Martin Yarnit, Churchill Fellow- Written evidence (FPO0002)


Q.14 – What can the UK learn about food policy in other countries?


Small family farms are not necessarily more productive or efficient or innovative than large farms but the vital roles they perform in the eco-system are grounds for trying to halt and preferably reverse their decline. They perform a vital role of stewardship in the countryside and also as an employer of labour. Just as important, these smaller farms have the potential to expand production to meet the growing demand for fresh fruit and vegetables, thereby helping to reduce the UK’s dependence on imports.


To see how well this can be done at scale, and with the support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I’ve been to Italy and the US to meet small producers, urban and rural, and the people working alongside them to improve their livelihoods and to make good food more widely available, especially to the least advantaged. This report is about what I learned on those trips and what changes I believe we should be making over here. 


Food hubs and intermediaries


Most food in the UK is distributed by two kinds of intermediaries, wholesalers and supermarkets. These latter have carved out a growing share of the entire market in groceries, at the same time as generating increasing concern at their hold over the incomes of producers. Marketing and distribution accounts for most of the retail cost of most food items. Farmers in some cases receive less than the costs of production making them dependent on other sources of income or government subsidies. But it does not have to be like this.


In Italy and the US, new forms of intermediaries operate in the interests of the producers or jointly in the interests of producers and consumers, operating according to ethical frameworks that value sustainability, fair trade and quality food. Their key function is to strengthen the bargaining power of small producers, improving their livelihoods and reducing their dependence on subsidy and secondary sources of income. They do this by creating a distribution chain that is short and enables the small farmer to meet market demand.  In the end, a simple test of the value added by a hub or intermediary is how much a producer earns for a pound or a kilo of apples, and how much goes to the intermediary. Another test is how much a consumer pays for the same apples.


In the US, these intermediaries are often known as food hubs which take the form of warehouses or distribution centres, or virtual distribution centres, using the internet to link sellers and buyers, or both. Some are run as not for profit enterprises, some for profit and there are also hybrids.  The US Department of Agriculture, which has provided funding for them for more than a decade, defines hubs like this:

a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.


The 2018 Farm Bill, passed with the current President’s support, continues and in some respects strengthens the features of the 2008 Obama Administration Farm Bill that introduced funding for hubs, including more support for urban agriculture. But disappointingly, it shifts resources to the wealthiest farmers at a time when American farmers have suffered a 50% drop in income since 2013. [1]


In Italy, where the prevalent and well-established form of producer cooperatives collaborate with consumer cooperatives to market a large percentage of a wide variety of foodstuffs such as tomatoes and cheese, new initiatives have arisen alongside these to bring good food closer to the urban centres.


In both countries, we are witnessing the growth of new infrastructure that enables small producers to operate in markets formerly dominated by large farms. And at the same time, there is a growing awareness of the need for a systems approach to tilting the food and catering industries in a more sustainable direction.


None of what I will report on here is totally unknown in the UK. There are producer cooperatives selling direct, there is community supported agriculture (CSA), embryonic food hubs, farmers markets, food policy programmes, public procurement of food. The Tamar Valley Food Hub,  in the south west, which brings together more than 50 producers in an online market place,  passes on more than 85% of the retail price of produce to the producers.[2]  Dean Forest Food Hub uses online ordering and local pick up points to run its box scheme, rather like Lulu’s Local Food,  the scheme in Charlottesville described later on here. [3]  OrganicLea has created a restaurant supported agriculture  scheme in greater London as well as running a box scheme but it is far from viable commercially.[4] Although its sales of plants and food amounted to £294,180 in 2018, it made ends meet with the help of £297,526 of grants and donations.[5] Sole of Discretion, a community interest company, has created a short chain that links small scale fishing vessels with consumers, providing  traceability and guaranteed prices.[6] An example of an initiative that has broken through the scale barrier is Local Food  Links based in Bridport. Founded in 2007, this community interest company (CIC) uses four kitchens to cook and supply school meals using local produce (‘whenever we can’) to more than 50 schools primarily in  Dorset. Perhaps the key factor here is the value added of cook-chill compared with the supply of unprocessed food like fresh fruit and vegetables which struggles to compete with supermarket prices.[7]


The difference between what happens in the UK compared with Italy and the US is largely one of scale and ambition coupled with the use of sophisticated technical solutions to growing, marketing and distribution.[8]


A strategic response


Food is fast becoming a strategic issue, on a par with health, energy and education, and as vital an issue to understanding and tackling climate change. But if sustainably produced food  is crucial to our health and that of the planet, it is increasingly clear that food security is too important to be left entirely to the market. Nor will it be, for food is entering politics as a human rights issue and a priority issue for government, as this Inquiry shows.

