The East of England Co-operative’s ‘Sourced Locally’ range


Anthony Murray, editor of the Co-operative News, reports that rather than adopting the national Co-operative brand, one of the independent co-operative societies, the East of England Co-operative, has developed its own identity, based on its support for local food.

It established a ‘Sourced Locally’ range in 2008, stocking locally grown or produced food in 140 stores across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. From a handful of local producers it now has 136 suppliers. Sales grew by 30% last year alone, reaching £12m. It has grown from selling locally grown asparagus to 2,400 different products: from beer, bread and bacon to honey, haddock and heat logs.

Most of the products in the range are from within a 30-mile radius of the store they are stocked in, with the exception of a few core products for which there is just one supplier across the region. Business in the Community gave the East of England Co-operative an award in 2013, for ‘transforming a rural business network.

The East of England Co-operative’s website records reflections on what this means for the local community as a whole: through payments to local producers they have been able to plough more than £20 million back into the local economy, helping producers to create more than 100 new jobs, whilst protecting dozens more. 

Reflections – Food & Our Future discussion event

A quick few personal reflections after our Food and Our Future event last night. These are more a response than an account, so if you weren’t there then apologies as you’re getting much less than half the conversation.
Firstly thanks to all the people who came – really brilliant turnout – and even more to our excellent speakers, Chris Mould, Liz Dowler and Adrian Phillips, and Kate for firm chairing.
I was glad Adrian Phillips took the macro-economic line he did – talking about the profit motives that lead to our unhealthy, unjust and wasteful consumption and shopping habits. Lots of points well made. I’d add a caveat though – I think the profit motive is pretty integral to being human, and something we can live with or even make into something positive occasionally – but it becomes dangerous when a lot of power ends up in a few hands, and the corporate power over our food supply demonstrates that danger nicely in those poor health, injustice and waste impacts.
Amidst strong statements on the need for greater justice in access to food,  Liz Dowler mentioned that despite recent rises and food poverty, we don’t actually pay that much (say, the full production costs) for our food, and that this is another source of injustice. I’ve often reflected on this: we used to pay far more for food and far less for housing. The reversal of that has impacted horrendously on a poorly paid (local and global) farming sector and as Liz pointed out on those working for supermarkets on zero hour contracts, as part of forcing down prices for food many of us then waste.
Funnily enough, I seem to find myself making a point about community economic resilience and strengthening the local food economy – across rural and urban areas, to better redistribute responsibility, power and profit and shorten the chains. Hopefully it’s understood that this isn’t about thinking you can feed Birmingham from a few fields of hinterland, but about catalysing the structural/economic changes that are essential for sustainable development.
Lastly this was another forum in which there was some discussion of the comparative merits of “just getting on and doing it for yourself” (directly helping a foodbank to feed hungry people) and the duty of the state to do something (abandon some of the more inhumane benefit changes). I find this debate a little frustrating – also often heard about environment action –  because it’s so obvious that the one needs the other, and that if you do the one you need to do or at least support the other. I doubt anyone really thinks you shouldn’t help out at the foodbank because it only encourages the government to penalise the poor. As well as the direct impacts, by doing the brilliant work they do to help real people, Chris Mould can (and did, to us) put the case more powerfully to those who need persuading than can those of us who just observe.
Alongside helping food banks we have a duty to adopt responsible diets ourselves: in reducing meat and dairy, paying as fair prices as we can, eating seasonally and wasting much less. We need a good diet as fuel for speaking out against injustice and working towards structural change.
There will be plenty more to report- watch this space for more.
Karen Leach

Food for Thought for Food & Our Future on 14th May

Our discussion event on food poverty, food access and health – Food & Our Future in the West Midlands – is exactly two weeks away now and getting booked up already, so do book now.

We want this event to highlight some of the basic facts around food poverty, food access and health issues, and explore root causes of these problems and what can be done about them. Perhaps ambitious for a single meeting, as the root causes are complex and encompass global food systems, UK retail and consumption patterns, and the increase in general levels of poverty in the UK. We will only have time to scratch the surface, but it’s a surface more of us need to scratch.

Some thoughts on the issues our speakers might bring and LWM’s take on them.

