and recipes in your head (and a decent store cupboard) so that you can cope with what’s thrown at you (not literally – our veg man is much nicer than that). And eat only a bit of meat and a modest amount of fish (preferably not farmed salmon though – this weekend was hake and pollock).
    I think that’s a good thing. Others aren’t fussed.
    How gentle must persuasion be? Do we have to accept those who behave like Dorries and make decisions based on a total misunderstanding of the facts? Or can we apply blunt instruments to the wilfully ignorant?
    PS Mark Kurlansky’s book ‘Salmon’ is very good.

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  3. Robert John, why stop at a flood, why not add plague and pestilence? You are right in that this approach has risks, but can also have many benefits. Any kind of agriculture has always been at the mercy of the weather World wide, even Riverford. But sometimes lessons are learned and mitigations made. We too have had the 100% UK box for years now, and it is good to be aware of seasonality, of which many people seem to be unaware. I believe that food, nutrition and a basic understanding of agriculture/food production should be taught to children as a life skill. I volunteer for a charity that hosts school children on working farms, and the misconceptions about where food comes from are astonishing. I share your frustration with current government too, but I don’t think blunt instruments work, and I don’t like salmon.

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  4. Great article, thank you. I started what I thought would be a simple barbecue pop up last year and thought it would be easy to source everything from close by. I quickly found that it wasn’t! The point about food miles being only a small part of the picture resonates with me: there is so much more to consider that geographic proximity.

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  5. Hi Slothy Chef,

    What sort of problems did you run into? What do you think could be done to make it easier to help people like you source from local, sustainable sources?

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