Western Daily Press (Saturday)

West to pioneer food revolution

Scheme for small food producers to feed schools and the NHS:

- MARTIN HESP news@westerndai­lypress.co.uk

IMAGINE what a boost it would be to the local economy if schoolchil­dren, students, teachers, patients, health workers – and the thousands of others who rely on places like college, hospital or work canteens – all consumed food each day that was sourced from inside the region.

It might sound like a no-brainer – many people might even assume that local procuremen­t is what happens already. However, despite being such a commonsens­e idea, the realities of a buylocal regime are as difficult to find as a picnic basket at the end of a rainbow.

The concept has been tried before in South West England. Initiative­s to inspire government-run institutio­ns and other large catering outfits to source food and ingredient­s locally have been trialled but have either died a death or petered out for various reasons.

“Until now, it has been difficult for smaller, local producers and suppliers to access the public sector food supply chain,” said Ellen Bright, project co-ordinator for the South West Food Hub, which has been set up to prepare the region for a Crown Commercial Service (CCS) pilot for a new online procuremen­t system, which will make the whole concept of local supply easier and more attainable.

Contracts for public sector institutio­ns, such as hospitals and colleges, are typically dominated by large national contractor­s. But now the Covid-19 lockdown has pushed the concept of ‘buy local’ forward by highlighti­ng many frailties within the food supply chain. So much so, it is a cloud which now has its own silver lining.

It has been announced that the South West will become the first region in the UK to witness a major procuremen­t trial which the Government wishes to roll out eventually elsewhere across the country.

The CCS, which provides profession­al procuremen­t services to the public sector, is developing a new online purchasing platform which it says will be launched in the South West early next year.

The newly launched South West Food Hub – in collaborat­ion with the NFU, Local Enterprise Partnershi­ps and other regional partners – has set about raising awareness of this procuremen­t opportunit­y and is helping to facilitate the pilot by demonstrat­ing to public sector partners how they will be able to buy food and drink through the new platform.

The team is also supporting local producers and suppliers so that they can be ready to supply through the new hub.

“The new online platform is an excellent opportunit­y for regional food and drink SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprise­s) to gain access to a large and valuable new marketplac­e,” said a spokespers­on.

One man who knows all about the complexiti­es of food and drink supply chains is Greg Parsons, cofounder of the South West Food Hub. As a director of the company POM Support, he helped set up Somerset Larder, an organisati­on whose job has been to feed the 5,000-plus constructi­on workers at

Hinkley Point C. Mr Parsons has also launched food hub projects in North Wales and Cheshire.

He said: “Dynamic public procuremen­t helps to shorten supply chains and allows public sector organisati­ons better access to a rich and varied range of fantastic local produce.

“The South West Food Hub will help make connection­s between buyers and sellers, provide informatio­n and resources and sign

post services for the region’s diverse food community.

“I am inspired by this opportunit­y to work with farmers, growers, processors and buyers in the South West,” said Mr Parsons.

“We will help to open up public sector food procuremen­t to small and medium businesses and collaborat­e with partners across the region to build a world-class, future-proof, sustainabl­e supply chain.”

Part of the future success of the hub relies on online technology. A website will help make connection­s between buyers and sellers, as well as provide informatio­n, resources and signpost services for the region’s diverse food community.

The idea is rapidly gaining support. James Cashmore, deputy CEO of the Soil Associatio­n, said: “Dynamic food procuremen­t holds the prospect of creating shorter, more adaptable, more resilient supply chains, with fewer barriers to participat­ion, particular­ly for local producers. Approaches such as this are needed now, more than ever.”

Well-known West Country chef Michael Caines, of Lympstone Manor, said: “We take for granted the abundance of local and regional foods that have become a stable on our restaurant­s menus but, since the outbreak of the coronaviru­s and the closure of hotels and restaurant, many of these suppliers are struggling to find a route to market with their produce.

“Now, more than ever, I urge you to support buying local by using the South West Food Hub’s supplier directory to seek out those producers who are local to you.”

Recently the South West Food Hub, in collaborat­ion with one of the region’s leading accountanc­y companies PKF Francis Clark, and the legal firm Stephens Scown LLP, reached out to local food and drink businesses in a survey to understand how they are being affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

Amazingly, given the downturn, 10 per cent of respondent­s stated their revenues were higher than expected – but just over a third said revenues were less than 30 per cent of their predicted takings for the year to date.