Chris-MouldChris Mould heads The Trussell Trust, whose food banks fed 913,138 people across the UK last year of whom 330,205 were children. The Trust were recently inundated with donations in response to a rather nasty Mail on Sunday article.  Benefit payment cuts and delays were a major cause of the 51% increase in food bank visits over the last year – causing over 500 UK clergy to write in protest to the Government. This cause of food poverty is, quite simply, a general one of financial hardship, with food or heating being the choice people were often forced to make over winter.

Adrian Phillips will also be speaking, as Birmingham’s Director of Public Health. The main food-related public health issues that occur to me, are food access and obesity:

Food access is a very relevant issue in the conurbation. Many people on low incomes live in ‘food deserts’, as mapped and tackled an excellent piece of research in Sandwell some years ago that has gone on to shape Sandwell’s food policy. Food deserts are where fresh or everyday food cannot be found within easy walking distance. They have increased as our diverse and distributed range of local independent shops have been replaced by large drive-to supermarkets. Areas like Sparkhill show how healthy, diverse local competition amongst independent grocers can create an excellent affordable food offer in low income neighbourhoods, but it would take much effort for this culture to be replicated in areas where it’s not the norm. Until then, the supermarkets that cause the systemic damage in the first place often become its most likely solution at local level. A sound business model.

Another massive food access factor locally is Birmingham wholesale markets, which are being moved to the city’s edge to make room for more prestige development. The wholesale markets support a massive amount of food access across and beyond the city, including many independent food outlets catering for the entire breadth of the conurbation’s diversity. The retail markets – closely connected to the wholesale – are the single most crucial place in the conurbation for a great number of people of all income levels and cultures to buy fresh food at affordable prices. These markets deserve far more recognition than they gain, and formed a case study in LWM’s recent MCED research.

Obesity is a problem partly related to poor food access in that often people in low income areas can only access unhealthy food: Birmingham City Council recently introduced restrictions on new fast food outlets  in an effort to reduce this. Then of course there are the food-health factors that don’t relate to poverty: the food industry’s emphasis on  prepared foods full of sugar, fat and salt, for example; parents having little time to cook properly as they work overtime to pay over-inflated housing costs; or education and understanding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe third speaker will be Elizabeth Dowler, Professor of Food and Social Policy at the University of Warwick, and a member of the food ethics council, which tells me “rer recent research includes: rights based approaches to food poverty; food security; nutrition and public health; evaluating food/nutrition policy and local initiatives; ‘alternative’ food systems and networks, especially consumers’ perspectives and benefits and exploring ‘reconnection”. All highly relevant. She was recently involved in headline-creating research into food aid and food poverty for Defra.

The event chair will be Kate Cooper, who is chair of the new Birmingham Food Council . Similar city-wide food policy initiatives have happened in Bristol and Manchester. We can look to them to avoid re-inventing wheels.

Both Manchester’s and Bristol’s food initiatives cover the essential connected issues of sustainability, strengthening the local food economy, and food justice – aiming for a healthy, sustainable and resilient food system. They take peak oil and climate change seriously, and consider how we can maximise our sustainable food production capacity to gain resilience. They also both pay keen attention to resolving food poverty.

As a lightning tour of Bristol’s food policy initiative, it started with the Who Feeds Bristol report,  which emphasises the hugely important role of their wholesale markets in feeding the city and the threat to it from other parts of the food industry. It recognises the need to build diversity and balanced competition back into our food system in retail, processing and distribution, and to strengthen the market position of farmers. (I learned at the excellent WDM meeting last week that the price share farmers get across the world has gone down from 50% to 10% over the last few decades: problems faced by farmers locally and globally). It then advocates an approach known as ‘Food Systems Planning’ in order to build afood culture for the city that has the health of people and planet at its heart.bristol food pic

There followed a Bristol Food Charter, the food policy council itself and a Food Poverty report, which concluded that

Lack of access to the necessary finance, coupled with inadequate physical resources (e.g. cooking facilities, local food shops, access to transport) and inadequate skills and social networks are central to creating food poverty”.

I hope that our event helps set the agenda for Birmingham’s Food Council around the same principles of food justice and of food system efficiency within environmental limits that Bristol and Manchester demonstrate.

