The growth of the local food sector over the last 20 years has been remarkable. As we, this month, reflect on how Transition might scale up, what lessons and insights can we draw from the local food movement? A new film Local Food Roots, by f3 local food consultants cooperative and Sprout Films, with Joy Carey as co-producer and scriptwriter, is “both as a celebration of what has been achieved by an extraordinarily committed group of people, and also part of creating a more resilient future for our communities”. Here’s the trailer:
This beautifully-produced film brings together some of the leading figures in the local food world. Guy Watson of Riverford Organic Farm, who today regularly wins every sustainable food award going, recalls how his first organic vegetable box delivery was 30 boxes from the back of his car, and now Riverford distribute 40,000 a week. Nationally, 150 such schemes now deliver over 100,000 boxes every week.
For Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden, the route to promoting the concept of local food is not necessarily through talk of sustainability and the environment. It’s through obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease. She says:
“Good food saves the country a lot of money. The local food movement has to be one of the major focal points of public health in the future. We spend £6 billion a year in health-related costs. We need a reality check!”
We hear from farmers selling direct, from local food distributors, farmers’ market stallholders. We hear from John Hughes, the inspirational catering manager at Nottingham University Hospital, who took the decision to shift their sourcing so that 90% of food is now sourced locally, from the East Midlands, a £20 million injection of cash into the local food economy. “There’s nothing new about what we do, it’s just that it is in the minority right now”, he says. With the public sector spending £8 billion every year on food procurement, the Nottingham story offers a taste (as it were) of the potential.
“Most people would cheer us on for trying to invest their public money and their taxes back into the local community and the local economy”, Hughes says.
We meet Julie Brown from Growing Communities in Hackney who source from 30 peri-urban farms as well as running a series of market gardens throughout Hackney and a farm in Dagenham in order to supply 900 households with vegetable boxes each week and 1,500 people through their Farmers’ Market. “Small farmers are the basis for the kind of food system we need”, Julie says, adding:
“It’s not frivolous or niche, it’s actually fundamental to our achieving a sustainable food system in the future”.
George Ferguson (that Mayor of Bristol who takes his full salary in Bristol Pounds) argues that it really matters for people to understand where their food comes from. “We’re not going to feed the whole city in the way that an old city would. There are so many people now that that’s very difficult” he continues. He argues for support and encouragement for food growing across the city, looking for free land and making it available, opening up the idea of growing food in parks (“what a wonderful opportunity for people to learn about food growing”):
“I’m very serious about the importance of food for the local economy as much as for health. Local food is part of local culture”.
The film is an inspirational immersion in local food culture, with stories that cover the urban, rural, large and small scales. It brings together very skilfully the story so far of local food while also celebrating what has been achieved. But it is also clear that there’s a lot farther to go. As George Ferguson puts it, “This has got to get right into some of the poorest areas for people to recognise that the most economical thing to do is to cook well”.
But what does Local Food Roots have to tell us about scaling up? Guy Watson’s only thought on that is as succinct as it is insightful, “People need to get better at cooking cabbage”. But the film is better at posing a “what next?” than really exploring it in depth. As a film to show at a Transition meeting which can stimulate “what can we do here?” or “how best to scale this up?” questions, it’s the best I’ve seen. And at 35 minutes it’s short enough to be part of a larger event. But if you’re looking for a “where next?” manifesto, or a series of suggestions for how to mainstream local food you’ll be disappointed.
It’s Pam Warhurst who has the most to say on that subject:
“The local food movement has shown the way forward, a clear sign of where we’re going. Now the challenge is how we scale that up and how more people can have access to good healthy food. We are nowhere near where we need to be. We need to accept it’s still a minority market. And then we’ve got to try to persuade the powers-that-be, through our own actions, that you can live differently”.
For her, one key element of this is building bridges between schools and their surrounding communities. She also recognises the need to think more commercially, and to bring in appropriately-skilled people:
“We still need people who know how to grow on a larger scale, we need more alternative food outlets. But what we have ignored is the role that local food businesses can play in that larger picture”.
Sheila Dillon, presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme, says of local food, “it’s not marginal anymore”, and she’s right. The dazzling array of what this film presents doesn’t even touch on some of the really exciting larger scale projects, such as Capital Growth in London which has done a huge amount to mainstream urban food production with the support of the Mayor’s office, Joy Carey’s own excellent ‘Who Feeds Bristol?’ study and the Local Economic Evaluations produced by Transition groups in Totnes, Brixton and Herefordshire. The incredible work of the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme also doesn’t get a mention, nor their work improving hospital food. Clearly you can’t fit everything in a short film, but I’d have liked to be left with a sense not just that this needs to scale, but that there are places where you can see that process underway. It might also have been interesting to hear from young people coming in to local food growing or training to become growers. What are their hopes and aspirations? What do they see as its future and why are they doing it?
As Pam Warhurst says at the end of the film, “food is the focal point for changing the world”, and it would be a pretty hard-hearted soul who could watch Local Food Roots and not be left with a sense that something profound is happening to our food system, something which, we can only hope, has only just begun.