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What does buying local food do for the economy? [WFJ #5]

What does buying local food do for the economy? [WFJ #5]

If going local is expensive or inconvenient, wait ’til you hear the alternative

Hugh ThomasMar 2

Not pictured: confused consumer automatons

Frome’s abound with sentiments to shop in independent neighbourhood stores because it helps the local economy. But, especially as the cost of living escalates, what the heck does that do for you and me?

Like the National Food Strategy put it, ‘No part of our economy matters more than food.’1 To a large extent, the trouble is how it’s sold and distributed. Around 95% of groceries sold in the UK is through the top nine multiples – think Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Tesco, Co-op, et al.

Arguments for increasing money spent in local, independent stores include better prices for producers; supply chain resilience; local employment; and supporting local amenities in general. Even spending a few quid in a local store rather than a national chain can make a big difference – Totnes in Devon found that, if people shifted 10% of their weekly food shop out of the supermarket and into local retail, it would result in an extra £2 million to the local economy. The more money circulating in this way, the more is invested into public assets like schools, libraries, and social services.

This contrasts with the flow of money generated from food sales in a large proportion of instances, where low-paid workers generate obscene amounts of money that’s ultimately funnelled elsewhere.2 In fact, some of the biggest wealth disparities in the UK are found in grocery retail. Ocado paid its chief executive 2,600 times that of its average worker in 2019, while Co-op, the supermarket chain with the largest presence in Frome, gave its executives multi-million bonuses last year even after receiving £65 million in taxpayer-funded support during the pandemic.3

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Clearly the distribution of wealth needs to be reimagined, along with other assumptions that large business owners drive growth and prosperity from which their subordinates will, eventually, share the rewards. Rather, it’s purchasers who should realise their power, even on an individual level – The New Economics Foundation found that every £10 spent in a local food business is worth £25 to the local economy (compared to £14 at a supermarket), while research from the University of Gloucestershire revealed that for every £1 invested in local food, £6-£8 is returned in the form of social and economic benefits including health, wellbeing, and training.

This works even better when those businesses, and their staff, also spend their money locally. Burrito Boi restaurant, for instance, source their meat from Penleigh butchers, who source from small farms local to Frome. Even Burrito Boi’s stickers are made at Postscript; their signage from Frome Hardware. A 2019 review overseen by the House of Lords pointed out that local economic development should occur in these sorts of ways – locally driven from the ‘bottom-up’, supported by partnerships, collaboration, mutual support, self-help, and community leadership.

This is often best achieved within social, local economies. According to a report published in February, these social economies operate on a ‘reuse – share – repair – refurbish – remanufacture – recycle’ basis, rather than linear ones dependent on ‘take – make – dispose’. Closed loop systems by definition eliminate or minimise waste and surplus, because unlike linear models, they perceive waste and surplus to have value. Much like the way some local food shops in and around Frome turn food nearing the end of its shelf life into meals. Or the compost co-op Loop, which recycles nutrients from food waste back into the land to help grow more food.

The report also says food hubs – rather than supermarkets – are pivotal and well-placed to correct market failures like those relating to food waste, but also biodiversity loss, poor diets, and obesity. Not least in rural areas, where, ironically, it is common for people to be cut off from locally-produced food. County-level food partnerships – a network of food hubs, perhaps – can paste over these cracks, smoothing out the provision of food across a region.

Shall we start calling them ‘Wallfish Wednesdays’? No? Just me? Ok.

Bank branches, estate agents, bakery and cafe chains, and fast fashion outlets are contributing to high street homogenisation. Although some services are useful, like in providing far-flung produce (local should come first, but not always – no one wants to deprive anyone of bananas and chocolate), they not only strip uniquity from high streets, they have a tendency to deplete its social capital too. 

‘Strong local economies go much further than just providing ownership and distribution of money across local people,’ says Greg Barden, CEO and founder of Pixie, an app that rewards purchases in independents across Frome and other parts of Somerset. ‘They allow our communities to maintain or form an identity that we build a connection with. They provide common ground for people to come together to socialise and interact with each other to help maintain a human element to our everyday needs.’

Large, national chains are effectively mining local economies for capital extraction, which is stored or spent elsewhere. While the alternative is to spend money in independent stores that often don’t cost-cut, the rising cost of living is making it tougher to do so. But as Frome often shows, that money is more likely to benefit the local community. You also have to remember it’s not just us, but small business owners, also experiencing the squeeze.

