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Sustain / Local Action on Food

Selling food

Food boxesSupermarkets like to promote the amazing choice available to today’s shoppers, but a scratch below the surface reveals that our food purchases are actually now very limited. Many high streets are now deserted because of out-of-town shopping centres, or swamped by corporate chain shops offering identical products from Edinburgh to Exeter. And smaller independent shops offering good local food have become - often expensive - exceptions to be treasured.

Between them, the biggest four supermarket chains now control around three quarters of the UK grocery market, a development that is widely agreed to have had many negative effects on our food system and society. These include: environmental damage caused by excessive transportation and intensive food growing, high energy use in stores, more difficult trading conditions for small independent shops and subsequent food access problems, food and packaging waste, reliance on car-based travel and a predominance of unhealthy processed foods and limited fresh, affordable and local produce.

For more information about Sustain's work on supermarkets, see the separate pages on supermarkets, health and sustainability.

The long arm of the food industry is even reaching as far as our health policy, with food retailers and large manufacturers now controversially advising the government on its public health strategy.

But many consumers are fighting back, participating in local food initiatives. Their aim: to redress the balance, and help consumers and producers take back control over their food systems and rediscover the pleasures of shopping for good food. This page gives a glimpse of just some of the vibrant range of local food initiatives popping up all over the country.
These alternatives to the ubiquitous supermarket include food co-ops, community shops, box schemes, and farmers' markets.  Such schemes aim to supply more affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, organic food, or local produce, through making direct links with farmers or wholesalers, and many are run by community groups or local producers themselves.

Another model for community food trading is a community shop, which can describe anything from a from a mobile fruit and veg delivery van, such as the one run by Bioregional in south London, to a thriving commercial food business with ethical principles at the core, like Unicorn Grocery in Manchester. They can even be owned and managed by members of the local area, as is The Real Food Store in Exeter.

Box schemes have also successfully managed to claw back some market share from big business. There are several national schemes, including Abel & Cole, and Riverfood, and more local ones such as Growing Communities in Hackney, East London, one of the flagship projects of the local food movement. It is also becoming easier to cut out the middleman and access produce from farms themselves via organisations such as Farm Direct and online site Virtual Farmers’ Market.  Farmers’ markets are undoubtedly one of the biggest success stories of the alternative food movement, and have been responsible for reinvigorating the foodie scene in numerous towns and cities.  One of the most successful is in Stroud, which was crowned ‘best food market’ in the 2010 Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards.

Sections on this page cover:

To find your nearest local food scheme, see a list of local and sustainable food directories at:

Food co-ops

The co-operative movement may date back to the 1800s, but it has taken on a fresh lease of life in recent years, assisted by high-profile projects like Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York, and, more recently, The People’s Supermarket in central London.  There are many different takes on the food co-op model, but essentially food co-op and buying group schemes buy food in bulk direct from suppliers, enabling their members to benefit by getting good food at a more affordable price.  Co-ops can also be distinguished by their community involvement, not- for-profit status, democratic principles and wider social benefits, such as education or environmental.

Any organisation or group of individuals can start a co-op, as demonstrated by the myriad interesting, and sometimes unexpected, projects.  How about a co-op run by schoolchildren, like the Froots, Roots and Shoots co-op in Somerset, or housed in a university, as is the case at London’s School for Oriental and African Studies and York University 

Sustain, in partnership with several other organisations, is developing a range of materials, such as a toolkit, educational leaflets and marketing materials, to help food co-ops start up or build on their successes. Its food co-ops campaign also organises various events to enable groups around the country to share good ideas on how to create flourishing food co-ops.

To register your food co-op, or join a food co-op that is operating near you, by visiting  the home of food co-ops on the web. To receive the food co-ops newsletter, please contact


Food centres and food hubs

There are a number of different types of food hub and food centre that promote more direct links between shoppers and producers. Some have a physical building which acts as a hub for community activities around food, whilst others focus on providing a local distribution service for producers and consumers. Some process local food and provide cooked meals for the public sector, while others provide workspaces for small producers. Over the course of its work, the Making Local Food Work project is working with several such organisations to help them become more sustainable and economically viable, and to assess what works.

Case studies

The People’s SupermarketThe People's SupermarketIt might be on the site of an old Tesco branch, but The People’s Supermarket is no ordinary grocery store. This is a not-for-profit social enterprise, which founder Arthur Potts Dawson - the man behind the Acorn House chain of social enterprise restaurants - hopes will lead to a revolution in the way we shop. His inspiration, Park Slope food co-op in Brooklyn, New York, which opened in 1973, now has 14,000 members. In return for a £25 annual membership fee and a commitment to work four hours per month - on the till, shelf-stacking, cleaning - London’s shoppers will get a minimum 10 percent discount in the supermarket, and access to a range of 20 low-priced own brand goods. Produce in the People’s Supermarket is ideally sourced from within 100 miles of London, and failing that British, with some European produce. “British agriculture is on its knees and its decline has taken place directly as supermarket profits have shot up," explains Arthur. "Our potato farmer was being paid four pence a kilo for potatoes by a supermarket, which would then charge around 90 pence in the store, whereas we’ve agreed to buy for 16 pence, and sell our ‘People’s potatoes’ to members for 40 pence.”
Find out more on the People's Supermarket website.