So – we’ve not even touched on food waste, international food sovereignty and security or the great health and educational value of local growing schemes, but at too long already for a blog post you can see there’s plenty of food for thought there for us to get our teeth into over a couple of hours, and I hope this has whetted your appetite. But seriously – and very seriously – there are some striking issues of injustice and system fail here that I hope will fuel the sort of anger that leads to action and change.

I hope we’ll see lots of you at the event (click here to book). There will be light refreshments and drinks provided at the event, and any donations we receive for this above the costs of providing it will fund food bank activity – so please contribute (and count yourself lucky)  if you can afford it.

Karen Leach

PS – The event is a partnership between the Lunar Society, Localise West Midlands, Birmingham Leadership Foundation, Midland Heart and Nishkam Centre. We’re very grateful to Midland Heart and Nishkam for providing refreshments and venue respectively.

Co-op food retail: an organisation that has expanded in the wrong areas?


Gary Greenwood, analyst at Shore Capital comments on the Co-op Group’s food retailing: “It just looks like an organisation that has expanded in the wrong areas . . .“

Food sales were down 0.7% on a like-for-like basis. Overall, the group reported losses before payments to members, the equivalent of pre-tax profit for a plc, of £599m, in the 53 weeks to January 5 . . .

It could expand by offering a range of local and organic food

ursula lidbetter2Ursula Lidbetter, the independent Lincolnshire Co-operative’s innovative chief executive, has overseen this transition and their stores now stock a wide range of local food.

The co-operative’s meat procurement policy “which supports local farmers and reduces food miles” has a Business in the Community Award for Excellence.

ursula lidbetter lincs co-op food

Co-operative stores in this part of the West Midlands are not attracting those who are aware of the risks inherent in non-organic meat and dairy products and those vegetables which can be permeated with pesticides.

The Co-op and other stores should also reconsider their acceptance of GM animal feed because non-GM feed is  available to buyers  – see producer’s information – who offer reliable contracts to producers, as many Europeans do, instead of gambling on a cut price on the ‘spot’ markets.



Birmingham’s wholesale markets – a partnership of inclusive local enterprise

It is vital to Birmingham’s independent food supply chains that Birmingham wholesale markets remain at their central site, neighbouring the retail markets, and being central for their diversity of customers and employees.

Despite a much-publicised Council recommendation to stop investigating solutions for the markets remaining on their current site, there is still a hope of this happening – an opportunity those of us who really care about widespread economic wellbeing in Birmingham need to seize with all hands.

There is an option to redevelop the current site keeping the wholesale markets, with new and exciting food-focused uses around them. This is the option Birmingham needs and that any self-respecting local enterprise body for the city would recommend.  On Monday, Birmingham’s Cabinet will decide whether to continue investigating this option. All it commits them to is keeping the door open for discussion.

Here at Localise West Midlands, as part of our Mainstreaming CED research, we studied the Birmingham Wholesale markets as good practice in community-scale economic activity. Below is what we learned about the impacts of the markets for inclusive economic success and enterprise.

To some, this will read as irrelevant to the big boys’ game of real economic development. They are wrong. The Mainstreaming CED findings are clear that economies built on local ownership and control and on smaller businesses are more successful in traditional economic terms as well as better in for all those woolly, irrelevant social concepts like quality of life. Far too much conventional economic analysis fails to recognise the collective benefit of local enterprise.

The wholesale markets and an inclusive economy

Birmingham Wholesale Markets are the largest integrated markets in the UK, comprising fruit and vegetable, fish, meat and poultry, dairy and flower sections. They are sited in central Birmingham, next to the city’s retail markets and have an aggregate turnover of £275 million, with 73 trading operations (all but two of which are locally owned) and employing 1,100 people. It is estimated by BWFPA that 15,000 jobs in the region are dependent on the markets.

ourbirmingham.orgSupply and Demand Chains

The markets also occupy a very significant place in Birmingham’s food supply chains: 95% of independent food businesses in the city – close to 5,000 independent food businesses – do some business there: an extraordinary market share.  The customer base also goes far beyond Birmingham into surrounding counties and even into mid-Wales.  The wholesale markets serve some ‘top end’ establishments such as Purnell’s as well as the affordable end, and also limited supermarket trade.