There is growing support for the need for a systemic response to the food crisis, one that deals with the root causes rather than tinkers with the symptoms. I’ve chosen one piece of the system to consider in depth, the position of small and medium sized farms or small family farms, recognizing that whatever solutions are proposed to the problems they face must form part of a coherent and comprehensive programme of change. So in this review I have placed a lot of emphasis on the creation of local food policies, as in Chicago in the US.




Montevarchi: the Producer Supermarket


Montevarchi, a small town in the Arno valley just south of Florence, claims the world’s first producer supermarket. In a large warehouse in the town centre, 40 small producers have come together to make a permanent farmers market dedicated to the slow food movement’s quality, locality and seasonality mantra. But only more so, for there is nothing on the shelves that isn’t currently supplied by the producers. Certainly no bananas and not even a tomato because this being mid May they are not yet in season in Tuscany. A mixed clientele, in terms of age and status, bustles about filling their shopping bags from an enticing array of fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, bread, cakes, olive oil and wine. There is also a display of ready meals including soups prepared on site from vegetables past their sale date. All the time, fresh produce is being unloaded onto the shelves. At peak times, five workers are employed by the supermarket which is effectively a cooperative, thus locking in value and common ownership.


Annual turnover is €1.5m of which 50% goes to the cooperative and 30% to the producer40% of sales are represented by organics.  The margin on fruit is 10-15% and on boxed or packaged goods 30-40%, reflecting wastage rates.


The Montevarchi supermarket is a food hub owned by the producer that directly operates on behalf of the producer, trying to balance their interests with those of the consumer by providing food and drink in line with the slow food philosophy. By cutting out the middleman and shortening

the supply chain it provides a better return to producers than conventional supermarkets.  Perhaps a less limited range of goods would mean a higher turnover and higher returns for producers.


Apo Conerpo: a large scale fruit and vegetable producer cooperative


6000 small producers of fruit and vegetables spread across Italy belong to 40 cooperatives which themselves form the membership of Apo Conerpo (AC), a large scale national cooperative based just outside Bologna. So the producers are at one remove from its direction, exercising whatever influence they have through their membership of the local or specialist coops. Apo Conerpo, the director general, Gabriele Chiesa, explained, manages a number of marketing subsidiaries specialising in distributing, for example, pears and kiwis,  across Italy and Europe to supermarkets and to processing companies. They account for 10% of the national market in tomatoes which in total is 5.6m tons.


AC is a complex organisation which over the years has developed the systems essential to small producers if they are to secure a place in the market. These include research and development to improve cropping and quality, detailed specifications for each product and each national market, agreed times for planting and harvesting, minimising time in cold store and ensuring a steady supply throughout the season. Working with small producers to achieve market fitness is a key role of the hubs we visited in Italy and the US. 


According to Chiesa, AC accounts for just 1% of the total cost of marketed produce, with a team of around 20 people, and the marketing subsidiaries account for a further 5%. The producers, who agree to sell all their output to AC, receive around 20% of the net sales income with the remainder going to the supermarket, wholesaler or processor.  Currently onion growers are getting the best price in living memory, and the pear and kiwi producers are benefitting from a strong market position.  A helpful factor is that the average size of a holding is slowly growing in fruit and vegetable production but most producers still can't earn enough without a second income.


The democratic link between the small producer and the board of Apo Conerpo may be indirect (producers are members of AC through their membership of local or specialist coops) but on the other hand this is an organisation that has refined and strengthened the entire process of engaging the producer with the market, retail and wholesale. Coops enable small producers to gain a foothold in the market; they may also strengthen the bargaining power of the individual producer.