Further reading / viewing:

The importance of food hubs in supplying towns with hyper-local produce [WFJ #1]

The rural social economy, community food hubs and the market

The Communeconomy: Joe Grafton at TEDxSomerville1


Supermarket labour is blighted with pitiful pay – on last count, 42% of supermarket workers were paid below the real Living Wage

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Butchers in the age of cheap meat [WFJ #6]

Butchers in the age of cheap meat [WFJ #6]

In 1990, there were 15,000 butcher’s shops across the UK. If the last count in 2019 still stands true, there are now fewer than 5,500. 

Rampant demand for cheap – but unsustainable – meat has not worked in the highstreet butcher’s favour. Recessions, foreign trade deals, and the current rising costs of living have not helped much either. 

The pandemic – when people had more time to cook from scratch and go out for their weekly shop – instigated a resurgence among local businesses. Spending on meat in British butchers rose by almost a third during lockdown, as butchers were regailed as ‘heroes’.

But, while anxieties surrounding the pandemic subside, those habits are curtailing, and shoppers are being lured elsewhere. One butcher local to Frome recently told me his business has dropped to “appalling” levels.

Perhaps this is just Darwinism in motion, or the way the free market works. If other options allow for meat that’s cheaper and more convenient to everyone, why should we bother visiting a butcher ever again?

It sounds counterintuitive, but a good high street butcher wants you to buy less meat. Overall meat consumption is at the point of excess, and as such large proportions of it are farmed in irresponsible ways, it’s driving the planet ever closer to disaster.1

“If you’re eating local meat from traditional mixed farming, without the industrialisation, that isn’t the issue,” says Owen Singer, who owns Penleigh butchers on Stony Street. “If you are coming to a local butcher, chances are their meat isn’t not going to be mass-produced – the carbon footprint is gonna be a lot less.” 

Butchers also appreciate that, in Adrian Cayford’s own words, “meat is expensive.” Adrian’s family has had the butcher’s shop on Catherine Street for 60 years. “When I started 30 years ago, people would eat it everyday. And then we got customers who’re not going to shop at the supermarket. They’re wanting to eat meat twice a week, and they’re going to eat better quality. And that’s where myself, Owen [Penleigh], and Nigel [H.E. Williams & Sons] get a score over the supermarket.”

Nige (H.E. Williams Facebook)

Meat, for what it’s worth

Supermarkets will win some battles for your wallet (whole chicken and steak cuts can come out half the cost, or even less, of what you’d spend in a butcher). But not all of them – chicken wings go for almost nothing in a butcher’s shop, thighs are cheap, and while the best sausages on a supermarket shelf will cost a few quid less, a fiver for eight sausages might not seem too steep when they’re made by the man who sold them to you, and from his own pigs (as is the case with Penleigh). 

Going for so-called ‘lesser’ cuts is also a good way to shave costs off the food bill. These cuts are typically from parts of the animal that, while they’ve seen more exercise and thus take longer to cook, arguably yield more flavour than premium cuts like sirloin, chops, or T-bone. “Beef skirt for frying steaks used to be the cheapest,” says Owen. “But chuck [£11.59/kg], slow roasting joints [£17/kg], and brisket [£10/kg] are relatively cheap. Even more so in the summer.”

As for lamb, breast (£9/kg) and neck are the cheapest parts of the animal, though the cost of lamb is currently at heights many working in the industry have never seen. “If you generally want cheaper meat, go for chicken or pork,” says Owen.

Though some prices can be high, butchers aren’t making a huge profit here – in most cases it’s about establishing a fairer price for the farmer, processors, themselves, and of course the customer. This means accommodating where accommodating is needed. “It’s all right if you’ve got the price per kilo labelled on your ribeye,” says Owen, “but if you don’t know how big your ribeye is going to be, it can be a bit of a shock when it hits the scales. If you haven’t got a lot of money in your pocket, I can see that as intimidating.

“The thing is, if someone asks for something and I know it’s going to end up expensive, I’ll tell them. If someone says it’s a bit too much for them, I’ll say we can cut it smaller, or we can move from ribeye to sirloin or rump. Someone might come in and point to a leg of pork and say, ‘but I don’t want all of that.’ and I’ll say, “It’s alright, I’ve got a knife. This is what a butcher’s shop does.’”

Owen on his farm (Penleigh Facebook)

(Not) going the extra miles

No one behind a butcher’s counter at the supermarket is able to tell you where their lamb was grazed, or the name of the farmer who produces their beef. If you want local meat, one of the few ways to get it is through a local high street butcher. 

“It’s a priority for us,” says Adrian. “We like that we can tell a customer exactly where it comes from. Our chicken’s from Castlemead – he’s the most local at Radstock. Our lambs come from John Gould at Withywood Farm in Cranmore. Our beef is from Howard and Sons at Manor Farm near Devizes. Our pigs come from a guy called Chris Hill at Wessex Pork. He’s our furthest away – he comes from the other side of Taunton. His abattoir is only three or four miles from his farm.”

