26 May 2021, 07:02 AM
  • Keenan Humble, project coordinator for Feedback’s Regional Food Economies, argues that small, independent food retailers are part of the answer to systemic problems with access to food
Why indies must be at the heart of our food systems

Small, local independent retailers are a crucial part of the process of reshaping our food systems with sustainability and local interest at the heart. We have fallen into the trap of convenience in our current food system. The ‘one stop shop’ model does not work and is unsustainable. How can it be when profit is the driving factor above all else?

Where large food businesses often look to import cheap produce on a continual quest to drive down costs and increase profit for their shareholders, independent retailers are much more likely to reinvest money into the local economy by using other small local suppliers, tradespeople and employing local staff. Homebaked Anfield, a community bakery and café that stocks Alchemic Kitchen products – a food development space in the North West that creates pickles, ferments and preserves from wonky produce – is a great example of what spending money with socially trading businesses can do.

Social value, or return on investment, is measured in different ways, but essentially it captures and attaches monetary value to things such as: the reduction of benefit costs from people entering employment, the increase in economic benefit of money being spent locally and the reduction in health costs from improved wellbeing through volunteering and better nutrition. For every £1 spent at Homebaked Bakery, they return £20.37 in Social Value. This is mainly driven by their employment model, local sourcing and training approach. An example of this is the £30k per year that Liverpool Football Club pay them for wholesale pies in American money that helps to keep twenty people local to Anfield in employment.

Whilst there are such examples of local independent retailers thriving in Merseyside, it is not the norm across the whole region. A lot of the work Feedback carries out in the North West is based in Knowsley, where there are vast areas of residential estates that are not serviced by any significant food retail offer. The issue of ‘food deserts’ is a massive one and we believe that the answer to the problem is to encourage more entrepreneurship locally. The idea of the 15-minute neighbourhood is an important concept that underpins our vision of what local food systems should look like. The thinking is that every person should be able to access the fresh food they need within a 15 minute walk from their front door.

In this case large supermarkets cannot be the answer; their supply chains are not designed to meet the demands of small, local communities, which is why you generally end up with one supermarket serving a large area, or a concentration of supermarkets competing for the same market share, that the majority of people require a car to get to.

The thinking behind the 15-minute neighbourhood is not a new, or radical idea. It is taking a step back in order to move forward. Neighbourhoods should have a butcher, a bakery, a fishmonger, a green grocer. There should be food heritage in places like Knowsley. There should be food being grown locally and purchased by local retailers, and there needs to be local food production and supply into the local food stream.

There needs to be a shift to eat more seasonally, more provincially, to move away from the convenient ‘everything now’ model we have bought into. There is a reason why people are unable to access fresh, nutritious food. It is a systemic problem, and I believe that small, independent food retail is part of the answer.

The ability to work with local producers and clientele is crucial and is an advantage that the large supermarkets will never have. Local, independent food retailers are in a position to be flexible, dynamic and truly work with their community to tailor their offer for the people they serve, reducing food waste, supporting local economy, shortening supply chains, and, as an additional benefit, creating a social space and hub for the neighbourhood.