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March 11, 2009

Local food – better for everyone

As consumers become ever more conscious of food miles and where the food on their table comes from, growing numbers of food producers are starting to realise that their closest allies are also, literally, their closest customers. The Highlands and Islands Local Food Network is promoting the multiple benefits of going local and have just welcomed their 100th member

Local food producers make their case

Highlands & Islands Local Food Network are a group of food consumers, farmers, crofters, community groups, retailers and projects from across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who are working together to make fresh, locally grown food more available in our communities.

Why Local?

There are lots of reasons for choosing local food! Key reasons include:

• It supports the local economy. Purchasing locally keeps your money circulating within the community for a longer time. For example, for every £10 spent on an organic box scheme, £24 is generated in the local economy; by comparison; every £10 spent in a supermarket generates £12 for the local food economy.

• It supports the local community. Linking local producers with consumers creates a business link, but also has educational and social benefits, particularly in CSA arrangements. Members of CSAs often feel a commitment to the farm. This leads to understanding of issues and a growing awareness of seasonality.

• It tastes better. For the consumer this is often number one. Local food travels less far, so it can grow longer and reach the table faster – and therefore tastes fresher!

• It’s good for the environment. Reduced food miles mean reduced transport costs and fewer global warming emissions. Less intensive growing and production can lead to more biodiversity.

• It can allow choice in growing methods and pesticide use. Fresh, local organic vegetables are 40 times less likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues.

• Local food is a major way to support health and fitness. The production and transport of food affects the environment in which we live, and the food we eat is fundamental to our health and wellbeing.
Local food is not elitist! Individuals, families, schools and some other businesses want local, fresh food, but have difficulties finding it. This was highlighted in a survey carried out in 2003/2004 in various areas of the Highlands. The Highlands & Islands Local Food Network will show local people where to find local produce, and help local producers find this local market.

Good for Consumers

People who have found local food are usually enthusiastic:
‘It’s good to get proper tasting vegetables’ – a ‘regular’ at a monthly produce stall.

‘We look forward to our weekly box of vegetables, and the challenge to cooking with them.’

‘The children (and us, to be honest) are now discovering seasonality, and learning to base our meals around what is available.’

‘We always thought that fresh, organically grown vegetables meant far more expensive vegetables, but it doesn’t have to be that way.’

‘We like knowing where the meat is coming from.’

‘I’m willing to pay a bit more if I know that the money supports a local farmer, and not a supermarket shareholder.’

‘By becoming a member of my CSA farm, I’m able to have some say in the way things are grown and the range of produce.’

Despite the fact that most people surveyed would like more local food, over 80% of our food is purchased from supermarkets, and only 3% direct from producers. Yet few producers in the Highlands and Islands supply supermarkets for a number of reasons, and many find it uneconomical to do so.

As a result, consumers will need to change too. This means learning about seasonality, learning to accept vegetables in a variety of shapes and small blemishes, and learning to source some of their food outside the supermarket. Education is needed too – about the health benefits, and how to cook with what is locally available.

‘I’d like to buy local food, but it costs far more than the supermarket.’

This is often cited by people as the reason they don’t buy fresh, local food. Is it true?

The short answer is: sometimes yes, but often no.

Where there is a good supply of local produce, and when it is in season, quite often the supermarkets are more expensive. A study by the CSA Earthshare in Moray, did a comparison in September 2004 of prices, packaging and food miles between their vegetable box and a similar buy from the supermarket. Earthshare found that their vegetables worked out much cheaper – and they could supply a wider range than the local supermarket. Similar studies elsewhere in have also found fresh, local vegetables at the farm gate to be cheaper than the supermarket.

Supermarkets often keep their prices down by squeezing the local producers – and this is true throughout the world as well as here. Fair trade is an issue abroad, but it is also an issue for our own producers.

Good for Producers

Producers growing locally in the Highlands and Islands range from very small scale to large commercial busineses. Many have found it a valuable and rewarding experience:

‘The produce market is sold out by 2pm… we can’t keep up with demand, and could sell three times our existing production.’

‘We have expanded from 2 to over 30 producers and we are still nowhere near saturating the market….the market has expanded as we have expanded…people used to think there was no local supply so as a result there was no local demand.’

‘The CSA subscriptions are the most viable part of our business at present.’

‘Start small and grow slowly. Get the quality right and you will have long term members who really support what you are doing.’

‘Most of my neighbours will retire soon, and so will I…we need more young people in farming…Direct marketing what you grow offers a route to create a better income and a more interesting and fulfilling job. It’s a real job in the countryside.’

‘Most of my neighbours will retire soon, and so will I…we need more young people in farming…Direct marketing what you grow offers a route to create a better income and a more interesting and fulfilling job. It’s a real job in the countryside.’