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Local Food – time to make some stronger links?

Chris Church reviews a set of workshops on local food and some lessons to be learnt

In the last two months I have run eight workshops around England for the Lottery-funded Local Food programme. It’s been an immensely satisfying process, not least because it has offered a chance to hear about and discuss around 120 excellent local projects – the people who have attended the workshops. It has also highlighted interesting areas for development and the ways in which ‘local food’ is developing and diversifying.

The Lottery Local food programme  ( has been a huge success with 463 projects benefitting. It has helped build and strengthen the UK’s burgeoning local food movement alongside other support programmes such as work by the Plunkett Foundation ( ), Garden Organic and the programme’s founders that include the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens.

So what does that ‘success’ actually look like and how do we build on it? Nearly £60 Million has been spent – in terms of the food grown this may be some of the most expensive fruit and vegetables ever seen….

But these recent workshops and a previous set earlier in 2012 have shown that it is about a lot ‘more than just the veg’ (the title of a recent report by the programme, on the website). People know how to grow food locally and are doing it more innovatively, in some surprising places, and increasingly on larger scales.

The real success (from my perspective) is about the people. The Local Food programme has stressed the need for social impacts and tackling disadvantage – something that more funding programmes could usefully do. One result has been to encourage more local growers to look seriously at their outreach and their potential social impacts.

This has led to a whole new group of projects that challenge the stereotypes of local food as a liberal middle-class concern. At our workshops we heard from projects engaging with single homeless young men, with poor health, with lonely elderly people, with children excluded from school and everywhere with those working to provide social care packages that involve food growing and healthy eating.  It’s hard to devise better win-win-win projects: Clive Booth, former Chair of Big Lottery recently said of Local Food that “Few, if any, projects bring so many benefits!”

Alongside this is the drive for financial sustainability. The Local Food programme has made all its’ grants: some projects have already finished and the last will do so in 2014. If the good work is to continue then many have to find new ways to get funding and provide a living for the staff. This is where the entrepreneurs are making big strides. There were plenty of innovative enterprises in evidence at the workshops. Some are selling food in all sorts of ways but there’s also those developing work on cooking workshops, in some cases for those who’ve watched the endless TV cooking programmes and want to do it for themselves. They may well be targeting a richer audience than those working on social care, but they are helping build what is clearly needed – a strong local food infrastructure.

And of course there are overlaps, and at the core of these synergies is making the best use of local assets.  Land is obviously an asset, and it is worth noting just how enterprising local projects can be in accessing steadily larger and sometimes less obvious pieces of land. The OrganicLea project in north-east London is the largest market garden in that city, using land that their council had decided was not economically viable for growing. But there are many other assets – the skills and determination in so many projects is one aspect, and it’s also about sharing of assets, whether that’s land, buildings, or simply mobile cooking equipment that can work with schools and also cater for a paying audience later in the day.  One of the most valuable outcomes of the workshops was more projects meeting and discussing how they could best cooperate to mutual advantage.

All this raises more questions about how we create a local food infrastructure that is sustainable in every way. It may be useful to consider a simple analysis, in terms of levels of income and levels of engagement:

The stereotypical view of local food, being purchased at a premium by well-off people is in the top right hand quadrant (3). Any project working here has two challenges: how to increase the engagement of the well-off in quadrant (4) who are not buying locally – a huge task indeed, while also making their food and services available to people in quadrant (2) who perceive that they cannot afford what they see as luxury items.

The second raises the need for effective engagement strategies targeted at lower income groups, but it is certainly the case that the first approach of targeting the well-off may be vital for long-term financial sustainability for any local project: these are the people with disposable income ready to spend on a healthier lifestyle and perhaps investing in creating a stronger community.

It is worth thinking about the journey we are asking people to make – a journey towards increased engagement. For those in quadrant (1) – low income / low engagement – the healthy eating, grow it and cook it approach may work well, but it will work best if it can also demonstrate the cash savings and the potential employment, increasing not just engagement but also income. Encouraging the journey out of quadrant (4) will need a very different strategy.

This does set some challenges: those who may be happiest building raised beds may not feel confident dealing with angry teenagers or explaining the basics of cooking to sceptical people on low incomes and poor diets. Similarly front-line community workers may have misgivings about how far the most deprived estates will react to muddy stretches of grass around flats being turned into growing areas.

But the evidence is now clear: it is happening and it is working:  the ways in which food projects are tackling exclusion are well shown in a short film on food and ‘personal capacity’ – watch it at and there are many more examples around the UK.

So where does all this go in a year that will see further cuts in local support? As a start, making best use of all local assets will be essential. This will involve sharing but can and should also involve local projects and enterprises working out how to trade with one another wherever possible.

All this in turn requires projects to know what’s happening around them. Local food networks and hubs are emerging but many are weak and poorly supported. Funding for such activity remains minimal, despite the financial and social benefits that can result. Those benefits may not be as obvious as those from planting gardens (or insulating roofs) but they exist.  In Oxfordshire the county council has funded a support network for over nine years so that there  are now over 50 groups and enterprises across the county working on food, low carbon issues and waste, creating jobs and livelihoods in many places. The benefits of this approach are now becoming ever clearer.

Co-operation will be a key success factor: the main case studies at the workshops almost all stressed the importance of finding the time and energy to get out and network, to make new connections and to find new opportunities.

There is support for the social development side (though it may not be easy to find), and the Plunkett Foundation have done excellent work on support for community food enterprises. Now there is a need for some proper support to enable the social entrepreneurs and the community developers to make the links, to support each other, to cut the duplication and to make local food a core part of any local economy.  But will the funders listen?

N.B. To keep this piece to a reasonable length I have largely avoided mention of specific projects: to see examples of what Local Food has funded check out:



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