Can local food move into the mainstream?

Local food brings plenty of benefits but is it a commercially viable option for the catering sector? Nick Hughes report.

As coronavirus tore through the UK last spring, local food systems came into their own. Research by the Farm Retail Association published in July 2020 found that 92% of farm retailers reported a significant rise in new customers since lockdown rules began in March that year. Sales of veg boxes soared by more than 100%, while research for National Butchers’ Week showed that 88% of butchers’ shops reported an increase in turnover during the first lockdown.

Some of this growth was circumstantial. But there was also a sense that the pandemic had exposed deeper-rooted issues with how our food reaches supermarket shelves and foodservice kitchens. “The impact of the covid-19 pandemic has been to highlight the fragility of long supply chains and, suddenly and alarmingly, demonstrated fundamental weaknesses in the assumptions underpinning them,” the Soil Association noted in a report last summer titled Shortening Supply Chains: Roads to Regional Resilience.

More than a year has passed since that discombobulating first wave of covid-19, yet there is little evidence that supply chains are settling back into a more regular, reliable rhythm. The added disruption caused by the end of the Brexit transition period – and in particular a crippling shortage of labour – has meant the threat of empty shelves and rising food prices has barely dissipated; in fact it may be greater than ever.

In this context, you might expect foodservice and hospitality businesses to be pouring resources into scaling up supply of local food and drink. Yet the tone from businesses at a recent Footprint Responsible Business Recovery Forum (RBRF) was altogether more cautious. Yes, there is a move in the market to enable more local sourcing; however for large operators in particular challenges persist around logistics, reliability and cost. “Making that change is difficult,” conceded an executive at a procurement company.

Defining local

The term local food is not easily defined and yet it is often used loosely to promote all manner of food and drink products. In a recent report that makes the case for greater sourcing of local food, the food and farming alliance Sustain suggested that local food is only partly a question of geography (an intensive, multinational chicken producer, for instance, could supply a nearby Tesco which could reasonably claim the product is ‘local’). Implicit in the term local is that food is also sourced from outside large-scale supply chains such as those designed for supermarkets, producers are paid a fair price, and labour is both well rewarded and rewarding.

Not all food referred to as local is necessarily sustainably produced, albeit there is evidence that a much greater proportion of local food is associated with agro-ecological or organic production methods, according to the Sustain report. Nor do organisations such as Sustain and the Soil Association advocate that all food is produced locally – both short and long supply chains working in tandem can boost overall food security.

For caterers, it’s about striking the right balance. The Sustain report profiles Leicestershire Traded Services as an example of local sourcing in action. The school meal service caters for around 35,000 meals per day. By working alongside Food for Life and Sustainable Food Places in Leicestershire it has been seeking to shorten supply chains by working directly with farms to grow to order, including involving suppliers in menu planning, trialling dynamic procurement in council contracts and engaging county council farms to grow for local communities. The result is that 33% of meat purchased is organic, 25% of fresh produce is organic and 70% of fresh produce is from either Leicestershire or adjacent counties.

Procurement dynamics

Leicestershire Traded Services remains an exception. Henry Dimbleby noted in his recent national food strategy for England that “at present, public food procurement is dominated by a small number of larger suppliers” leaving “little incentive for innovation and improvement”.

Dynamic procurement – whereby large public contracts are broken down into smaller chunks allowing local producers to submit bids to supply specific products rather than the entire contract – is one way of addressing some of that imbalance. A government-sponsored pilot of dynamic procurement is currently taking place in South West England and Dimbleby urged ministers to accelerate the roll-out and to use forthcoming updates to buying standards to encourage caterers to try a broader range of suppliers.

It may be that government intervention is the only way to persuade caterers to move away from the current model where the vast majority of food is distributed via international supply chains and purchased through large wholesalers and suppliers, to one where local sites can buy from genuinely local suppliers. Speaking candidly at the RBRF one contract catering executive said: “It’s very very tough,” to buy locally. “If fulfilment drops below 99% in a corporate site all hell breaks loose. It’s a romantic notion and we do bits of it, but the bits that we do are corporate flag waving for particular clients. They don’t contribute any real value into the supply chain in terms of volume.”

He did, however, reveal that the business is “far more advanced” in local sourcing in certain regions of the UK, notably Scotland and Ireland where regional supply chains are “better and further advanced”.

Moreover, there are signs that the tendency among corporate buyers to see local food as a value added but ultimately niche proposition due to the cost and logistical implications (both real and perceived) is beginning to shift. “Local has been something that people have talked about for a long time, but I genuinely think we are going beyond cost from a customer and consumer perspective,” said the executive at a procurement company. “Our current infrastructure doesn’t allow us to achieve some of those things in terms of significant [local] sourcing but local is here to stay and we are absolutely looking at how we can deliver that.”

Local food won’t become a foodservice staple overnight, but with the right combination of political will and business ambition, it might soon claim a greater slice of the sourcing pie.

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