Froots, Roots En Shoots'Froots Roots En Shoots’ at Buckland St Mary Primary School in Chard, in Somerset, is a food co-op project integrated into the school day, with strong support from teachers and pupils. The scheme offers organic vegetable bags to parents and the local community. Families order and pay in advance every half term, paying by cheque - the money is banked by the school. The pupils from years 5 and 6 sort and pack around 20 bags a week. School-grown produce is also sold, when in season. The project was initiated as part of a local food enterprise competition to support the start up a successful school healthy food business, involving pupils. The initiating group assessed local need and found a gap in the market for local organic vegetables. The project was supported and developed through staff commitment and gaining pupil’s interest and motivation. Somerset Food Links also offered advice and support with the co-op start-up. Staff and pupils at Buckland St Mary Primary School have run it for over two and a half years.
To find out how to set up a food co-op in a school, download a Food Co-ops Factsheet.

SOAS Food Co-opSOAS food co-opThe SOAS food co-op describes itself as ‘a new society with a pretty simple aim- to distribute high quality delicious wholefoods to ourselves (ie. students!) and the local community for cost prices’. Every week the organisers place a food order with a local wholesaler, and then spend the day hanging out, and scooping out grains from big colourful sacks to whoever comes their way. It sells rolled oats, red lentils, buckwheat noodles, bombay mix, brown rice, white rice, cloudy apple juice, dark apricots, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more, and almost all organic. It also places personal orders for people who want a lot of something or simply want stuff it doesn’t sell.
To find out how to set up a food co-op in a college or university, download a Food Co-ops Factsheet.

Scoop, York University Scoop provides students at York University with the opportunity to purchase ethical, local food at affordable prices. It is a non-profit organisation run by students for students who offer good food at cost price. As Geeta Koska who helps run the food co-ops says “ethical produce doesn't have to be an expensive lifestyle choice, you can just organise yourselves and enjoy good food”. The co-op was set up because the food outlets on campus failed to meet students’ basic food needs or desires, and the group wanted to offer a genuine alternative to what was available both on and off campus. Its main aims are to: supply sustainable, ethical, affordable food to students; enable students to have some input into where their food comes from; and have wider community engagement and dialogue.
To find out how to set up a food co-op in a college or university, download a Food Co-ops Factsheet.

Unicorn GroceryUnicorn GrocerySince opening in 1996 Unicorn Grocery has offered a wide range of local, organic, fairly traded and wholesome food to its South Manchester customer base. Unicorn has become one of the largest and most successful wholefood outlets in the UK, and was named The Observer Food Monthly's 'Best Independent Shop' and Radio Four Food Programme's 'Best Local Food Retailer in 2008. But ethical principles remain at the core of the business. Unicorn is a worker co-operative owned and run by its workforce, currently in excess of 40 members, which makes all decisions by consensus. From a turnover of £3,500 to £3.5 million, from 4 members to 50, Unicorn donates a steady 5% of wage costs to local and international projects relating to its Principles of Purpose. It also contributes to a tree planting scheme with a carbon tax to offset damage to the environment in the running of the business.  It recently launched a ‘Grow a Grocery’guide, intended to help facilitate the emergence of new stores run on similar lines. The guide is based on the model Unicorn has tried and tested since 1996, and walks potential grocers through all areas of the business, in the hope that it will make starting a new shop an easier process and help existing shops improve and/or expand.
Find out more on the Unicorn Grocery website, where you can also find a link to the Grow a Grocery guide. More detailed advice on setting up a smaller food co-op can be found on the Food Co-ops website.

Real Food Store, ExeterThe Real Food Store in ExeterTwo hundred and eighty six people are now members of the Real Food Store, Exeter, making it one of the largest community shops in the UK. They have raised over £135,000, the majority of which will be put towards refitting two adjacent shop units in Paris Street. The store, which is due to open in Spring 2011, is financed by community shares, a model of social enterprise.  This effectively gives ‘ownership’ to the local community who can elect directors, have a say in how the business operates and, potentially, see a modest financial return on their investment. In addition to stocking a wide range of local food and running a small café, Real Food will incorporate an artisan bakery, operated by local baker, Emma Parkin, and the first floor area will function as a venue for community meetings, exhibitions and workshops.
Find out more on the Real Food Store website. Expert advice on raising money for local trading projects through community shares can be found at:

Growing Communities saladGrowing CommunitiesGrowing Communities is a financially independent and profitable community-led organisation based in Hackney, North London. Over the past 10 years it has created two main community-led trading outlets - an organic fruit and vegetable box scheme (now packing over 1,000 boxes a week) and the Stoke Newington Farmers' Market, the only weekly all-organic farmers' market in the UK. Both aim to harness the collective buying power of the community and direct it towards farmers who are producing food in a sustainable way. For the box scheme, which supplies fruit and vegetables to 616 households across Hackney, potatoes and apples come from small farms in Kent and Essex and oranges come from co-operatives in Italy and Spain. Last year, 62% of the vegetables and 23% of the fruit came direct from local farms, while overall 88% of vegetables came from the UK. It never buys air-freighted produce or produce from heated greenhouses. It also runs several organically certified urban market gardens, growing produce – such as salads and leafy greens - for sale in its boxes.  The Hackney growing sites provide training for apprentice growers and volunteers. In 2010, Growing Communities also launched an exciting initiative called the Growing Communities Start-up Programme, offering training and support to other communities to help them set up similar sustainable food enterprises in their own areas that can also raise their own money through trading to subsidise urban food growing and support development of a more sustainable food system.
Find out more on the Growing Communities website where you can watch the Growing Communities video. And visit the separate website if you are interested in the new Growing Communities Start-up Programme.

