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 https://www.livingwage.org.uk/news/over-two-fifths-all-supermarket-workers-earn-below-real-living-wage

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