In Italy, unlike in the US or the UK, cooperatives enjoy a privileged position in the tax system. The ‘Marconi Fund’ has been a key element in the creation and sustenance of Italy’s co-operative sector. In return for helpful tax exemptions co-ops in Italy must invest 3% of their annual income in the Marconi Fund to finance new co-ops. Social enterprises generally enjoy lower VAT rates compared with conventional enterprises.   But this advantage is outweighed by the often poorer working conditions (compared to conventional public sector employment) experienced in many sectors, especially social services.[9] However, agricultural cooperatives, with 94,000 employees and 24% of the turnover of the agriculture sector, provide more bargaining power for farmers than if they operated as sole entities. According to economic historian, Vera Zamagni, cooperatives’ play a strategic role for the entire market place where they reach a critical mass, by making the business world more people-centered’. [10]

United States


I was in the US in June-July 2019, criss-crossing the country from the west,  Portland, Oregon, to the mid-west, Chicago, down to the south,  Charlottesville, Virginia, and up to the east coast, Philadelphia. Each place demonstrated major facets of the innovatory ways that the US has developed support for small and medium sized farms, combining bottom up initiatives with support from the US Department of Agriculture. The places I visited were chosen with the help of local leaders in the field as well as a review of the literature. I am especially indebted here to the work of James Barham of the US Department of Agriculture and that of Jeff Farbman—Senior Program Associate, Wallace Center at Winrock International, a key figure in the biennial   National Good Food Network conference    and author of the National Food Hub Survey. [11] [12]


Taken together, the US has generated a set of approaches that provide a compelling story for the UK observer. I begin with the largest scale hub, Common Market in Philadelphia.




Common Market, Philadelphia


Common Market summarise the challenge facing US hubs


‘While there have been attempts to improve local and healthy food access in low-income communities through retail, challenges remain to increasing local and healthy food in all outlets where communities eat, including their schools and largest employers such as hospitals and universities. Despite their great potential for serving meals to low-income individuals every day, these anchor institutions face barriers to purchasing local foods. Even though local farms are in close proximity to urban institutions, their food could not be further away from the plates of people who need it most.’


So their mission has been to strengthen regional food systems, develop fair wholesale markets, improve public health and food access and promote the viability of small and mid-scale farms.


A values driven, wholesale distributor of small farm produce, as it calls itself, Common Market now has an annual $8m. turnover. Started 11 years ago, it aimed to provide institutional customers with good food from small farms. It has since expanded to Baltimore, Washington DC and with another warehouse in Atlanta covering the Birmingham and Alabama area. And most recently to Houston. This is part of a five year expansion plan designed to lever the expertise and infrastructure developed in Philadelphia. Its customers include colleges and universities, hospitals, company cafeterias, schools, care homes, nurseries, restaurants and retailers. They put a lot of effort into working with tricky (or picky?) customers such as hospitals. Getting it right shows what can be done. Lankenau Medical Center have invested in using diet to improve health outcomes and created a cafeteria that has become a popular local community lunch venue in its own right.


Audrey Huntington, senior advisor, takes me on a tour of the warehouse and coldstore which is divided into separate zones, with the coldest for frozen goods including meat. I watch as pallets are loaded, ready for shipping out. Common Market supply canned goods, dairy, meat, fruit and veg plus tofu and seitan. Average distance supplied from Phiadelphia is 88 miles. 10 box trucks plus another in Maryland supply the mid-Atlantic coast.


The hub employs 23 people and they charge a 36% mark up. They are still grant dependent, by choice. As a not for profit enterprise they are eligible for government and other grants and with very low margins this enables them to keep their mark up low. Besides, in some states and product areas where competition is tough, farmers might choose another distributor if mark ups were higher.


Common Market argues that it has made a significant impact on turnover of farmers. For example, they’ve helped an egg farm to triple turnover by helping them to achieve certification. A key function is helping farms to achieve standards set by the authorities and institutional consumers. They also do traceability.


USDA support for food hubs important, says Huntington, but in other respects US food policy is negative. Big subsidies go to   commodity crops for processed food  eg livestock feed  and corn syrup – rather than for food that people eat such as fruit and vegetables.   There is little direct support for small farmers in the form of loans. Dairy prices are set by each state, often at a level that doesn’t repay the farmer’s costs.  But, like Ben and Jerry, Common Market pay over the set price for organic dairy products.



Two hubs in Charlottesville, Virginia: retail and wholesale


Lulu’s Local Food: a virtual food hub offering a retail service


Molly Harris started a restaurant in Charlottesville, VA in 2004. In 2008 she decided to offer her customers the chance to buy the local food they enjoyed eating in her restaurant direct. It began with 100 families who paid a subscription and chose a pick up point for the food.  Identified a number of locations for people to pick up the food.  By May 2009 500 customers had signed up to a $75 sub. Supplied by 20 producers. Then came a USDA grant to improve software so that customers could choose from an online menu. The service has grown to 5500 customers with 45-65 producers depending on the season using 24 pick up locations. Sales are now $20k a week = $1m+ pa.


