Urban Growing

A new food economy post-COVID: Building more regional-supply networks

By Sara Venn

Founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, Sara Venn, looks at how the city can keep the momentum going to upscale and increase urban food production, buoyed by how the good food movement in Bristol has turned itself into a response movement to support citizens during the pandemic.

This is part of a series of blog posts looking at how we can emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with a more resilient food system, each blog introduced by Going for Gold Bristol Coordinator, Joy Carey.

Joy Carey, Bristol Going for Gold and Consultant in Sustainable Food Systems Planning:

In my previous blog I suggested that there are five core principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system, to better see us through crises such as the one we’re now living through. The first of these principles was in building more regional and local supply networks. Unfortunately, Britain has led the way in Europe in dismantling its regional food supply networks in favour of centralised systems. For example, the South West used to grow a lot more fruit and vegetables in its small, hilly fields, but – over time – this has largely shifted to the East of England, where the flat, open, peat-rich fenlands are much better suited to large scale horticultural operations and machinery.

We’ve heard in the news in the last several weeks about the shortage of farm labour, and special planes chartered to bring in the highly skilled seasonal labourers from Eastern Europe. The government has called for a new land army, but even if a large group of people from Bristol wanted to offer their labour to farms in the region, there would probably be a lack of accommodation. So imagine if instead, as a city, we invested in productive market gardens located in and around Bristol?

High value, perishable fruit and veg are best grown close to their market places, and horticulture provides jobs. Such enterprises can also help connect those of us who live in the city with a way of buying food produced in the local region, as they often serve as market channels for other producers. The Who Feeds Bristol report estimates that 100% of well-used productive allotments in the city could produce around 5% of our fresh vegetable requirements, and that if we put our minds to using all feasible land in the city, we could produce as much as 15% of our annual needs for fruit and vegetables.

In this blog post, Sara Venn reflects in more detail on some critical ingredients required to increase urban food production (land, skills, business support, investment, understanding, committed and loyal customers) and reminds us that we all have a role to play.

Sara Venn, Founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, Chair of Bristol Food Producers and Trustee of Feeding Bristol:

Sara Venn

There is no doubt that over the last three months our city has pulled together its creativity, resources, skills and organisations to support our vulnerable friends and neighbours with food provision throughout this global pandemic. The list is encouragingly endless: from FareShare South West ramping up their provision to those in socio-economic need, to restaurants partnering with Bristol Food Union to feed workers on the front line of the NHS, or Bristol Food Producers creating an online platform to help find new markets for local producers whose restaurant custom dried up overnight, and the #BristolFoodKind campaign inspiring people to take action at home during lockdown. Our Bristol response has been extraordinary. Small community groups and cafés such as the Greenhouse Café at Southmead Development Trust have come together to find economic models to enable them to do more. The work of the amazing FOOD (Food On Our Doorstep) Clubs – a great example of partnership working – have continued and expanded, including employing new staff and opening new clubs. Local groups have formed or evolved to support the community, as citizens have had to self-isolate or shield. These actions have brought the city together, while we were forced to be apart.

The COVID crisis is far from over, but as lockdown begins to be loosened and we all adapt to our new normal, it is vital that we harness the energy of the food movement in the city. We must look at how we can push forwards to strengthen our local food system, increasing resilience and ensuring sustainability while continuing to support those struggling, fighting for food justice, and prioritise our local farmers and producers.

Although the increased demand for fruit and veg boxes, the uptake at local bakeries and the interest in a more local food system across the UK has been a wonderful thing to see, we now need to harness this enthusiasm and new-found recognition of the food system outside of the supermarkets. Sadly, many small producers believe that at some point the interest in their produce will go back to a pre-COVID level, so how do we encourage and facilitate people to continue their support of local farms, producers and shops, and therefore their local economy?

For weeks, the supermarkets struggled to recover from the initial ‘panic buying’ and increased demand for food in the home, which stretched their huge distribution chains to breaking point, and we still see some products unavailable today. Meanwhile, our small and local producers, from millers, to bakeries and cafés, pivoted their business models to ensure the products we would usually chuck into our shopping baskets with little thought, were available to us through more direct means.

