Supporting local economies

The rise of the food retailing giants and the recent trend towards out-of-town supermarkets in Britain in the last few decades has been spectacular. The decline of the small-scale, local food shop has been equally dramatic. Garnett (1996a) notes that between 1976 and 1987, over 44 000 food retailers closed (31.2 per cent of the overall total) and that by 1988, 90 per cent of all food sales came from just 2 per cent of the stores. The closure of local food stores has left some areas, particularly those in poor urban neighbourhoods, without ready access to food outlets other than high-priced corner shop produce.

This process has led to some startling results; in the USA, a law has had to be passed in order to help feed its poor. Cook and Rodgers (1996) view the combined effects of food industry consolidation and ‘red lining’, i. e. the practice of supermarkets pulling out of areas where they see insufficient return and an unacceptably high crime risk, as part of a broad pattern in the USA. One in which low income consumers and small farmers have simply been by-passed by the existing network of agri­businesses, supermarkets and food manufacturing conglomerates. This problem prompted the devel­opment of a Community Food Security Coalition – linking 125 anti-poverty and sustainable agriculture groups, food banks, small farmers and other organi­sations. This coalition is dedicated to building alter­native systems of food production and distribution that are environmentally sound, socially equitable,

health conscious and which provide security through local control. This group has already achieved a notable success in the passing by a conservative congress of the 1996 Community Food Security Act. The act provided funding worth approximately $2 million annually, to qualifying coalition partnerships. This amount might not seem much when compared to a military expenditure amounting to $259.9 billion for 1999 (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Year Book,

2000) , but may none the less be an important first step towards high level recognition of the food security issue.

In Britain, there is nothing yet comparable to the Community Food Security Coalition or Act (see Chapter 6). However the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic charity, has been promoting the closely related concept of ‘Local Food Links’. This aims at strengthening local relationships between environmentally friendly food producers and con­sumers through a variety of mechanisms and out­lets. These include local retailers, farm shops, consumer co-operative schemes and vegetable box schemes. Following pilot research in the Bristol area, the Soil Association (subsequently re-named Sustain) engaged in a three-year project aimed at ensuring that local food link schemes exist in every town and city throughout the UK. Sustain aims to lobby local authorities and health authorities, con­duct local feasibility studies, launch an advisory service and produce a comprehensive directory of schemes nationwide. There is obvious potential for urban food producers to join local food networks either as part of this formal scheme or informally. Potential players include urban farms, larger com­munity gardens and local authority farms found on the urban fringe. Local authority farms were set up after the First World War to encourage new entrants into agriculture. These farms could supply produce on a significant scale and act as a springboard for new entrants into full-scale sustainable agriculture.

Urban food producers have some obvious comme­rcial advantages over more distantly located pro­ducers. Examples include ready access to markets for perishable produce that responds poorly to freezing and conventional storage techniques, and proximity to urban waste products such as waste heat. Imaginative schemes tapping this particular energy source include a tower block in Salford growing food on the building roof and a Sheffield project which plans to use excess heat from a steel works to supply an on-site market garden. This will specialise in higher value exotic vegetables for the local market (see Chapter 9).