Bell Air farm – certified organic -  is one of the producers whose owner committed early on to working with Lulu’s Local Food, as well as selling through farmers markets, and runs a CSA scheme with  200 full shares and  600 half shares. James Barrett is the farm manager.


The business, which has been sold to a producers cooperative – Fall Line Farms and Local Roots [13]  - has expanded to work with local school districts. Molly Harris attributes the success of the enterprise in part to the growth of the universities which is changing local eating habits.  The name, Lulu’s Local Foods, continues as a software system designed to be used by farmers markets and food hubs, such as a group of farmers who have formed a food hub in Chicago. Molly is now project manager for the Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability (VAFAIRS) which promotes Lulus Local Foods. VAFAIRS is a nonprofit foundation of the Virginia Farm Bureau.


Local Food Hub Charlottesville


By contrast, the primary focus of the Local Food hub is on wholesale trade with mainly institutional consumers on behalf of more than fifty local farms.


The hub began a decade ago with the aim of bridging the gap between farmers and institutional consumers such as universities and school districts. Turnover is now $1.6m with. 80c. in every $ going to the farmer. They could settle for a 70-72c. share for producers but prefer to pay more and instead raise about $150k in grants and other contributions to cover the shortfall. In retrospect, executive director Kirsten Suokko tells me, it would have been better to have a bigger capital base to reduce dependence on fund raising, a point borne out by USDA’s research on food hubs. [14]

In June 2019, Local Food Hub merged its distribution operations with 4P Foods, a local company committed to ethical trading. They say, ‘The merger marries Local Food Hub’s strengths in farmer relationships and product knowledge with 4P’s strengths in logistics, market development, and sale’. The new arrangement benefits from 4P’s warehousing, IT systems and home delivery service. It should also strengthen the farmer and customer base.

Local Food has retained some functions separately as not for profit including Supporting farmers to achieve certification in the Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) kitemark and to meet federal food safety regulations is a vital role. Local Food hub also continues its food access programme including Fresh Farmacy – working with six health clinics to issue food prescriptions – and providing healthy snacks for eight school districts in central Virginia. They are currently thinking about setting up a chain of health food stores. Finally, Local Food hub is a member of the Charlottesville food justice network, a key aspect of which is its support for food banks.  


Two big questions that the hub has contended with are how to get to scale and how to achieve year around supply and convenience for consumers, and therefore how to help farmers extend the growing season.


The Redd in Portland Oregon: an incubator hub


Small and medium size farms struggle to find a toehold in the market. Alone, they often lack the expertise to meet consumers’ precise requirments and mandated quality standards. They are driven to sell at farmers markets which typically provide low returns for heavy outlays of labour. A gap analysis carried out by Ecotrust, a charity that exists to promote sustainability, highlighted the difficulties producers had in reaching out to institutional consumers, a market with potentially the biggest returns. It also showed the potential for increasing awareness about food. As a result, Ecotrust decided to find investment for two projects: an events space for the trust and its partners, and an incubator food hub, the Redd. [15]


Through the Redd,  as business manager, Kaitlin Rich explained, rural producers can make one efficient drop rather than dozens all over town, entrepreneurs can access scale-appropriate services and office space, and direct-to-consumer farmers, ranchers, and fishermen can pack and distribute their CSA (community supported agriculture) and CSF (collaborative farm share – multiple farm CSA) orders with ease. The idea is that shared space promotes shared ideas and projects. Currently, 170 food businesses utilize the services provided by this dynamic facility. The Redd is aimed at start ups but not exclusively. There is a special focus on business start ups by people of colour.


The Redd, which leases the building below market price, is on the brink of profitability, although since the enterprise is so new (it opened at the beginning of 2019) detailed data is not yet available.  It rents space to producers to use as a base and also rents out catering kitchens. Wholesale and retail prices are set by the producers.  A major tenant and business partner is B-Line, which manages the warehouse dry storage and cold store, aggregates orders and delivers using mainly trikes. In one project, GreenWheels, 80+ entrepreneurs are channeling their products to the regional grocer via B-Line’s warehousing, aggregation and delivery services, avoiding 15,000 vendor delivery trips over the life of the program, freeing up time for the busy products, while cutting carbon emissions and traffic congestion.[16]


In additional to institutional customers such as hospitals, the Redd also supplies New Seasons, a NW Pacific coast organic supermarket chain.