At the same time, we have seen the interest in growing food in gardens, allotments, on balconies and windowsills rise to a degree not seen since the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign in 1940. Although self-sufficiency for most of us is an improbable dream, the increased interest in growing connects people with where their food comes from and generates an interest in how it is grown, distributed and sold.

So we must, as a matter of urgency, capture all this and create a food system that works for us and for our city. A system where local people can access healthy, affordable and locally produced food as the norm, and where they are engaged with their food, where it has come from and who has grown it. A system that ensures that skills are shared and that opportunities for learning around food are encouraged and increased. A system where communal eating is normal, and where communities meet and learn through sharing their food cultures.

If we are to increase the uptake of locally produced food, the first thing we need is more locally based farmers and food producers. In order to support more people to enter the farming world, we also need to provide opportunities to learn new skills and develop confidence and expertise. A Bristol ‘farmstart’ could be a space where people can learn about all the skills needed to be a successful small farmer, including business skills, understanding markets and different models. We know that there is an uptake in people interested in farming but everyone needs to learn these skills. Successful farm starts in Manchester, London and Devon have enabled local young people to find employment, learn more about food and start to contribute to a more vibrant local food economy.

For such an initiative to happen in Bristol, we need a new investment mechanism for local food system development that steps outside the ‘usual’ funding systems, allowing people and business to be forward thinking and brave. Imagine such a possibility: where we can all be a part of creating a local food supply network that will lead us into a truly sustainable future, whether as a customer, a producer or as an investor.

But – and here is the crux of it – while generous and visionary organisations help to create new innovative business and investment models, right now it is vital that we listen to each other and acknowledge the skills that already exist in our local communities. Many more of us already successfully grow food in our gardens, and together we can ask the City Council and the Allotment Committees to ensure allotments are productive and well used. No more empty allotment plots! As a city, let’s grow more food together, let’s learn from each other, share and celebrate the hidden skills that we know are there in communities, but that are rarely appreciated or acknowledged.

Another critical aspect of improving uptake of our local food supply comes from awareness. We all need to understand more about the connection between the food we buy and its contribution to climate change, and the loss of species and ecological habitats. Through our food buying habits, we can choose to support food production that supports nature as well as people. If that food is well-labelled or branded, it’s easier to choose. Bristol Food Producers would like to develop a ‘Bristol-produced’ brand, based on these principles of social and environmental care. Producers, shops, box schemes and restaurants can all sign up to a set of clear principles and promote branded products that are not just from within or close to the city, but are also grown without the need for harmful chemicals.

For this all to happen what we need is land, and an understanding of the importance of land in all of this future work. The city’s smallholdings, allotments and community gardens need to be dripping with productivity. We need to find a simple way for groups to use local land, whether that is in parks, around tower blocks, in new developments, or in those lost spaces we rarely even notice. Land within communities needs to be a real community asset that allows a community to have its own voice. Furthermore, we need to prioritise the search for land that could be good for food growing on a commercial level, and set it aside.

It’s important for these changes to happen under the context of ongoing social justice work, ensuring whole city engagement and continued engagement within communities. Empowering and resourcing communities to create their change, while supporting new food businesses across the city, must be the way to move us out of the reliance on the long food distribution chains that remove us from our food supply. Shortening those chains means that if there is a break in the chain, such as we’ve seen recently on an unprecedented scale, it’s easy to mend. rather than taking weeks to find the break before being able to mend it. 

Without a doubt, more community food growing and eating will bring people together, strengthen our communities, add resilience and allow the city to recuperate from the communal trauma of COVID. Now we just need to put the mechanisms in place to help the changes we’ve begun to witness lately endure, and see that dream become reality.

Sara Venn is hosting a free #BristolFoodKind webinar on Wednesday 3rd June, covering ways to make the most out of your space and growing economically. Sara is Founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, Chair of Bristol Food Producers and Trustee of Feeding Bristol.

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So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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