Farm Diect logoFarm is a bi-weekly online ordering service that connects Londoners with 35 regional farms and food producers, allowing them to buy a wide range of produce from fish, meat and game, through fruit and veg, to dairy & eggs, pies, bakery items and juices, and sauces and preserves, all grown or produced in England, and mostly from the home counties. It holds very little stock, meaning that food is bought to order as part of its producers’ weekly visits to London. Twice a week, it makes round trips through Essex and Kent, visiting nine local farms, and collecting a wide range of products directly from them. Farm-direct’s core aim is to connect local customers with food producers, in a more direct relationship, as well as a providing a real understanding of not only where food comes from but who actually produces it.
Visit the Farm Direct website at:
Stroud farmers' market posterStroud farmers’ marketStroud farmers’ market is an award winning community-led initiative and well known as one of the biggest, busiest and most popular farmers' markets in the UK. It was crowned the UK’s best food market in the 2010 Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards, being praised by the judges for breathing new life into the community, as a place where people meet, catch up with friends and connect with local farmers and crafts people. Every week it serves up fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, plus cream, beer, wine, cakes and other treats, and cooked food to eat on the street. There is even a buskers' corner for extra vibrancy.

Software and web-based systems for selling local food

Sustain has been contacted by several organisations providing software and web-based systems to promote local produce, manage customer information and orders, and coordinate collections and deliveries.

Sustain is not able to provide an assessment of the merits of any of the following systems, nor do we advocate any one over the rest, but we are happy to list them here to enable communities to find out if any might suit their food enterprises. In alphabetical order, the systems we have received information about are:

  • Buckybox: "A digital operations team for your organic deliveries, automating your customer orders, billing, and logistics".
  • Craved: "curates small batch food and drink made in London. We deliver the most tasty independently produced treats to your door step."
  • FarmDrop: an online shop that allows customers to buy food direct from producers via a community buying group.
  • Fife Food Coop: "order and pay on-line, choosing from the selection of products on offer, then come to your local collection point and pick up your box of shopping."
  • The Food Assembly: "The online sales platform facilitates direct exchanges between local producers and a community of customers that meet regularly at pop-up markets."
  • FoodTrade (fka Sustaination): Helps consumers, customers and food producers "join the dots", send messages to people who match their searches, post offers, wants and seasonal specials, and allows producers to connect up to share deliveries and promotional activities.
  • Community Food Hub, free web-based software for small community-run and not-for-profit groups box schemes, developed by Transition Kingston and From the Ground Up, contact
  • Muddycarrot: A shopping website and directory where everything comes directly from businesses it supports, who source from their local area.
  • Netuxo: Sets up customised open-source software solutions for organisations. On the linked page, scroll for Colne Valley Food, for which Netuxo set up a shopping cart, twitter feed and custom graphic design.
  • Open Food Network: "a free and open source project aimed at supporting diverse food enterprises and making it easy to access local and sustainable food."
  • Stroudco: A not-for-profit social enterprise providing a wide range of local prduce at affordable prices, which has shared its model and open-source software for others to use and adapt.
  • Tamar Valley Food Hubs: "similar to a veg box scheme and online supermarket, based on a collection and home delivery system."
  • Virtual Farmers Market: "It’s a place where you can ‘top-up’ your larder with artisan items of food & drink, that you would not be able to find in any supermarket, then get them delivered directly to your door in one box."
  • World Three (contact page only), which has worked with clients such as London Farmers' Markets (LFM) and Growing Communities (GC) to integrate backstage data management into their organisational, website and membership systems (follow the LFM and GC links to see examples of this work).

If you would like your system added to the list, please contact:

We also think it would be useful for any enterprise thinking of investing time and/or money into software or other IT systems for their food enterprise to read a report on the experience of a pilot project (run as part of the Big Lottery funded Making Local Food Work programme. This looked at the benefits and pitfalls of installing IT systems that manage activities such as stock management, ordering, web-based directories and invoicing. The paper Information Technology and small-scale food organisations: Is IT a nightmare? can be downloaded as a PDF at:

To find your nearest local food scheme, or to register on a database that can help you promote your local food, see a list of local and sustainable food directories at:

Running a social enterprise

If you are interested in setting up a social enterprise trading in good, healthy and sustainable food, there are ways you can get help. For example:


Local Action on Food: The Local Action on Food network was run as part of the Big Lottery funded Making Local Food Work programme, 2007 to 2012. It has now closed.

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