A key feature of the Redd is its focused support for nine of Ecotrust’s Ag of the Middle Accelerator participants — regional farmers, ranchers and fishers who are leveraging warehousing, networking and business support services at the Redd to expand their Portland-area sales. Agriculture of the Middle is a programme aimed at expanding the turnover of small and medium producers that are larger than those selling via farmers markets or CSA but smaller than those supplying globalized commodity markets and who want to sell locally.


Why focus on this size?  Ecotrust argues that to revolutionize the food system you need scale to do it! ‘While farmers’ markets and CSAs are ideal ways to buy food — the freshest harvest, opportunities to meet farmers in person and spend money directly at the source — only a tiny portion of our communities actually shop there. Most of us still get the majority of our food via traditional grocery stores or eating out. If we want to change the food system, we need to get farmers’ market values at wholesale scale. Mid-sized, locally-focused farmers and ranchers can help do it’.


Chicago – pioneering a city food policy


Strikingly, Chicago does not have a hub like Philadelphia or Portland but it has developed a whole array of food initiatives, above all the local food policy action council (FPAC).[17] I met the executive director, Rodger Cooley, and one of the council members, Erika Allen.


The Food Policy Action Council sprang from a number of concerns


Its major achievement to date is the decision by the city council to support a good food procurement policy. The aims of the policy are to


This is a field in which Los Angeles has led the field since 2012 with a focus on school food and on the race dimensions of poor nutrition.


“In Los Angeles the Good Food Purchasing Program resulted in over 150 new living wage jobs and improvements in the standards of living for thousands of people, and Chicago can have the same impact” said Jose Oliva, co-director of the Food Chain Workers of America and CFPAC board member.


The Food Chain Workers Alliance, which brings together workers in Chicago’s biggest industry, food and hospitality, has been a key ally of the FPAC, as is the city council.  The City Council recognized the salience of food as an issue by setting up in 2016 a food task force involving council departments and school districts. As well as laying down standards for members - for example over the contents of vending machines in schools – Chicago is working with other local authorities to support small producers and to use food for economic development. The city is moving towards making surplus land available for urban farming. The state is less committed: Illinois is the capital of soy and cattle feed commodities.


Chicago Southside is a crucial test of the new approach. Land has been made available by the city for growing food but so far little or no money. The city is moving slowly and there is a lot of bureaucratic inertia verging on hostility eg FCWA is struggling to get licences for food carts so they don’t get evicted. But there is a newly elected progressive mayor and a group of democratic socialist councillors including Alderman Andre Vasquez, a firm ally of the FCWA and FPAC. [18]


Finally. Chicago currently has no plans to set up a classic hub but the Food Policy Action Council’s success in winning the city council to a good food procurement policy seems like a major step towards a system-wide approach to food management, coupled with the strength of the local urban farm sector.


Food hubs, cooperatives and food trends


This study points to two distinct national strategies for supporting small scale producers: cooperatives in Italy and food hubs in the US. Although American producer cooperatives do figure in this account, the most significant approach in the US of recent years has been the investment in food hubs. Whereas in Italy, the cooperative tradition for producers and consumers outweighs all other approaches. But how effective are the national approaches to small farm support?


The brutal truth is that globally, the trend is in favour of increasing concentration at the expense of small family farms. The scale of the growth of alternative food systems and short supply chains has been incapable of turning this tide. However, there are grounds for a modicum of optimism owing to the way that social trends relating to diet and consumption are combining with specific national features.


Change in consumer preference in favour of sustainable food production is accelerating, and this is affecting Britain, the US and Italy as well as many other countries. This can be seen in the emergence of growing numbers of people classifying themselves as vegetarian and vegan and the expanding market for organics. These movements are strongest amongst comparatively prosperous university educated populations but not exclusively. Two thirds of shoppers in the UK are buying healthy food, with less sugar, salt, fat and calories. [19] To a degree this trend has been feeding the steady expansion of alternative food networks with a growing number of farmers markets and similar schemes although not yet on a scale to trouble the supermarkets and food processors that dominate the food industry.


