Scaling Up the Community Food Sector

09.04.2013 Blog

In the last decade the global food system has become more hierarchical and complex than ever; the customer has become further detached from the sources of their food while a handful of large companies dominate the industry. Problems such as climate change, diet-related ill-health and food poverty are all high on the UK government agenda and, according to the Making Local Food Work programme, the role of food systems in many of these issues has been largely unacknowledged. Last month Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign showed that overall the world’s ten largest food companies have poor records on transparency, climate change policy, water usage, women’s rights, and worker and farmer rights. Issues such as these, along with the growing epidemic of diet-related health problems, prompted the formation of the Making Local Food Work programme in 2007.

In September 2012 the Making Local Food Work programme published a paper called “Prospects for the Future: Scaling Up the Community Food Sector”. The research was undertaken by Tim Crabtree, Kevin Morgan and Roberta Sonnino with the aim to determine how community food enterprises can effectively function and grow to scale in a competitive global market. The authors come to the conclusion that collaboration and communication are key to scaling community food enterprises, but that for meaningful advances in the global food system there needs to be change at the national and international policy levels.

What are Community Food Enterprises?

The authors describe community food enterprises as businesses that have a degree of local ownership that contribute to, “at least one part of growing, harvesting, processing, distributing, selling or serving local food.” The idea can be traced to agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, who argued that if a community has control over its own food production, and can see the immediate results, it is more likely to result in a sustainable, ethical system.

Community food enterprises are also “social enterprises”; their goals are not merely economic but social and environmental as well and profits are generally invested back into the business or local community. The Making Local Food Work programme supports seven different types of community food enterprises:

• Farmers’ Markets
• Community-owned shops
• Country markets
• Food Co-coperatives
• Community Supported Agriculture
• Organic Buying Groups
• Local food hubs

DEFRA estimate the UK spends £182 billion per year on food and drink and community food enterprises make up a tiny proportion of that. However, with growing public concern surrounding the global food system there is an opportunity for community food enterprises to grow; but the question remains, how to do so most effectively?

Systems Models and Scaling

The authors draw upon an economic model of supply and demand to understand how community food enterprises can effectively scale over the next few years. The demand side relies on consumers demanding the products and services of community food enterprises; and the supply side relies on being able to create the product with the right quality and quantity of inputs in an effective manner.

By viewing community food enterprises as “systems”, that take inputs (capital) such as labour, land, water and sunlight and transform them into food products, the authors build models of inputs and outputs and start to identify key areas where intervention can lead to effective scaling up. The main areas that Making Local Food Work operates in to support scaling are:

  •  Helping to clarify and communicate the organisation’s core purpose. Having clear goals and purposes while balancing the business, environmental and social goals of an organisation are vital to gaining support from consumers and investors.
  •  Increasing inputs by supporting access to resources. Mobilizing the “five capitals” – natural, human, social, financial and manufacturing capital – effectively is vital to growth in food systems.
  • Giving business and technical support. Targeted support for specific projects is an efficient way to cultivate growth.
  • Supporting engagement with local communities. Engaging with communities through the use of social media can raise the profile of an organisation and effective advocacy can attract government attention. Consumers within the community can also become members either as volunteers or investors.
  • Supporting “closed loop” sustainability. Developing “closed loop” systems by utilising waste recycling and renewable energy technologies in a horticultural context. As well as the environmental benefits renewable energies can generate income to encourage scaling.

All of these have been implemented in the past by the Making Local Food Work programme to help individual community food enterprises to scale up. However, the current economic climate and the reduction in grants and support programmes for community food enterprises makes scaling up a risky business. Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-Operative UK, has suggested “collaborative models” to allow community food enterprises to grow. The authors identify some areas where collaboration can take place to facilitate scaling.

Collaboration around access to resources    

Collaboration can increase an organisation’s access to all five of the main resources mentioned above. Access to land can be difficult for small community food enterprises but places like Fordhall Organic Farm have shown how a joint initiative can increase a community food enterprise’s’ access to land. The land collaboration between the Fordhall Community Land Initiative and Fordhall Farm Ltd and has allowed Fordhall Organic Farm to prosper with access to sufficient land.

Access to human capital is another area where community food enterprises struggle as many rely on volunteers. The Making Local Food Work programme has funded the Manchester Land Army which aims to do two main things: organise a large number of “unskilled” labourers to work as and when they are needed and train a small number of individuals that growers can consult in times of need. Using these two initiatives has increased yields and income for growers and allowed them to meet increasing demand.

Access to financial capital can be achieved through collaboration with local governments or social investors. This sort of funding can often be procured at below market rate if an organisation can offer  a mix of social, environmental and financial benefits.

Collaboration to improve operations

Scaling community food enterprises using a traditional business model can be tricky due to their local character. Improving operations and communication between groups has allowed new community food enterprises to emerge in different parts of the country with support from existing groups. For example, the Growing Communities’ Start-Up Programme  helps start-ups develop operational and business models to support their growth. The authors also believe that joint ventures, spin-offs and secondary structures could be utilised further to encourage scaling.
“Small and local” but also “open and connected”

The authors conclude that community food enterprises can benefit from collaboration with other small organisations but must also create and connect with wider networks. They use sustainable design expert Ezio Manzini’s concept of “short” and “long” networks and their different roles;

“short networks generate and regenerate the local social and economic fabric, whilst the long networks connect a particular place and community with the rest of the world” (Manzini, 2011)

With the development of new informational and communications technologies, interaction across geographical boundaries has become a possibility. This, the authors claim, has led to an increase in the diffusion of “green and social innovations” which provide potential for new social relations and collaborations.

Conclusion

Community food enterprises’ commitment to positive environmental and social impact makes them an important response to a complex global food system. Their importance needs to be recognised by governments and they need to be sustained through a range of “support measures, financial mechanisms and policy changes,” to encourage them to scale and allow them to compete in a mainstream market. At the moment scaling up is seen primarily as “connecting up” through collaboration with other community food enterprises which can help organisations; increase their access to capital, improve their operations, engage with customers and enhance sustainability. However, to facilitate meaningful social and environmental change collaboration also needs to take place between community food enterprises and governments at various levels.