That’s nothing considering the supply chains supermarkets use, where animals are often lorried up the country, then slaughtered, for their carcasses to be transported all the way back again.2 This impacts the welfare of livestock, where the longer the journey they have to take in a packed lorry or trailer, the more stress they’re likely to experience. This is why more smaller, local, abattoirs (which are dying out at a faster rate than butchers) are essential to obtaining local meat, and in supporting other local businesses – such as farms and butchers – that use them.

“The whole local thing is massive for me,” says Owen, who raises his pigs on his farm near Westbury. “We use Stiles at Bromham, and Stillmans at Taunton. The reason we use Stillmans is because the quality’s always very good, and the delivery times. The food miles may have crept up a little bit for us recently, but it’s still ridiculously low. It’s still all Somerset.”

As for Nigel at H.E. Williams & Sons, he mostly uses Creedy Carver just outside Exeter, and Stillmans and Prestige Pork in the Taunton area.

Popular restaurants a butcher makes

Do you dream of The Griffin’s fried chicken? Burrito Boi’s signature dish? Or maybe Hamper’s salt beef bagel? All that meat comes through Penleigh, and is virtually the same as what you’d buy from the Stony Street shop.

Penleigh is a rare example in that, when talking about farming pigs, they control every part of the process except the slaughter. This can have a markedly different effect on the final product, especially on taste. “When we went into keeping pigs, we started processing them ourselves and trying our own products,” says Owen. “As soon as I tasted it, I knew instantaneously it was better.

“Differences in flavour become really really really evident in pork. Because mainstream pork is whatever hybrid breed comes through. Whereas if you went breed specific – say, Middlewhite, Tamworth, or Gloucester Old Spot – they have a higher fat content, the meat is darker, and has more flavour. Any rare breed of pig like that has been bred for flavour over hundreds of years. Where, usually, it’s not about flavour – it’s about how quickly can you make it grow, or how little can you feed it.griffinfromeA post shared by The Griffin Frome Craft Pub (@griffinfrome)

“It’s the same with cattle – we found that meat from Hereford and Angus beef, from heifers [a cow that hasn’t calved] rather than steers or bulls, produce a nice marbling. These breeds don’t make you enough money because they don’t grow fast enough. But a lot of our customers have come to the conclusion that when the fat emulsifies, the flavour is incredible.”

Adrian, meanwhile, wants customers to be more inquisitive about quality and provenance. “Where we’re different from other butchers is we buy direct from farmers, so we know exactly what’s coming in. If you really wanted to go to town, we could tell you what breed of animal it was. But no one really asks.”

Where they’re often similar is in chicken – like Cayford, Penleigh sources from Castlemead, who rear their hens outdoors, foraging on insects and seeds in supplement to their feed. It means you end up spending the best part of £10 on a whole bird, but few other producers can compete on flavour and welfare, as only about 5% of chicken is produced this way. 

You could say Nigel goes one further. He gets his poultry from Creedy Carver, which is another farm that allows its hens to roam the outdoors, and a name proudly written into high-ranking restaurant menus. The likes of Angela Hartnett and Tom Kerridge swear by it.

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Know your chicken

In an ideal world, where even trust cannot be understated, we’d all personally know the farmers we buy meat from. The closest many of us can get to that is with a butcher – especially one like Owen, who raises his own pigs. Failing that, it’s a matter of finding the butcher whose values you most closely align with: be it price, quality, traceability, or welfare.

If you were to ask me, go to Cayford when you want to know the name of the farmer who supplied your beef. Go to Penleigh for pork and other piggy bits, like their sausage rolls and award-winning black pudding. And go to Nigel’s for Creedy Carver chicken and bones – which he collects until the end of the week – for stock.3 4

Just don’t queue up at Sainsbury’s meat counter expecting the same kind of service.

Further reading

What does buying local food do for the economy? [WFJ #5]

A butcher’s guide to beef cuts

The meat of the matter: Britain’s small abatoirs – ergo sustainable meat – are in peril1

This is purposely underelabourated, as the topic of livestock emissions requires a lot of explanation. Explanation that, at some point, will be incluided in a later issue of the WFJ…2

Admittedly, at the moment this is somewhat speculative, as there is no public record of where livestock is picked up and where it is slaughtered, but it does fit in with the scattered nature in which the supermarket supply chain is interconnected.3

If you ask for chicken bones or carcass, and if they have them available, butchers will usually give you them for free (especially if you’re visiting not to simply freeload, and want to buy at least one other item). 4

Any other ‘hacks’? Please let the rest of us know in the comments.