On the other hand, the examples of US food hubs reviewed here point towards the potential for rapid growth with the disruptive use of online marketing and distribution tools that are relatively cheap.  The rapid expansion of Philadelphia’s Common Market along the east coast down to Texas, and the sale of distribution software systems developed in Charlottesville across the US are important symptoms of a deep-seated change. Although the evidence is still piecemeal, there are signs that virtual food hubs can generate higher rates of return for small producers than any other form of distribution system.


Another helpful trend is the shift away from once weekly supermarket shops to a more segmented approach, combining shopping at local convenience stores, shopping on line and also attending farmers markets. This habit of shopping little and often is a familiar approach in Italy, where local shops have held their own in the face of supermarket competition, and also where with a lower proportion of women in paid work, more time can be devoted to the slow-motion business of shopping locally, one shop at a time. This approach favours small producers as does the continuing strength of the Italian food culture with its emphasis on seasonality, local artisanal produce and quality. Moroever, there is a 18% growth in Italian food exports driven by a global Italianisation of diet, coupled with expanding tourism, so that prosciutto, parmesan, balsamic vinegar and mozzarella are in demand in shops and restaurants in India and China.  This may account for the signs of a stabilisation in parts of the small farming sector in Italy.


As well as these helpful trends, the combination of the cooperative system and the revival of the artisan tradition through the slow food movement has strengthened small producers in Italy. Collaboration and scale seems to be good for farming incomes.[20]  When the market is good for products such as parmesan, onions and pears, the cooperative system provides bargaining strength ensuring that producers benefit from price advantages. Although they operate in very different ways, food hubs and cooperatives - coupled with the changes in food consumption discussed above - all go to strengthen the bargaining position of small family farmers and artisanal producers, boosting turnover and the returns on labour as well as improving food access for the least advantaged.


Solutions for the UK: Recommendations

The examples of Italy and the US point towards a number of ways in which the UK can strengthen its support for small producers, at the same time improving access to healthy food for the least advantaged and improving the sustainability of our farming system.  My approach to identifying cases of effective practice that might be drawn on is to ask how they might relate to the current state of play in the UK, building on existing practice, reflecting current thinking and expectations of how the food and farming situation may change at a time of enormous volatility.  I share this vision of how things might be:

More farmers sell directly to local buyers; coops are thriving, helping small producers enter the market. Public procurement led the transition, providing fair and secure markets for producers and encouraging investment in fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses…Mixed farms have become the norm.[21]

The food and farming policy environment is in flux in the UK, in part because of the unknowns of Brexit, in part because of the growing concerns about climate emergency. The government is reviewing food and farming policy on the assumption that Britain will soon move out of the orbit of the Common Agricultural Policy and install new policies and funding regimes. It has set up a food strategy review under Henry Dimbleby.  At the same time (although unconnected) The Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment was appointed by the House of Lords on 13 June 2019 to "consider the links between inequality, public health and food sustainability." The committee is chaired by Lord John Krebs and its members include Sustain patron Baroness Rosie Boycott. The Labour Party’s own proposals, A Sustainable Food Policy (2019) have recently been published, as has the RSA’s report of a two year inquiry into the future of food, farming and the  countryside. Somewhat earlier, in 2016, an authoritative report on the small family farm was published by the Prince’s Countryside Fund whose thinking I have drawn on here. [22]


Food Policy


Many things have a bearing on the future of the small farming sector – diet, health, government subsidies – so it makes sense to begin with a framework within which the sector sits rather than dealing with it in isolation. Hence the importance of food policy, local and national, recently endorsed by the RSA Farming Commission.   Many UK and Irish cities belong to the sustainable food cities network and 63 were represented at its June 2019 conference. Chicago’s adoption of a good food procurement policy points a direction that many UK cities are beginning to follow too.  Other common features of local food policies include action on food poverty and waste, extending urban farming, horticulture training and healthy school meals and snacks.

Less common is the active engagement of citizens in the development of food policy which, as Livorno City Council has decided, is vital to achieve buy-in from the community. [23] Chicago’s food policy was drawn up through a series of meetings and workgroups with online sharing of the draft. Seven associated neighbourhood food policy councils also made inputs.[24] Deliberative democracy is a way of creating an inclusive bottom up policy that meets the needs of diverse community interests as well as the statutory agencies.

