‘Locally sourced’ food: not as straightforward as it seems…

I’m sure you’ve heard about the many benefits of ‘locally sourced’ food ingredients: lower food miles, fresher food, better for the environment, supporting local communities, etc. And yes, these are all excellent reasons for sourcing food close to home. But it’s often not as straightforward as it seems.

Take the much-beloved local corner shop. Sometimes people think that when they do their grocery shopping there, they are supporting local producers. But if they took a closer look at the shelves and the provenance of the food on them, they’d often find that it comes from quite a bit further afield.

When people use their local shop, they may well be supporting their local community. But the ironic thing is that in doing so, there’s a good chance that they are not actually supporting local producers at all.

When we started out, we wanted to do just that and so we made strenuous efforts to buy as close as we could to particular schools. But it really did prove a difficult thing to do. Take locally-bought carrots, for instance. We found these were typically being brought in from Holland and other parts of Europe. And much of the fruit that was purchased locally actually came from outside the UK.

That’s when we had a bit of a rethink. We changed our approach and our policy to match, deciding to go through a regional and a national supplier while still stipulating that we wanted our vegetables and fruit to be UK-grown.

The result? Even though our supplies may not have been locally purchased, they were certainly a lot more local than the Dutch carrots that we had been buying two years previously.

And so sometimes it’s good to take a step back and work out the best way to locally-source. If you’re looking for lower food miles, you’ll often find it best to go through a national supplier. That way you can trace the products right back to where they are actually grown or raised.

That said, there are indeed some things that you can buy very locally – milk, cheese, bread, honeys, jams and relishes for instance. But whilst there is a good local supply of condiments and dairy produce, meats are not so straightforward. And from a price perspective, it is just not always possible to buy from local producers. British bacon, for instance, is 2 or 3 times as expensive as Danish bacon.

And then of course, you need to take quality into account. In some cases, food that is locally sourced is just not as good quality as that produced further afield. Compromises can only go so far, and our quality benchmarks are absolute.

Buying for purely conscientious reasons certainly does not guarantee that we will end up with the best product. For example, we spent the whole of last summer trying to find a Fairtrade coffee which actually tasted good. It was hard, time-consuming work, but we did eventually find one – a great-tasting Vista bean – 100% Arabica.

We have a strong ethical policy and we know we must always act in accordance with our principles. But we also know we can’t blindly follow these at the expense of taste and quality.

‘Locally sourced’ is an excellent thing to aim for, but like so much in the food game, it’s a complex, many-sided issue. What was it that a philosopher said? Something like: ‘To every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it is always wrong.’

Till next time,

Steve

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