July Debate: Should I Buy Local Produce?

Cirencester farmers' marketRob Rees tells us his reasons for ‘buying local’.

The Cotswold food revolution has been under way for way over a decade now. “Local Food” has been a phrase hot on our lips for about the same amount of time. Our cultural desire to get back to our roots as well as embrace the allotment is something that I know my grandparents, uncles and aunties always used to indulge in when I was a child in the 70s. It was because of the growth in the supermarket sector in the mid 70s, the indulgent boom of the 80s, and the demise of our food industry with mad cow disease amongst other things in the 90s that a great many consumers said – that’s enough we cant eat this rubbish anymore. This, when mixed with new standards of food production from farm to fork and the cooperation of the farmers, meant the journey had started.

I fell in love with local when I had the restaurant and the first county market opened up. Since then local has had a major journey with new producers coming on stream with products from beers and wines to doughnuts and scotch eggs. Virtually every week I stumble across new producers. I bought some guinea fowl for a dinner party last week, sourced from only 12 miles from home – delicious! And I chose them from the ones running in front of me just the week before.  What is for certain is that Gloucestershire has one of the most diverse, tasty and thriving natural kitchens in the UK. From its land, rivers, lakes and skies it is one of the best.

There are so many reasons why buying local can be great. I will leave it to the bloggers to say why or why not. It is I think fair to say that just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s any good. However the poor stuff is in small supply and nature seems to take care of whether or not people choose it for long. What local and, normally hand in hand, seasonal bring is freshness, value for money and taste. For me though after 10 years of sourcing as much as possible within a 30-mile radius of our kitchen I have seen great produce and like everywhere some that doesn’t have the same appeal. We now tell people to buy local for 3 simple reasons, and try to take out the politics – and there really are a lot of politics.

My reasons are:

1. You like it – otherwise you may as well throw your money away. 
2. You can afford it – whether that be a great value Osso Bucco or a fillet steak
3. You can cook it – gastro or simple cheese on toast.

Oh and by the way, the best tips on how to cook and use the local products don’t come from me but from the producers themselves – they grow, nurture and live their culture and know the products like the back of their hands. Only at a market can you have such engaging conversations with the producers.

There is no legal definition of local. The Farmers Markets tend to use a 30 mile radius for its production with strict rules for guest producers. I will let TSO colleagues blog the site with some of the further rules and regulations but I think there are a number of things that leave consumers confused. Add into the mix farm shops, local butchers and greengrocers and delicatessens and we have so many places to buy our “local” food.

What really is local? Should there be criteria in law? Is my local supermarket local?  Is buying local more expensive? How do I know that a butchers shop is really selling me locally sourced meat? How do I complain if it’s no good? Does all local have to be organic?

I know that many people have argued that Farmers Markets are just for the niche and the middle classes. What I have seen at markets are people from all backgrounds and cultures and of all ages purchasing food because they value it as one of the most important choices in their life and of the future.

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10 Responses

  1. With spiralling transport costs and the world food shortage, there are a commercial opportunities resulting for local growers and producers. Provided they apply reasonable profit margins they can influence the buying habits of the local population.

    Where food comes from or the quality of it is not a concern for those on limited incomes, they buy purely on price. For those of us that can afford to have a moral conscience the choice is easy.

  2. Its all very well telling everyone to buy local, and in principle I agree whole heartedly. However, as the other lady said, it all boils down to price. Very often locally produced goods are sold at a premium which i personally cannot afford. Its a shame. I do keep having a look though and will also consider buying locally. At the moment i’m looking into getting an allotment which is great way to save money and be healthy.

  3. Allotments – now that is a seperate blog all together that no doubt will turn up here in the future. we have just done the same and loving it. What is needed in Gloucestershire is a way to get excess home grown vegetables exchanged with others. You cant trade commercially but bring back the old days of you scratch my back and ill scratch yours. there is a national site called vegexchange.com

  4. I agree it comes down to price. Farmers’ markets and food fairs are popular but the produce is expensive. Like it or not most people shop at supermarkets. Supermarkets are quite happy to describe food as local if it gives them a commercial advantage but is it truly local? What we need is a proper defintion of ‘local’ which all food retailers including the supermarkets agree to adhere to. Oxfordshire trading standards have done some work on this, see BBC report.

  5. As Mel says above, the increasing cost of transporting food is one of the major reasons to buy locally produced food and drink. Being “green” is excellent if you can afford it. However, not everyone is on an income level that enables them to buy everything locally. I tend to buy locally grown fruit and veg because the flavour is so much better. I would love to be able to regularly buy locally sourced meat but it is extremely expensive whether organic or not. Supermarkets do have the edge here with their buying power. Personally, even being in a “negative Equity” situation salary wise, I will continue to buy fruit, veg and eggs from my local markets. I would love to have time to tend an allotment but I don’t. I am, however, lucky enough to have friends who do have allotments and they frequently either give me produce. I’m just hoping that my pot grown tomatoes and peppers provide me with some really home-grown stuff.

  6. People always shy away from buying local produce using the excuse that it’s more expensive but it’s not that long ago that we all ate food that was in season and local. If more people supported local farmers and producers the supermarkets would have to start stocking reasonably priced local foods instead of the mass produced, tasteless food we are faced with today. I buy meat locally straight from the farm and it’s significally cheaper than the supermarket because there aren’t the additional costs of transport etc. but farmers have work to do to ensure their produce is more accessible. Food education in schools also needs to be higher on the priority list.