Recommendation 1: government and local government should support the creation of local food policies drawn up in collaboration with citizens, setting out detailed proposals for improving support to small producers, strengthening public procurement of food, tackling food waste and improving access to healthy food for all, especially the least advantaged.

Infrastructure and Food Hubs


This report tells the story of the impact of food hubs like those in Philadelphia and Portland on small farmers, integrating them in expanding local markets, offering them higher returns than conventional intermediaries. Whether aimed at retail or wholesale customers, the development of online ordering and delivery systems in Charlottesville, points to the future for small producer infrastructure in the UK.  Warehouses with cold storage, kitchen facilities and served by sophisticated logistical systems – the UK is light years away from this level of producer support. 


There is growing recognition in the UK of the value of ethically-based intermediaries in connecting small producers to the market. While ethical consumer bodies such as Cooperative Food find it difficult to engage with individual producers, food hubs act on behalf of groups of producers, aggregating and organizing supply.


The 2016 report for the Prince’s Countryside Fund, Is there a future for the small family farm in the UK?,  recommended


Promoters of Short Supply Chains and added value (such as social enterprises, local authorities and rural development schemes) should make engagement with small family farmers a strategic priority.[25]

Sustain, the UK alliance for better food and farming, in its comments on the Labour Party’s food policy plan, proposes more specifically

An investment plan for local food infrastructure e.g. abattoirs, processing facilities, wholesale markets, local food hubs, CSAs in coastal and rural communities funded by whatever replaces EU funding e.g. UK Shared Prosperity Fund

Recommendation 2: Building on the recent National Lottery Local Food Programme, Making Local Food Work, which funded some embryonic food hubs, a new Lottery funded programme should be launched to invest in  local food infrastructure.[26]

Food Enterprise Zones


In 2015, Defra launched its Food Enterprise Zone (FEZ) scheme aimed at promoting food and farming businesses and removing barriers to growth. Eleven FEZ were named.  Funding was limited and the scheme has been quietly parked. This locally focused approach, however, coupled with investment in food hubs could strengthen the position of small producers.[27] 


Recommendation 3: Defra should re-launch its Food Enterprise Zone scheme, extending it to wider sections of rural England.


Cooperatives and Producer Organisations


In Italy and, to a much lesser extent, in the US, producer cooperatives play a vital role in protecting and promoting the interests of small producers. Apo Conerpo, one of the largest fruit and vegetable cooperatives in the EU acting on behalf of almost 6,000 small farmers, markets and distributes their produce to food processors and supermarkets. AC is a complex organisation which over the years has developed the systems essential to small producers if they are to secure a place in the market. These include research and development to improve cropping and quality, detailed specifications for each product and each national market, agreed times for planting and harvesting, minimising time in cold store and ensuring a steady supply throughout the season. Working with small producers to achieve market fitness is a key role of the hubs we visited in Italy and the US. 


In the US, the organisational role of the cooperative has been played by multi-interest not for profit companies like those running the food hubs in Philadelphia and Portland. Decision-making power is shared between producers and the funding organisations (trusts and local government).

Occasionally, as we have seen, producer organisations have been formed to manage distribution intermediaries. These play a role akin to a cooperative, ensuring that shared investment is locked in and cannot be removed or quashed through conventional company re-floats.

The social and political context in which cooperatives have flourished in Italy cannot be transported to the UK but tax and legal incentives to promote social enterprise and cooperatives would be helpful in supporting small farmers. In addition, as the RSA Farming Commission has proposed, the formation of Producers Organisations (kickstarted by the EU’s fruit and vegetables aid scheme) with match funding from government would ‘help farmers share cost and risk, develop new facilities and routes to market, and strengthen their bargaining power’.[28]

Recommendation 4: government should launch a funding programme for Producers Organisations, including cooperatives and social enterprises aimed at promoting new facilities and routes to market and strengthening the bargaining power of small and medium size producers of food.

Recommendation 5: government should review the legal and fiscal position of cooperatives and social enterprises with a view to encouraging their growth.


Appendix 1

Linking producers and consumers: food policy and food hubs in the US


This is a comparative analysis of four hubs, three of them wholesale direct to institutional consumers, the fourth retail to subscribing households. All values driven, aiming in the words of Common Market, Philadelphia ‘to strengthen regional food systems, develop fair wholesale markets, improve public health and food access and promote the viability of small and mid-scale farms.


