New report on local food

11th Jun 2012

From Field to Fork is a major new national report that finds that despite their critical importance to the health of our high streets, local economies and much loved landscapes - local food networks are under-recognised and poorly supported.

The report is the culmination of a 5-year research project Mapping Local Food Webs, led by CPRE nationally and supported by Sustrans. It demonstrates that local food offers a great opportunity to support vibrant town centres and countryside, but that its role is undermined by the dominance of superstores and the multiple retailers. The report presents a fundamental challenge to superstores and the damage they are doing to local food webs.

The rise of out-of-town supermarkets and insufficient leadership from Government over many years have left many local food webs under siege. Action must be taken to support them, and revitalise our high streets and local economies.

The report found that across England local food outlets serve an estimated 16.3 million customers a week and that local food sales through independent outlets are worth £2.7 billion a year to the economy. These food outlets support over 100,000 full-time and part-time jobs, of which over 61,000 are attributable directly to local food sales.

Local food webs are essential to the character and attractiveness of towns and countryside across England. With around 50p in every £1 we spend in shops spent on food, it is a great opportunity for businesses, from farms to retailers of all sizes, to engage shoppers in making a difference to the quality of their local area.

The research looked at 19 locations across England and identified over 2,500 local food businesses (800+ outlets and 1700+ producers). The CPRE report shows how local food webs support diversity, distinctiveness and innovation in the food and farming sectors, broaden choice for shoppers, promote seasonality, reduce food miles and shape the character of towns and countryside.

But these local food webs are under threat. The large weekly supermarket shop has increasingly displaced food from marketplaces and town centres and weakened or closed vital outlets for local food. Notwithstanding the value of local food, CPRE found that national supermarket chains dominated grocery spending, accounting for 77 per cent of all main shopping trips in the locations studied.

As supermarket chains have expanded their share of the market, their stores have grown in size and have moved out of town: from just under 300 superstores and hypermarkets in 1980 to 1,500 by 2007. The number is still growing : by late 2011, applications had been submitted or permission granted for a reported 44 million square feet of new supermarket development, equivalent to 572 football fields, 80 per cent of it out-of-town.

This growth has weakened town centres and the rich variety of food stores that supported them as shopping destinations. There has been a collapse in traditional specialist food stores, such as butchers and greengrocers, from around 120,000 in the 1950s to 18,000 in the late 2000s. Town centre vacancy rates now average 14 per cent and can be as high as 30 per cent.

The effect on jobs can be severe: in 1998 the National Retail Planning Forum examined the effects on employment following the opening of 93 edge-of-town supermarkets and found a net average loss of 276 jobs in each area.

CPRE’s research found that, more than any other factor, the presence of large food stores, particularly out of town, and the absence of smaller independent outlets, are the decisive factors in the strength of any local food web. Our head office will be making a new toolkit available for local campaigners to explore the benefits of and challenges their local food web faces, including the impact of new superstores. 

Building on the huge amount of new data gathered in this report, CPRE is pressing for much more to be done to support local food networks and grow the economic, social and environmental benefits they bring. In particular, CPRE recommends:

  • Government should re-examine competition policy to support retail diversity and the ability of new local food entrepreneurs to enter the market; develop national planning policy guidance to provide stronger support for a sustainable food system; improve the ability of the planning system to ensure the vitality of town centres, as Mary Portas recommended in her recent high street review; and provide strong leadership on sustainable food procurement.
  • Local authorities and other public bodies should form partnerships to develop food strategies and action plans; local planning authorities should update their local plans and include policies to support local food webs.
  • Businesses should work together to promote awareness, access, affordability and availability of local food.
  • Supermarket chains should set themselves demanding targets for stocking and selling local food in ways which reinforce consumer awareness and trust.
  • Community groups should develop and engage in initiatives to shape their local food networks – case studies in the report and CPRE’s local food web mapping toolkit offer a range of ideas on this. 
  • And every one of us can support local food through our shopping choices, asking questions about where food comes from, and how it is produced. Many shoppers interviewed were able to source around 30% of their food from within 30 miles: we recommend people try a 30:30 diet for a month and find out more about their local food.