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How Better Food Traders really are 'better'

How Better Food Traders really are 'better'

Julie Brown, Growing Communities (pic Ben Dwyer)Guest blog from Julie Brown, Director, Growing Communities

A new report from New Economics Foundation and Soil Association, based on a study of Growing Communities (our London-based food retailer) finds 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.

In fact, for every £1 spent buying organic food through Growing Communities, almost £3 more is generated in benefits to customers, farmers, citizens and the planet.

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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 actually finishing it. So, I’m really happy to have the opportunity to share the results.

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 Jaccarini from the New Economics Foundation speculated that the Growing Communities 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.

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 (a network of suppliers nationwide we work closely with) 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.

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Growing Communities Farmers' Market

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.

Copyright Growing Communities
Growing Communities Farmers' Market

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…

Want to find out more?

Read the full report Farmer-Focused Routes to Market at New Economic Foundation

Find out more from NEF about why community food systems should be part of the new normal.

Discover how short supply chains can benefit your business.

Get your box scheme listed so it’s promoted on our Box Scheme page for people looking for local services like yours.

About our partners

Growing Communities logoGrowing Communities is a London-based, farmer-focused food retailer that is reshaping food and farming systems. They run a veg box scheme and regular Saturday farmers’ market in Stoke Newington.

Find more about Better Food Traders, a network of suppliers nationwide who supply sustainable food grown locally.

New Economic Foundation logoNew Economics Foundation is the UK’s leading think tank promoting social, economic, and environmental justice to transform the economy.