Picture1A guest blog from Rosie Eccleston, who undertook an internship researching local food business and food hubs with us last year. Rosie’s internship was supported by the Environmental Change Institute Sustainability Internship programme.

In a recent survey ‘The Value Of Local Food’, GFO investigated the current experiences of local food producers and buyers in sourcing and selling local food in Oxford. We also asked what, in their opinion, were the main barriers to improving the amount of local produce sold in Oxford; currently of less than 1% of Oxford’s food comes direct from local sources. (‘Foodprinting Oxford: How to Feed a City’, Low Carbon Oxford).

Of thirteen businesses surveyed all wished to source and sell their produce locally as far as possible, but the same trends began to emerge when we discussed what was currently preventing them from doing so.

One of the take home messages seemed to be that everyone is just very busy. In small food production businesses with just a few, in some cases a single, employee there is often simply not the time to do all the set up required to showcase the product to wider audiences whilst continuing to produce the high quality product to show off. Equally local buyers could not continue to deliver a quality food service and at the same time seek out and visit every local producer to source their ingredients. So there are wonderful local products that restaurants and retailers would love to use and sell but no time to be found in which to link up. Businesses are also attempting to be a jack of all trades – you can be a jam making wizard but does that mean you’re also automatically equipped with the skills to successfully market and sell your delicious conserves, balance the books, and manage all the food hygiene requirements fired at you by Environmental Health Officers?

Another theme repeatedly mentioned by both producers and buyers was cost. Several explained that a high labour and time investment results in a price that can seem unnecessarily expensive to customers who are unaware of the cost of production, particularly when contrasted to similar products in supermarkets, where the pricing is often not fair on producers, staff and civil society. This problem is further compounded by a lack of affordable space for production and processing in Oxford; many businesses were struggling to expand in order to meet demand and continue to produce a high-quality product at a reasonable price because they could not find the premises to do so within their budget in Oxford.

Enter the proposed food depot. GFO and Cultivate are currently working on plans to develop a physical food depot site in Oxford that would be a hub for processing and would co-locate complementary food businesses at affordable rates, partnered with a centralised local food ordering and shared delivery and collection service. The hope is that through offering lower-than-market rents and shared resources this would partially relieve the barriers of time and cost raised in the survey, enabling local businesses to expand and increase the amount of local produce sold within Oxford.
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However, it was also stressed throughout the survey that any centralised system should still incorporate the valuable face-to-face contact needed to build relationships between suppliers and buyers, and the opportunity to see, taste and choose a high-quality product and to make sure people can maintain the identity of their business and product whilst trading via, and sharing the resources of, a hub.

Businesses were particularly enamoured by the idea of the food depot as a physical manifestation of an Oxford food community that would enhance and raise the profile of local food. Many saw it as a platform to link up local producers and suppliers and showcase the full range of produce that Oxford has to offer, whilst others were excited by the idea of a forum for best practice, experience and resource-sharing providing the breathing space to think and discuss with others in a non-competitive, non-‘networking’ environment.

It will of course be a challenge to make the hub work for everyone, and be self-sustaining and commercially viable whilst sticking to the underpinning ethos of good quality, local food, available to all, and good for people and the planet. However, the repeated excitement and enthusiasm expressed by survey respondents about the proposal underlines the need and desire for a start to be made. We have just applied for funding to take the idea to the next level, and this research will feed into the case for support. If you would like to contribute to the survey, there is still time for your comments to be included. Please see: https://goo.gl/forms/zPRfPPGd3DdsCQYj2

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