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Food Chain (North East) Company

A limited company working within North East Land Links

Region: North East
Type: Food chain distribution network
Legal/organisation structure: Limited company

Project history

Set up in summer 2004, the Food Chain (North East) Company is a food distribution network aiming to provide better access to affordable, fresh, and where possible, local food to disadvantaged communities across the North East. It sits within the wider North East Land Links project which works on a range of food, health and related issues within the region. This includes developing food-linked activities across the North East, dealing with issues such as public procurement, community food access, and food in schools.

The North East Land Links (NELL) project is a Countryside Agency (CA) sponsored initiative hosted by the Great North Forest. Originally entitled the Great North Forest Land Management Initiative the project was re-named at the end of 2002 as a result of its being moved into the CA's new Rural Urban Fringe programme.

The project focuses on the role of the countryside in and around towns, specifically examining the range of goods and services, both public and private, which might be provided for the adjacent urban population. In particular the project is interested in identifying opportunities for land managers to provide goods and services which achieve public policy objectives for the environment, health and social inclusion.

Aims

The Food Chain Company has been established by NELL to facilitate better access to affordable fresh produce but also with a view to gather information about the role and efficacy of community food initiatives in general, and food co-ops in particular. These include:

  • the effectiveness of food co-ops as a way to improve health - how important is the increased access to affordable fresh produce in changing dietary habits?
  • the sustainability of an integrated purchasing and distributing organisation
  • the effectiveness of different approaches to marketing
  • sustainability of demand - what fluctuations occur and why?
  • who is, and who isn't, using the food co-ops and why?
  • cost effectiveness
  • what are the incidental benefits of participation in food co-ops?
  • to what extent is it possible to increase the proportion of local produce sold through the co-ops, and what value does this have for the rural economy?

Activities

Current activities include the support and development of a distribution network to supply fresh produce to bulk food buying schemes (often structured as food co-ops). A project officer supports new food co-ops by offering advice on how to establish food co-ops, wholesale ordering and delivery services, training and development support. A large part of the work involves approaching people and communities who have an interest in food access and health, but who are not yet engaged in the network.

There are currently 24 co-ops across the North East region supplied through the Food Chain Company. The company has a unit at a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Gateshead from which most of the produce is bought. Local produce is preferred and where possible this is bought directly from local producers (currently vegetables and eggs). Produce is collected together at the unit where it is sorted and broken down into 'lots' which equate to bags. A co-op ordering 20 bags would be supplied with the loose raw materials to make up the 20 bags. The produce is then delivered to the various co-ops.

The project officer has established a Food Co-op Forum which provides an opportunity for partner organisations (Primary Care Trusts, community organisations etc.) to discuss issues such as complaints, operational procedures, and marketing. The forum also engenders mutual support and advice. The Food Link project officer co-ordinates with other agencies and organisations running support activities such as cook and eat sessions. There are also plans to develop recipe cards to distribute at the co-ops.

Financial/legal structure

The Food Chain (North East) Company operates as a social enterprise and is a company limited by guarantee. The company has been established with a separate legal status from North East Land Links to enable it to secure funding as required and to allow it the potential to evolve into an entirely independent entity if, in the future, that is determined appropriate. However the Food Chain Food Link Officer is employed through NELL. NELL employees three staff and there is no management committee.

Start up funding was secured from NELL's budget and Gateshead Council. Subsequently funding has been obtained from a number of Primary Care Trusts and this covers the current shortfall in income generated through trading. Total funding to date is approximately 20,000. This funding, with the projected income through trading, should cover the costs of the initial project. It is intended to run the company for a minimum of two years, and decisions about the future of the company beyond this point will be informed by the findings of the evaluative work.

Tricky issues

Funding for projects which cross geographical boundaries can be difficult to get from public sector sources. This is a weakness of the current funding regime. North East Land Links has elected to run the Food Chain company on a regional scale as this appears to offer the best chance to achieve economic security. Operating in a specific geographic location would probably afford better access to funding, but would reduce the likelihood of achieving adequate sales.

Indeed, for a variety of reasons there are problems with maintaining sales in the food co-ops. Maintaining sales is vital, both to ensure that satisfactory levels of income are generated and, more importantly, that the service provided leads to changes in peoples eating habits. The project is working with partners to develop a range of initiatives to try to increase and maintain sales.

The future

NELL's prime objective, is to provide information about the value of food co-ops as a way to improve health, the role of social enterprises in food access programmes and the feasibility and value of incorporating local food. One of the principal aims of the evaluation is to provide evidence about the 'public good' generated by the project. This evidence can then be used to inform decisions on the future funding of the Food Link project officer post.

Food Chain North East recognises that to operate as a successful social enterprise it will have to generate more income through sales and is currently looking to develop more food co-ops within the region, whilst also examining other potential avenues for marketing its product to its core 'social' market.

Bill Kirkup
Project Manager
North East Land Links
Design Works, Suite 33, William Street, Felling, Tyne and Wear, NE10 0JP
0191 441 4402,
bill.kirkup@necf.org.uk


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