  7. Farmers’ markets have encouraged people to think about local produce; farm shops are increasing in numbers and provide added convenience. Supermarkets are going to continue to provide convenience, not necessarily at the lowest price.
    I think that it is relatively simple to source a proportion of local food at very sensible prices, although this requires a little planning and sometimes access to a car. Root vegetables, especially potatoes are available by the bag (not washed) at very reasonable prices and keep much better because they haven’t been washed, just store them in a cool dark fairly dry place. Meat can be expensive, but lots of tasty slow cooking cuts are cheap and easy for even novice cooks; I’ve recently invested in a slow cooker (all of £20), so I soak pulses overnight and boil them for 10 minutes, fry the meat and vegetables, put them in the slow cooker, often using cider or tomatoes as added liquid (the acidity helps to tenderise the meat) and turn on, a few hours later we have a tasty low cost meal.
    Everyone enjoys a proportion of imported food, what would we do without lemons? However, with a little thought and buying in season produce, local food is very competitively priced.

  8. Rob is of course quite right when he says that there isn’t a legal definition of ‘local’ and from our experience here at Trading Standards it is something that often causes confusion.

    I think it fair to say that those of you who buy from a local farmers’ market have certain expections regarding where the food has been sourced from. A recent survey undertaken by Oxfordshire Trading Standards Service concluded that:

    21.5% of respondents felt that the producer can live 30 miles or above from the market.
    17% felt that they could live 20 to 30 miles from the market.
    14% felt that they should only live 2 to 5 miles from the market.
    11% felt they should live from 6 to 10 miles from the market.
    4.5% felt they should live 11 to 15 miles from the market.
    7% felt it shouldn’t matter where they lived.
    4% felt they should come from within Oxfordshire
    1% felt they should come from within the district.

    This obviously shows that customer perceptions are very different despite FARMA (National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association) definitions and farmers’ market rules.

    The Oxfordshire survey recommends that a certain amount of consumer education is needed to ensure that customers are made aware of the definition of ‘local’ as per the market rules. Alternatively legislation or another legally binding document from central government could clarify the situation.

    It would be great to hear from anyone in the county who thinks perhaps there should be a criteria in law that defines ‘local’, so please get in touch and air your views.

  9. For me, the major dilemma at the moment is not “Should I buy local?”, but “How can I make my wages last the whole month?” Like may families, we are really struggling to stretch the budget with the increase cost of not only fuel, but pasta, rice and bread.

    I live in a household of 6. Since I started running farmers markets, my shopping habits have changed beyond recognition. I now buy seasonal fruit and vegetables direct from the producers at farmers’ markets and top up at the Shambles market. I consider meat to be a luxury item, and eat it about once or twice a week, only from the farmers markets.

    We are lucky that we both work full time and earn an average wage. The harsh truth is that a family of 4 on state benefits do not actually earn enough to feed themselves the recommended nutritional minimum each week. Similarly, for families on a low income, choices are becoming rather stark. It is not a question of local or not local, but of “what can I afford this week?”

    For many of us, the way forward is going to be shopping in smaller quantities, wasting less, growing veggies in our gardens, set up community allotments, setting up buying co-operatives for bulk dry food orders and cutting out luxuries. Unfortunately, many policy makers have no concept of the realities of feeding a family on an average wage with rising fuel and grain prices and no rise in wages in sight.

    My solution is to cook from scratch, make a large meal every evening, (so the kids cut down on snacking) buy large bags of pasta and really think about what I am spending my money on. Baking sausage rolls and flapjacks is a great way of saving money on crisps and snacks, and not too time-consuming. During the school summer holidays, with bus fares, swimming entry fees, extra trips to the skate park using extra petrol, budgeting is even more pertinent.

    I still buy some basics at the supermarket, but I am trying to use the Shamble Market and local shops in Stroud more, and the supermarkets less. I find shopping locally cheaper and less stressful than supermarket shopping, but I have had to change my approach. It means popping into town on foot or by bike more, and going to the supermarket less. I find this way of shopping cheaper than dong one big shop at the supermarket.

    My vision for the future is to live in a community where everyone to afford to eat well, whether this means through shopping locally, growing our own, using collective buying or sharing recipes and meal ideas. It’s fun, sociable, engaging, and increasingly necessary.

  10. My feeling is that instead of asking why some foods are so ‘expensive’ we should be questioning the food that is ‘cheap’!

    If we can step away, for a moment, from the idea of how much money we part with, being the true representation of cost, then we’ll see the need to bring in other aspects.

    ‘Cost’ can include the welfare of animals, transportation effects on the environment, the cost of pesticides on our health, working conditions, and the cost of nutrient loss from cold storage on our health.

    We are lucky where we live that we have an organic farm shop 3 miles away, an apple and soft fruit orchard and a great butcher. Apart from the butcher, I can, in fact buy these local and seasonal goods ‘cheaper’ than in a supermarket.

    This week though, I had an interesting realisation. The chicken I buy from my local butcher is around 50p more than a supermarket. However, I only need to travel 2 miles to get there, I can buy it without packaging (which is my thing!) so the ‘cost’ to the environment is less, it tastes more than 50pence worth better than a supermarket shrink wrapped one, and perhaps most importantly, it lasts MUCH longer than a supermarket one which means none is wasted.

    So my 50p is worth much more than that when i take into consideration all the other aspects……………..

    And consider too, if we no longer support our local shops, the big boys will take over and our local economy, as well as convenience and social factors, changes. I prefer to be known by name when I go into my local shop and know that if my child wanders off down an aisle there will be someone looking out for her and who knows who her mother is 🙂

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