Common Market Philadelphia PA


Intermediary formed to link farmers and institutional consumers

Not for profit


Two warehouses: Philadelphia and Atlanta. Originally covered area around Philadelphia but since expanded to cover mid-Atlantic region down to Alabama and Houston, Texas

Sales $8m. pa

36% mark up on farmers’ price

15% of income from grants

Large warehouse with cold storage for a wide range of fresh and frozen goods. Fleet of box refrigerated trucks.


Lulu’s Local Foods Charlottesville VA


intermediary selling to individual subscribers

Not for profit


Area around Charlottesville

5500 subscribers including now school districts

45-65 farmers

Deliver to pick up points

Sales $1m. pa

Uses online menu

Visit Bel Air Farm – CSA/farmers markets/Local Foods


Local Food Hub Charlottesville VA


Intermediary formed to link farmers and institutional consumers

Not for profit


Area around Charlottesville

Sales $1.6m pa

80c. go to farmers

Now divided into two bodies:

  1. Local Foods continues as not for profit, with farmer support and education programmes (and eligible for grants)
  2. Food dist. arm absorbed by  for profit company with shared commitment to food standards whose strength is home  delivery  for individual consumers using  dedicated software plus warehouse facilities – result: stronger farm and consumer base


The Redd Portland OR


Intermediary linking farmers and institutional consumers such as hospitals plus an organic supermarket chain

Large purpose-refurbished warehouse with office, storage, kitchen and cold storage opened January 2019 (alongside a second warehouse refurbished as an events/catering space)

Not for profit close to breaking even (but turnover data not readily available since recently opened)

Supplies wholesale plus supermarket chain

Provides warehouse, office, kitchen and cold storage space for incubators

B-Line, a tenant, deals with logistics, delivering mainly by trike.




Barham, James et al, (2012) Regional Food Hub Resource Guide, USDA


Berti, G. and Mulligan, C.  (2016) Competitiveness of Small Farms and Innovative Food Supply


Colasanti, K., Hardy, J., Farbman, J., Pirog, R., Fisk, J., & Hamm, M.W. (2018). Findings of the 2017 National Food Hub Survey. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Center for Regional Food

Systems & The Wallace Center at Winrock International. Retrieved from 


Gonzalez, Raquel Ajates (2019)   Farmers Cooperatives and Sustainable Food Systems in Europe


Reynolds, Christian (2019)   UK Food Hub Survey Preliminary Results Oxford Real Farming

Conference 2019, January 3rd, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield


RSA (2019) Our Future in the `land: Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Winter, M. and Lobley, M. (2016) Is there a future for the small family farm in the UK? Report to The Prince’s Countryside Fund, London: Prince’s Countryside Fund. ISBN 978-902746-36-7 


Martin Yarnit, Churchill Fellow



8 August 2019




















[5] Companies House

[6]   - sustainable fishing Plymouth


[8] Or unsophisticated in the case of the trikes used in Portland to move food and drink around the city.



[11] Colasanti, K., Hardy, J., Farbman, J., Pirog, R., Fisk, J., & Hamm, M.W. (2018). Findings of the 2017 National Food Hub Survey. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems & The Wallace Center at Winrock International. Retrieved from

[12] The Wallace Center website is the source of previous conference reports

[13] See the website: /Index/About%20Us

[14] Barham, James et al, (2012) Regional Food Hub Resource Guide, USDA


[15] The Redd is housed in a converted warehouse on Salmon Street, Portland. Redds are the depressions created by female salmon in which to lay their eggs.


[17] Nor does New York City, but a task group in the Mayor’s office is working to create one.



[20] see p.76,

[21] RSA (2019) Field Guide for the Future, produced as part of the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission report, p.4

[22]  By Winter, M.   et al

[23] See  for a discussion about deliberative democracy and food councils

[24] More about US and Canadian food policy councils here

[25]  p.77/82

[26] The Making Local Food Work programme brought together a consortium of national organisations working to improve the sustainability of community food enterprises such as co-operatively managed farmers’ markets; community owned village shops; country markets; sustainable food hubs; food co-ops and buying groups; and community supported agriculture - all of which bring producers and consumers closer together. Making Local Food Work was co-ordinated by the Plunkett Foundation and funded by the Changing Spaces programme of the Big Lottery.  Sustain was a national consortium partner in Making Local Food Work, coordinating two strands of work:



July 2015

[28] RSA (2019) Our Future in the Land, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, p.48