Food co-ops flourish

21 December 2001

The future is all about


In the second part of his look at Cumbria post foot-and-mouth, Jeremy Hunt

focusses on new food distribution and livestock marketing initiatives

Food co-ops flourish

Targeting low-income

families on urban housing

estates as potential

customers for high-quality

meat sounds bizarre. But its

proving a viable proposition

DAN Dempsey is a Cumbrian who deserves to be listened to. For anyone as determined as he is to see Cumbrian farming fight back, he could not be in a better job. As campaign director for the Countryside Alliance he has a vision for the recovery of the countys rural economy.

But like all Cumbrians he has his feet firmly on the ground. Hes not likely to get carried away with schemes that "promise all and deliver nowt" but hes well aware that if there really is a silver lining lurking in the dark clouds of crisis, farmers and rural communities must remain receptive to new ideas.

"Only if they are prepared to embrace new concepts will genuine recovery become a reality," says Mr Dempsey.

One of the schemes his team is currently involved with might appear rather radical but its proving to be a runaway success.

Mr Dempseys office, just outside the Cumbria market town of Cockermouth, is a happening place. Its the campaign centre for the Countryside Alliance, an organisation whose broad remit on countryside matters now sees it working on a raft of schemes designed to strengthen the rural economy – and what better place to start the ball rolling than Cumbria?

Long before the F&M crisis, the CA team at Cockermouth had been working on a ground-breaking concept based on marketing locally-produced food.

Low income families

No-one can deny the success of niche markets for farm-produced speciality foods, packaged to present an air of quality and exclusivity. But to suggest that farmers should look to low-income families on urban housing estates as potential customers for high quality meat and other produce seems bizarre to say the least.

But there was sound reasoning underpinning the CAs creation of food co-ops aimed at linking the bulk purchasing requirements of local groups of consumers with farmers and growers. But there was more to it than that.

Sharron Rourke, the CAs rural regeneration manager, has been responsible for setting up several such food co-ops in north Cumbria.

"Not only can farmers benefit from these new markets but the food co-ops provide a way of improving the diet and ultimately the health of low income families by offering affordable fresh food."

"Cancer, heart disease and mental illness are much higher in low income communities. This concept can provide fresh food at a fraction of the prices charged by supermarkets and at the same time improve public health," says Mrs Rourke.

But she stresses that this is not about asking farmers to sell cheap food in bulk.

"The prices charged are very attractive to the consumer but still leave a good margin for the producer," she says.

North Cumbria has been designated a Health Action Zone, which prompted collaboration on the food co-op project between the CA, Allerdale Borough Council and Mitchells Auction Mart based at Cockermouth.

Mrs Rourke well remembers her first visit to a run-down housing estate in Workington where she was ushered into an almost derelict community house to discuss the proposals for a food co-op.

The food co-op would make a weekly delivery of fresh foods to the community – initially fruit and vegetables – and then progress to meat and even farmed trout and wild game.

"Low income urban communities find the high cost of fresh foods prohibitive and only buy small quantities from supermarkets. The food co-op was determined to cut those costs by at least 50%," says Mrs Rourke.

For families that had never seen a courgette and rarely tasted a cauliflower and would never indulge in fresh fish and only occasionally buy fresh meat, the food co-op was a revelation.

Cutting out the middlemen in the food chain means that farmers and growers are not receiving any less for their produce but consumers are still benefiting from the lower price. Farmers gain a foothold in a new market – a market they never thought existed.

Locally produced beef, lamb and pork are now being sold through the food co-ops. Marie Stockdale, who runs a farm shop at Pow Heads Farm, Wigton, is one of the suppliers of home-reared meat and poultry.

There are around 600 families involved in the food co-ops; on one estate 167 customers recently turned up for the weekly delivery. With trout costing £1, a family bag of vegetables at just £2 and lamb at not much more than £2/kg, the food co-ops are thriving.

Ready and waiting

What has been created is a brand new market for fresh food. Its not one thats had to be cajoled by packaging and advertising, but one that was ready and waiting to purchase fresh food in quantity from farmers and growers.

Farmers involved in supplying fresh meat are employing butchers to professionally cut and vacuum pack. Even covering those costs, the £2.27/kg that farmers were receiving for their lambs last autumn was leaving a fair margin. Lamb was selling in Tesco at that time at £9/kg.

The F&M outbreak prevented the spring 2001 launch of the new website which is currently on-hold until 2002. Next year will see this website link farmers with more consumers.

Although currently pre-occupied with re-stocking, a growing number of livestock farmers in Cumbria have agreed to support the CA in its efforts to find new markets for their produce.

"They have all seen what we were achieving before F&M and now they want to re-stock and get involved with us," says Mrs Rourke.

Left: Dan Dempsey, Countryside Alliance. Above: Sharron Rourke and Marie Stockdale, helping to make the food co-ops a success.

See more