A 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.
‘Sometimes the best way to fix the system is to start a new one.’’
This is the opening statement on the landing page of the Open Food Network, which is working to create new and better systems around the world for distributing food. The aim is to hand back the power from large supermarkets to customers and producers. Open Food Network is an open-source online platform for buying and selling, designed for use by businesses and organisations producing and distributing fair and sustainable food.
The network provides a simple, easy to use and affordable platform for producers and hubs (i.e. markets selling goods from various producers) to display their products online, and customers can browse hubs in their area and order what is available for collection or delivery. Filtering by standards such as local, organic and is Fairtrade is available, and pricing is made transparent with costs broken down into what is going to the producer and other fees for handling, payment and delivery.
The network expanded into the UK from Australia this year and has since taken off successfully in Cornwall, Gloucester and Scotland. OFN is now looking to spread its revolution across the UK with Oxford one of its targets. Several businesses in the city have been keen to try out the platform, and are in the stages of setting up and trialling, with the main appeals being convenience for customers, ease of use of the system, a low-cost service, and the ability to provide a presence for producers that don’t yet have a website. As well as the functionality of the system, OFN has the added advantage of a wonderfully knowledgeable and enthusiastic support team, eager to help businesses develop and test their system in a way that best suits them.
My question is whether it is really going to draw my housemates into a new system and relationship to food? Or is it more likely that simply existing customers of Oxford’s local community markets and stores may see this as a more convenient option on a busy Saturday? Careful differentiation and promotion of the convenience of OFN is required in order to draw in those currently shopping at supermarkets, and make this work to the advantage of existing local food outlets, increasing awareness of, and access to, Oxford’s local food offer. In can also increase footfall to the markets with OFN collection point, with people picking up staple boxes and browsing the other stalls of local suppliers. So, is OFN the start of the new, revolutionised food system?
OFN certainly makes it easier for producers to get set up online, connect with suppliers and reach their audience from a new platform without the huge input of expertise and time that might otherwise be required. The OFN insistence on transparency also ensures fair prices for producers, and an increased understanding of exactly how much it costs to make a quality local product certainly contributes to a move away from the commercially exploitative food market. However, I am unsure OFN currently has the public profile to enable producers and hubs to reach customers that are not already making the effort to seek more ethical and environmental food produce, and the costs of good food are still high; offputtingly so for some, prohibitively so for others. However, OFNs real merit lies in reducing the bureaucracy between existing suppliers and retailers, enabling them to focus on doing what they do best. We believe that OFN is not going to create a new food system all on its own, but it could be one important jigsaw piece in the puzzle.