Blogs / Sustainable farming policy

How short supply chains benefit everyone

In this guest blog, Julie Brown of Growing Communities discusses how for every £1 spent buying organic food through their Hackney-based veg box scheme, over £3 more is generated in benefits to customers, farmers, citizens and the planet.

Credit: growing communities

Credit: growing communities

These are the findings of our new report, a collaboration with the New Economics Foundation and Soil Association. It concludes that local food retailers who sell food from climate-friendly farmers generate a huge amount of value for the people that eat the food, grow the food and the environment.

We started this research project back in pre-pandemic times, so it inevitably got held up along the way and we’d almost given up on us actually finishing it. So, I’m really happy to have the opportunity to share the results.

An Evaluation of Growing Communities monetises our social, environmental and economic impact and shows that farmer-focused routes to market offer consumers a competitive and attractive product that generates multiple benefits for them in terms of improved health and wellbeing and reduced food waste.

The key points evaluated by the research include the following:

  • Growing Communities (GC) customers eat more fresh, seasonal produce and less processed food than they did before and they feel healthier.
  • GC customers waste less food by cooking from scratch and becoming more adventurous cooks.
  • GC customers feel more involved with their community.
  • Buying organic food through GC has a positive impact on wildlife, biodiversity and soil health.
  • Buying organic food through GC produces fewer greenhouse gases in production and distribution.
  • Buying food through GC allows local farmers to survive and thrive.
  • Buying seasonal and wonky food through GC cuts on-farm waste.
  • Buying food through GC creates secure, local, Living-Wage jobs.

In financial terms, every £1 spent with Growing Communities generates benefits worth £3.46 for the people eating the food; 32p for the environment; 11p for the farmers; and 7p for GC staff.

What Growing Communities wanted from the research was for it to confirm the evidence of our own eyes, to prove to us that after 25 years working to make the food and farming system more sustainable, we were – in our small way – on the right track.

Well, when the initial findings came through, Christian from the New Economics Foundation speculated that the short supply chain in the GC model was “more efficient than industrialised agriculture”. I couldn’t resist a fist pump when I heard that!

The type of farming we want to see

While I know there is much debate and disagreement about what “efficiency” means and whether it’s even the right way to be judging our food and farming system, I must admit to feeling a certain thrill that this study might show that what we were doing was better than the mainstream system.

But efficiency aside, I’d argue that what we want from our food and farming system is:

  • Climate- and nature-friendly food production
  • Decent and healthy food for all (fresh, seasonal and mainly plant-based diets)
  • An engaged, empowered, skilled (and decently paid) citizenry willing and able to feed themselves well

I believe this study shows that we are indeed delivering all of those things. And while we and the other Better Food Traders may be small in the grand scheme of things, I’d also argue that we do this a lot better than the supermarket-driven system, which is currently failing to deliver on pretty much all those outcomes.

Farmer-focused routes to market

I think it’s fair to say that many of us – particularly in the cities – are massively disengaged from how our food is produced and from the people that do this most important work. We just don’t see farmers.

At Growing Communities, we’ve recently started using the term “farmer-focused” to describe the way we work and the routes to market we provide.

The idea has two main elements to it.

First, we want to make sure that the organic and agroecological farmers we trade with get more, or in fact most, of the money in the supply chain. Farmers receive around 8% of the customer pound in the supermarket-driven system, while in our system they receive 50% or more of the customer pound.

Or to look at that from another angle, we pay our farmers 80p or more for a kilogram of potatoes, while the farmgate price is around 15p a kilo.

I gave this example as evidence to a National Food Strategy workshop I attended last year. I remember the Treasury economist who was there being appalled that we would voluntarily choose to pay more for something than the “market” dictated. I explained that we paid more so that the farmer who produces those potatoes can farm ecologically and pay their workers fairly and we are paying the farmer for the public goods they provide – that the system currently fails to reward – while also compensating for the fact that 15p potatoes do not reflect the true costs of producing them.

If we want more nature-friendly food production, we have to provide farmers with more of the money in the supply chain.

The creative potential of seasonal eating

The second element of farmer-focused is that we and other Better Food Traders work hard to help our customers and members to eat seasonally and to make the food that our farmers are best able to produce at any particular time of the year the core of their weekly food shop.

This is in the spirit of something the farmer and author James Rebanks said recently, “Our diets should be shaped by what works for the land.”

We help our customers see the creative potential of working within the limits that seasonality imposes on shopping and cooking habits.

This research shows that this is working – that people who buy food from us do eat more seasonally, eat more portions of fruit and veg and less meat, waste less food and appreciate and understand where food comes from.

As the report concludes, these changes bring them an additional £2.46 in benefits for each pound they spend, while enabling us to redistribute economic power to farmers, providing them with financial security to generate considerable social value for themselves and even greater benefits for the environment.

Yes, we are definitely on the right track….

Julie Brown is the director of Growing Communities, a community-led food retailer based in Hackney, London that runs an organic fruit and veg scheme and farmers’ market and is part of a national network of similar retailers called the Better Food Traders.

Join Growing Communities’ fruit and veg scheme or visit their Saturday farmers’ market in Stoke Newington.

Discover the Better Food Traders.

Read a summary or the full report, An Evaluation of Growing Communities.  

Sustainable farming policy: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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Julie Brown is the Director of Growing Communities and with a group of friends set up GC more than 20 years ago. Tired of simply talking about how to change the world, they decided to do something practical to make a real difference.

Julie Brown

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