FROM my end of the food chain, there is a long way to go. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) says that a higher percentage of supermarket sales should come from local food supplied within a 30-mile area.
In response, the Big Seven – Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op and Marks & Spencer – insist they are doing everything in their power to seek out, sell and promote produce sourced locally. This might well be the case, but from where I’m shopping, they must try much harder to tell us about it.
When was the last time you went to the supermarket and fell over in the aisles at the choice of locally-produced fruit, vegetables, meat, bread, cheese and other goodies? When you walk through that door, you’re more likely to be hit by a wall of kitchen roll on two-for-one than a tempting display of carrots fresh from a farmer’s field up the road. If you’re a supermarket manager busily putting together a big push on local lamb this morning, forgive me. I swear though, the last time I noticed any kind of special local promotion in my usual store, it was at Christmas time. And it was for lemon curd.
Instead of being presented as a mainstream choice, too often local food is still regarded as strictly for the speciality aisle. It’s not that we’re disinterested in the provenance of what we eat; a recent poll by IGD, a grocery think-tank, found a growing demand for British food, especially among the young. Shoppers aged between 18 and 24 are now twice as likely to buy British than they were in 2007. No doubt the recent scandals in the food processing industry have made us think more carefully about what we put in our mouths.
That’s why there is no sustainable argument against local food. It’s just that too many of us think it’s not for the likes of us. “Local” has become synonymous with “expensive” and, ironically, “out-of-reach”.
We know it is desirable and good for us and the environment, but it has an image problem. For urban dwellers at least, “local food” has turned into a commodity which only foodies can afford to get excited about, while the rest of us rummage about in the BOGOFs and end-of-day reductions. It’s the fault not only of supermarkets, but TV chefs, over-inflated restaurant critics, and the kind of people who bang on about driving 15 miles to a farm shop, burning up the ozone layer, just so they can buy a bag of posh sausages to brag about at their barbecues.
Not that there is anything evil about farm shops, or farmers’ markets for that matter. The very opposite is true. These outlets provide a vital cog in our regional rural economy. The forward-thinking ones already do this, but it would be good if more reached out into the suburbs and towns, supplying other retailers, even opening their own branches.
What I say though is why can’t every market be a farmers’ market? We are so lucky in Yorkshire to have a market in almost every town and city. If only we asked, we might find that the butcher behind the counter knew the name of the pig he is now selling as pork steak. Yet how many of us are guilty of ignoring what smells so delicious right under our noses?
Supermarkets must definitely up their game, but if we want the local food we say we do, we’ve got to start thinking about what local really means. Shopping smart. Asking questions. Finding out where things come from. It’s not enough to tut at the Big Seven for not doing their bit. We have to become pro-active too.
And the great thing is, markets are democratic. Anyone, a pensioner with a bus pass, a student on their way to college, can call in.
No-one needs to make a special journey from one side of the county to the other. And of course, when people use markets, they thrive.
So much that is wrong with our town centres could be cured if only more people shopped in them.
Re-establishing those ancient trading links with local farmers and producers and shouting about it could divert much-needed trade back into town and contribute to retail regeneration. And it’s not just markets. Cafés and restaurants, which might have quietly been buying their goods and ingredients locally for years, would do well to remind their customers just what they are eating.
And don’t get me started on where school dinners come from. It’s enough to say that where possible, school cooks should find their ingredients locally. What better lesson to teach children about food than recognising the orchard where their apple pie started life? I know, I know, economies of scale and all that, but if supermarkets can start to get to grips with sourcing closer to home, school kitchens can too.
Local people deserve local food. Yes, there is a long way still to go, but every one of us should think about how we can become a link in that broken chain.