Let them eat veg: Cultivating new way of food access

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Cultivate is a community co-operative, owned and run by its members.  It has had several models over the years including growing food itself, selling produce direct from a veg-van, retailing at farmers markets in Oxford, plus online sales and a veg box scheme.

These last few weeks have been like nothing before for Cultivate.  The headline stat is that Cultivate has seen an 8-9 fold increase in veg box sales – having sold around 30-40 a week previously, we are now packing 230-250 a week.  This has meant some drastic changes to Cultivate – alongside developing systems at the same time as using them to manage this surge in demand.  This has included mobilising a volunteer force to help with packing and distribution, digital systems development to help with order management, relaxing (to some discomfort) our ethical procurement policy (but also necessary), and creativity on sourcing and finding food, plus lots of cashflow concerns – being paid in arrears by customers and in advance to producers puts lots of financial pressure on our Co-op. I’m incredibly proud of the team for meeting this demand though and making sure our members and local community are fed.

With the increase in demand, it has been very hard to look up and see the bigger picture on the food system, but there are things that I’ve found interesting and lots of potential pathways.

Shift in consumer sourcing

It’s been great having so many people buying from Cultivate, and this demand in our work/produce indicates how many radars we were on thanks to our staff and members.  There are other box schemes Cultivate works with locally – one of which saw a jump in demand from 200 boxes to 400 boxes in a week, and that was the first week of surge. At that point Cultivate had jumped from 30 to 60 boxes.  However, there is only so much food families and individuals can eat.  Box scheme demand is shifting who people are getting their food from, but I expect there is still the same amount of food being consumed nationally.

Just-in-Time to ‘Dig for Victory’

There are some huge risks – whilst the conventional food supply chain has responded fairly well to the new ‘framework’ (I’ve not heard of anyone necessarily starving more than usual). Consider the following

  • We’re currently in the ‘hunger gap’ where in the UK we are harvesting less than at any other point in the year and so lots of the food we eat comes from imports.
  • I expect retailers and wholesalers are reporting an increase in demand, but I don’t think there is an increase in demand – this is just a shift in who people are getting food from. I was half expecting the emptier supermarket shelves to fill up again after a week or two, but earlier today I had to pop into a shop and saw much less variety and emptier (and some empty) shelves.  This is not necessarily to say the food isn’t out there, at least at the moment, but more that there are bottle necks in getting it onto the shelves. 
  • The food supply chain isn’t robust – in 2008 New Economics Foundation produced a report called 9 Meals From Anarchy – there are only enough food supplies in the UK to last 9 meals… or 3 days.  Whilst a twelve year old report, not much has changed.
  • The food supply chain is concentrated and extractive.  The Report Corporate Concentration: Food Inc has a range of data on corporate extraction in the food chain, but a quick stat from page 53 – of every 1 retail pound (£) spent on bananas, 40p goes to the retailer and only 1.5p to the grower.  Retailers and wholesalers will never admit the fragility of a system (9 Meals) that allows them to extract so much from producers (Food Inc.). 
  • We’ve had endless reporting of ‘irresponsible consumer behaviour’ (toilet rolls etc), but this reporting is so tedious and consistent I expect there is some level of mis-reporting, in part to distract, but also to set the scene for any blame in future food shortage.  Beginning with consumers is classic and has been done before – The British Retail Consortium has commissioned a series of reports for the last few years, which show that most food waste occurs in the home (70%) with very little occurring in retail (2%). Whilst these reports are independent, having been prepared by the Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP), the tactic from conventional industry is clear – to promote research which takes the discussion away from industry practices and shifts blame to consumers.  If there are any food shortages, be prepared to be told it was your fault as a consumer, individual or citizen.  It’s not your fault as you need to eat, but be prepared to be told it anyway!
  • I expect the response of retailers and wholesalers has been to ask producers to plant/produce food today at an increased level, so they can ‘meet demand’, and that this means land is being used today which might otherwise have provided food at another time of year.  Land use patterns that have, until now, been managed in a way to better assure ‘smooth’ food supply over the year are now disrupted – lots of food grown today means less food grown in the future so we may experience supply shortages in the medium term.
  • I expect as further measures are introduced (such as restrictions on international shipping), this will affect on imports of food to the UK.
  • Producers in other countries, and governments overseas, might, to increase their own food security, ensure foodstuffs are retained locally to them instead of or before exporting.

In the UK, we will need to cultivate land for not only us, but for others locally and to distribute it – if  we’re not careful, there will likely be medium term food access challenges due to pressure on producers and supply chains being cut off.  Start planting stuff now.  But food grown domestically needs to be cared for and grown in a way that means it can be consumed by other people, not just the grower; domestic growers will need to start growing to more commercial standards.

Online doesn’t mean online

Cultivate doesn’t grow food itself anymore. Instead it tries to ensure good food producers locally can earn a living from good food production. Cultivate has around 30 suppliers through the year as we ensure the produce we sell is seasonal (usually).  We use a cool piece of software to help with orders placed by members and customers, and we’ve seen some of our suppliers/producers starting to use the same software – I’m genuinely pleased to see the uptake of this kit.

However, whilst there is a shift online for customers, this has shifted where capacity is – ordering online doesn’t always mean fewer people involved in getting food to people.  This paradigm shift has meant a capacity shift to logistics – not just for Cultivate, but for lots of industries.  Our colleagues in the sector will likely need support converting ‘online’ produce into food in people’s mouths, and that doesn’t happen without people.

We’re (all) still resilient

Cultivate is a co-operative.  We’re a special type of co-operative as we not only work for the benefit of our members, but also our local community, which includes the people of Oxford and the incredible food producers working the local area. I’ve been humbled, proud and so, so grateful for all the support the Cultivate team has received in the last few weeks.   We’re all exhausted, but we’re also committed – committed to getting good food to people that need it.  I’m sure this is true around the UK and globally. Thank you to everyone that has put themselves forward and supported us to ensure people are fed in our community.

So that’s where I’m at.  I’ve still a load of other food thoughts about the food system including around the role of foodbanks, more permanent paradigm consumption shifts, and how we could change food production methods, but they can wait for another time… plus I did it all without using the word virus…. [damn!]

Tom Carman
Cultivate Oxford