Whilst (as you’d expect) BWFPA has no official local sourcing policy, some members serve Bretts, the company that serves the city schools’ fruit and vegetable contract, for which the council has local sourcing and CO2 policies.  Figures are not available from BWFPA for the markets’ local sourcing but much of the horticultural produce is sourced from the region, including the Vale of Evesham and Staffordshire; but also from Europe and further afield.  Meat is mostly locally sourced, although also from Wales and Scotland too depending on seasonal availability and market value.  Again this points to a significant market role for produce that does not go through the multiples’ supply chains.

Social and Economic Inclusion

In addition to strengthening Birmingham’s local food supply chains, the wholesale markets also contribute to social and economic inclusion. This is partly in the sense that through the neighbouring retail markets they provide cheap high quality foods for the local community. Overheads and thus prices are low at the Bull Ring, making it a major contributor to healthy food access and social inclusion in the city centre. The markets also contribute in terms of  economic and social/ethnic diversity is very wide in the markets’ customer base, including always the latest wave of immigrants. Currently for example the customer base at George Perry is 80% Asian. Immigrants using the markets include Iraqis and Afghanis who will use the markets for small-scale street trading such as buying a box of apples and selling them on the street. A vast number of the city’s culturally specialist food shops source their produce at the wholesale markets, some of these communities then mix and socialise at the markets alongside the  long hours they work. So a social cohesion role emerges as well as a practical food distribution role that it is hard to imagine functioning if the Wholesale Markets weren’t there.

Employment, skills and recruitment

The Wholesale Markets also contribute heavily to employment, providing a major local source of recruitment especially from areas of high unemployment, resulting in a constant churn of new people.  They offer an effective opportunity for people who haven’t done well at school or those from “less socially acceptable” backgrounds: in comparison with many training programmes they provide ‘real’ manual work with a degree of security, flexibility and mutual respect; 99% of these positions are salaried and there tends to be mutual flexibility over hours depending on company and employee needs.  “It’s a rough and ready environment with politically incorrect banter but people just get on with it and each other, and there’s a sense of honour amongst entrepreneurs.”

Business: innovation, resilience, community

The Markets also offer a key source of innovation and resilience within the community. History has shown that the market is always capable of evolving and adapting, for example, innovation in IT to facilitate trade with international partners. The BWFPA committee is highly representative of small businesses, feeding their opinions into the council. Unsurprisingly, the wider community has been very supportive of the markets remaining where they are during BWFPA’s campaign, with strong support for the Bull Ring Markets and shops in addition to the signing of a petition of well over 20,000 signatures in support of the markets remaining on their current site. This is the largest petition ever delivered to Birmingham’s electoral officers.

The support of Birmingham City Council is essential if the markets are to continue supporting the local community. The council needs to recognise the fact that composite markets work well because they function as a ‘one stop shop’ – businesses will use them for all their produce needs and so are likely to buy a higher proportion from these local supply chains.  Community leaders also value the integrated markets, saying a move would split up whole communities. A central site is also crucial to this.

Moving the markets out of the city would change how the markets’ finances work, as rents and service charges would rise and require capital outlay. Some of their current efficiency and little need for borrowing would be lost.

Attempt to relocate or move the markets would be disastrous to the local community especially in terms of social and economic inclusion and local food supply chains. The Council might propose mitigation measures such as providing collective goods transport from the out-of-centre site for the retail markets and other customers, but realistically, how long would revenue funding for this last and how practical would it be? The proposal by BWFPA for a smaller and more streamlined wholesale function within a mixed use development and still bordering the vital retail markets would maintain, and enhance, the ability of the wholesale markets to benefit the local community and strengthen its local economy. This would support medium and long term economic success and yet still bring short-term financial benefits for a cash-strapped local authority.

The proposal for keeping the Wholesale Markets where they belong, in the city centre at the heart of a food-related new development, really is a win-win situation and if Birmingham City Council failed to take advantage of this, the economic and social consequences would be severe.

Jamie Stone and Karen Leach