“Some respondent­s are struggling to meet hugely increased demand, for example in supplying veg boxes, whilst others have struggled to maintain their usual routes to market following the shutdown of the hospitalit­y industry,” said Mr Parsons.

The Earl of Devon Charlie Courtenay, whose Powderham Castle plays host to a major food festival each year, said: “It is great news for the region’s farmers and public sector food consumers that the South West Food Hub has been formed. It will prepare the region for the Crown Commercial Services’ new online platform – a genuine opportunit­y to shorten supply chains to ensure more of the region’s healthy local produce reaches the public sector marketplac­e.”

Mr Parsons added: “Never has the time been more ripe for a sustainabl­e supply hub here in the South West. Both producers and end users are crying out for an easier more sustainabl­e way to do business, and buyers deserve to have a much greater choice.

“It makes perfect sense that we can facilitate this right here in the region where we literally operate on one another’s doorsteps.”

To find out more about the pilot and get involved visit the website www.thesouthwe­stfoodhub.co.uk or email info@thesouthwe­stfoodhub.co.uk.

I’VE been back in my home county of Cornwall this week and not for the first time have been mightily impressed by the visible presence of the local food sector.

I’ve barely been able to drive for a mile anywhere without being offered local produce at the roadside. Shops appear to stock little else and scores of hotels, restaurant­s and pubs – once they reopen – will all be featuring local delicacies on their menus again.

It’s hardly surprising in a way: for the last 40 years the West Country in general has been pumping up its local food sector to a point where there are probably more specialist producers per square mile than in any comparable area anywhere in Europe, if not the world.

And Cornwall, with a rich farming heritage as well as its fishing industry, can certainly provide as diverse a range of local products as you will find.

But how much of all this fine produce, I wonder, is procured by public institutio­ns: by the council, the schools, the naval base, the hospitals? How many of their buyers give – or are allowed to give – priority to local produce from local businesses which are providing invaluable work opportunit­ies for local people in what is still officially one of the most disadvanta­ged areas in Western Europe?

I understand Cornwall Council makes much of its support for local food producers, but is that just skin deep, just tokenism – as I have been led to believe?

What is abundantly clear is that if all the public institutio­ns in the county were to source only local food and drink (apart from the exotics that can’t be grown here) the benefits for producers would be immense – and that’s no exaggerati­on.

That line of reasoning can be extended to the whole of the South West; in fact to the whole of the country.

It is regrettabl­e that in certain regions outside the South West the revival in the local food sector has faltered and stalled simply because producers haven’t been able to achieve the baseline level of sales necessary to generate either income or profits for reinvestme­nt and growth.

But the encouragin­g aspect is that in those regions where local products offer genuine, readily available alternativ­es to supermarke­t offerings more people are opting to buy them. And coronaviru­s has led to a surge of new customers through the doors of those independen­t butchers and other food shops which are likely to stock such local products.

In fact, we are being told there has been a measurable, across-theboard increase in sales of home-produced food and drink in the last three months.

Great. So why, then, does another set of figures show me that our food imports are continuing to rise, pushing us even further towards that perilous point where in order to keep the nation fed we shall be 50 per cent reliant on what others are prepared to sell us?

If this Government is really serious, as it has been claiming with increasing desperatio­n, about helping the British farming sector then that can be achieved at a stroke by implementi­ng a buy local, buy British food procuremen­t policy for all public institutio­ns.

We are no longer constraine­d by any regulation­s obliging us to open up our market to every supplier in Europe. We have every right to discrimina­te positively in favour of British producers.

And remember this: cheap, imported food is only superficia­lly cheap. The other side of the equation is the disappeara­nce of British food sector jobs, driving more people into the ranks of the unemployed and lumbering the Government with the cost of looking after them.

How good a deal does that sound?

 ??  ?? Greg Parsons and Ellen Bright, two of the people behind the revolution­ary
South West Food Hub
Greg Parsons and Ellen Bright, two of the people behind the revolution­ary South West Food Hub
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 ??  ?? Chef Michael Caines is urging people to buy local using the South West Food Hub
Chef Michael Caines is urging people to buy local using the South West Food Hub
 ??  ?? > Powderham Castle which hosts a major food festival every year
> Powderham Castle which hosts a major food festival every year
 ??  ?? > Greg Parsons, left, with Glenn Woodcock, co-founders of the South West Food Hub
> Greg Parsons, left, with Glenn Woodcock, co-founders of the South West Food Hub
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