The ups and downs of community involvement
PUBLISHED: 15:59 11 January 2011 | UPDATED: 08:36 28 March 2014
As you will have seen from previous issues, we are seeing something of a boom in community food initiatives. This seems to be partly due to consumers' increasing disillusionment with the supermarketdominated system linked to an upsurge in interest in communal ventures - especially from families with children who want their children to see where food comes from.
As you will have seen from previous issues, we are seeing something of a boom in community food initiatives. This seems to be partly due to consumers’ increasing disillusionment with the supermarketdominated system linked to an upsurge in interest in communal ventures – especially from families with children who want their children to see where food comes from. Community food initiatives offer people a closer connection to where their food is grown and, for people with limited leisure time, they are often an easy way to make that connection.
From the smallholder’s point of view the advantages of inviting community involvement include the benefit of a guaranteed income, increased sociability and a fairer sharing of the risks and responsibilities. For example, if a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) crop fails, all the stakeholders carry the loss – not just the grower.
We explored CSA in the July issue which showed the range of different CSA models adopted by projects around the country. They all, to some extent, provide the farmers with more security in terms of an income stream. They do this by requiring a level of commitment from the consumers. They also provide the farmers with a closer link to the people who are eating their food. Many CSA farmers say how inspiring it is to hear people appreciating their work and giving them encouragement. The downside of CSA is that farmers need to accept an increased level of consumer involvement in their work. This requires new skills in terms of managing volunteers and making sure that people are safe on the farm.
One increasingly popular form of CSA involves a group of allotment holders working collectively. An example in Stroud involves seven households working five adjacent allotments as one plot with a four-year rotation around the plot. The members of this CSA all share the financial costs of running the allotments and whoever turns up for the work sessions takes a share of what is harvested that week. There is something to harvest every week of the year. This model works well for people who need to share the responsibility of food growing - there is nothing more disheartening than coming back from a two-week holiday to find knee-high weeds swamping your seedlings. By working collectively, there is always someone to cover for you, you can learn veg-growing tips from each other and have the satisfaction of working as part of a team.
The downsides of this model of CSA are that there is no paid farmer who will carry the main responsibility for food production. If one or more members are not able to contribute the necessary work, then that work will fall to the other members.
There can also be some differences of opinion at the annual crop-planning meeting, where some members are in favour of reducing future potato harvests in favour of a new asparagus bed...
Another form of community food initiative is the food co-op. These are generally small groups of (up to 20) households who collectively make monthly or bi-monthly orders from a wholesaler then share the produce amongst themselves. These co-ops offer considerable cost savings to the consumers but involve a certain amount of volunteer work in
making the orders and sorting out the delivery ready for collection.
A step on from this is a food hub in which the consumers form a joint co-operative with local food producers. The consumer members pay a monthly membership fee and the producers offer their produce for sale at above wholesale prices but below retail prices. Some food hubs also retain a small percentage of the sales value of produce to pay a worker to run the hub.
The Stroud food hub (see www.stroudco.org.uk) keeps overheads to a minimum by using a school hall as the drop-off point and offering only an optional delivery service which consumers pay for as required. The benefits to the producers are that the food hub does all the marketing for them, they only deliver what has been ordered that week (no need to go home with unsold stock) and they are paid on delivery. The downside is that orders can be erratic – August is a notoriously quiet month with most of the consumers away on holiday.
The last few years have seen a steady increase in the number and variety of community food initiatives. As the number of these projects starts to build up in an area they reach a critical mass and the projects start to support each other. In Stroud there is a farm-based CSA project, a communal allotment, five food co-ops and a food hub. Here are some examples of the synergies we are starting to see;
The Stroud micro-brewery could not find a source of local, organic hops, so it sent an offer to the members of the CSA and the food hub offering to give them free hop crowns from which they could to grow their own hops. Fifteen households are now growing hops in their gardens (and at the communal allotment). Each September there is a collective hoppicking session at the brewery, where we all meet with armfuls of hop bines and sit around stripping off the hop cones, drinking beer and eating cake. We then get a reduced price on our first five pints of our ‘Brewers Garden’ beer bought from the food hub.
The brewery has also done a deal with a local small-holder who takes away the spent malt and hops as pig food
The CSA project wanted to offer eggs for sale to its members so started to buy in eggs from a wholesaler until we had built up a big enough market to guarantee a level of demand that made it worthwhile for one of our members to set up a small flock of layers. This has now expanded to a small egg-round in addition to the sales to the CSA members and egg sales through the food hub.
The CSA and the food hub support each other by the food hub selling any CSA surpluses at a better price than the CSA would get at wholesale. The CSA promotes the food hub to its members as a source of a wider range of locally-sourced produce than the CSA can provide on its own.
As community food initiatives start to become ‘mainstream’ they are beginning to offer the potential of a real alternative to the supermarketdominated system. And they are doing this in ways that provide levels of fun, sociability and engagement that supermarkets are never likely to reach!
There are several organisations offering support to local food initiatives:
Nick Weir has been involved in setting up several CSAs, consumer co-ops and food hubs and provides the following documents for these organisations;
Free use of website systems and databases
Membership database systems
Cash flow forecasts and business plans
Memorandum and articles
Contact Nick on firstname.lastname@example.org
Climate Friendly Food operate a certification system that supports food producers in growing low carbon foods and moving towards closed, renewable and community-led food systems. See www.climatefriendlyfood.org.uk
The Plunkett Foundation and Making Local Food Work have produced a toolkit that covers: Setting up a social enterprise; Business planning; Legal structures; Financial management systems.
The Soil Association has produced a CSA action plan backed up by another document called The story of CSA in Stroud which follows a similar format but gives real life examples from Stroud. Both available at www.soilassociation.org/csa Sustain have produced a ‘Food co-ops toolkit’ to support consumer co-ops which can be downloaded from www.sustainweb.org/foodcoopstoolkit