Sourcing sustainable food

How do you find local, seasonal food?
16 April 2019

Interview with 

Alice Guillaume, Cambridge Food Hub


A food market with a wide array of different vegetables.


Where the food we put in the pan actually comes from is key to food sustainability. The concept of eating seasonally when local produce is at its best is nothing new, and eating local, seasonal food can reduce food miles. But actually getting hold of locally-grown produce directly isn’t always easy, especially for big organisations. Katie Haylor and Chris Smith spoke with Alice Guillaume from the Cambridge Food Hub, who are seeking to put local producers in direct contact with local buyers in Cambridgeshire. They took a seat in the dining area of Vanderlyle restaurant in Cambridge to chew the proverbial fat about food miles. First, Alice cautioned that buying locally isn’t necessarily always the greener option...

Alice - If we do manage to buy British food all year round, it's not necessarily the most sustainable option to buy. For example, if you're buying apples in season, that's great, but in order for you to buy British Apple in the middle of summer it had stayed in chilled storage maybe nine months of the year. The energy that goes into chilling that produce for that many months means that actually the carbon footprint of buying British produce, such as apples, out of season is more than if you buy the apples from New Zealand that have come 11,000 miles but have been shipped here.

Katie - So is what you are saying then, it's a bit too simple to just say fewer food miles is more environmentally friendly. It depends a bit on what you're talking about and when you're talking about it?

Alice - Definitely. It also depends on how the food is produced. Maybe food has been stored like the apple example. But if you think about tomatoes, if you're buying tomatoes out of season in the UK, they are grown in artificially heated and lit tunnels, and the carbon dioxide emissions from that method of production are 10 times more than if you grow them naturally in Spain and then ship them over to the UK.

Katie - We're in a county, Cambridgeshire, where there's loads going on in terms of food, how are you seeking to address this issue of it not being as simple as me, a consumer, going to get some strawberries from the field over the road?

Alice - Yeah. So having just said that local is better is too simplified. It is still the case that there is a lot more opportunity for us to buy local produce than we currently have. The infrastructure doesn't exist for, particularly, institutional buyers such as maybe the University, or hospitals, or schools to buy produce that has been grown very close by. One example is about Cambridge University wanting to buy strawberries from Chivers farms, which is near Histon, those strawberries have been grown about 5 km away from where they’re going to be eaten in the University. However, in order for those strawberries to reach the University, the University has to buy them via London, so overall they travel about a hundred kilometres in order to be eaten just 5 km from where they were grown, and this is because there isn't that infrastructure in place to do these direct local sales.

Chris - Sounds nuts although actually it's fruit we’re talking about. Can this be solved though? Because we've all got hooked onto this, haven't we, this mass distribution, mass efficiency model rather than one which is focused on sustainability?

Alice - Yeah. So we get food from all over the world and this has brought massive benefits. We have so much more produce that we can eat. Our diets are way more varied than they were in the past. This is brought nutritional benefits etc. But it does come with a cost - the environmental impact. We think that we can have a positive impact in terms of making local food systems cut emissions but allow people to still have very diverse and interesting and nutritionally positive diets. So the Cambridge Food Hub, what we are trying to do is to put in those missing bits of infrastructure to allow buyers to directly buy from local producers, but instead of each individually going out in their vehicles and collecting that produce which is incredibly fuel inefficient, we want to be that efficient distribution network that can go to all these local producers, gather the local produce and then take it to the buyers within Cambridgeshire.

Chris - But that's very expensive potentially isn't it, because what people really really shop with, is their eye on the price tag. Can you still deliver what people regard as a good choice, a sustainable choice but do it in a way that will compete with what the supermarkets can currently offer you at very low price?

Alice - That's a really interesting point because actually if we think about the price of food that we buy in supermarkets, you get a very low price but it's not accurately reflecting the environmental cost or the cost of the supplier. We want a food system that is fair, that's one of our core values. And in order to be fair it has to benefit everyone that’s involved in the food system. One of the things that we think we can do in order to make sure that the price isn't massively high is by making supply chains shorter. Going straight from the producer to the buyer you skip out a lot of middle stages where you have added mark-up. By making those relationships direct we hope that consumers will get the price that an honest reflection of what it costs and the people that make the food are properly compensated for what they make.

Katie - Now you’re very very new, what are you actually doing right now and what are you hoping to do a bit later on?

Alice - So right now we're really trying to get local producers to join our platform on the open food network where we have a shop front, and we are also getting in contact with buyers maybe farm shops, local groceries, but also we’d love restaurants and café's to become buyers from the food hub as well. So trying to build up that network, get people on our platform, and we're starting to do our initial deliveries to these shops. The impacts that we hope to have are; reducing emissions, so while saying that food miles is more complex than it originally appears, it is the case that we can cut food miles in certain places. We have electric vans that are charged by photovoltaic panels. The efficiency with which you do the deliveries, so planning your routes and making sure that you're not going back on yourself. Making sure that all food that goes into our system ends up somewhere where it's valued, whether it's a high-end restaurant or working with charities and stuff that use produce more flexibly.


What we need here is a more enlightened society and food producers getting more than the average 9p they get from every £1 spent on food in the supermarket.
An enlightened society either comes from better education or people reconnecting with their local producers to trade and communicate.
The best way to fix this quickly is to add Food Growing, cooking, & nutrition to the school curriculum (not difficult when 14,000 of our 26,000 schools already have a garden or veg patch and organisation like BigBarn, RHS, Slow Food & Garden organic have the teaching notes)

[Whoops, let's get rid of those spammy links for you - we're sure it was an honest slip of the e-tongue...]

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