How the Open Food Network helps local food producers: interview with Lynne Davis (part 1)

Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org / NonCorporate.org interviews Lynne Davis of the Open Food Network as part of a series of interviews with people building the new economy. Here’s the transcript of the interview, plus the video (below).

DD: Today I’m talking with Lynne Davis of the Open Food Network. Hi Lynne – I’d like to help spread the word about what you’re doing, but for beginners and especially for non-techies; and talk about how the ‘new economy’ sector (for want of a more precise label) can come together and start to take over the economy. So by way of introducing you, what do you do?

LD: Okay so I’m part of the team that runs the Open Food Network. We’re a global organisation and we operate in regions around the world including the UK, so obviously the UK is where I’m most involved. We create tools and software opportunities for learning – for the purposes of building community food enterprises – that is, food enterprises that put people and planet before profit.

Why do you do it? What problem are you trying to solve?

Alright, so I think probably anyone watching this video is pretty aware that we’re creating a lot of problems with the way that we currently operate our economy. I think food and agriculture is really a significant contributor to that. The agricultural sector is massive in contributing to climate change through the use of inputs – fertilisers and chemicals, and through the way that land-use change is happening – tearing down forests to plant crops etc. So globally, agriculture is a huge contributor to our ecological impact, but also our food sector has become really concentrated and there are a very small number of players that control the food systems around the world, whether that’s the big distributors of the major grain crops, or in the UK about eight different supermarkets control about ninety-five percent of the market share. So it basically means that our entire food system has been taken out of the hands of the people and put into the hands of enormous multinationals. For something like food, this just feels so wrong. Food is actually a really fundamental part of all of our lives. Every celebration that we have involves food food. It’s how we bring the outside world inside of us. Food is how we come together with with our loved ones. Food has always been a way that communities bond together, so this is what we’re trying to address: how can we take these massive global problems and create local solutions that really address them at their core.

How did you get into this?

I was a software developer, and one day I found myself writing software to help people buy tickets on cruise ships. I was looking at these floating cities and just decided that this was not something that I could do with my life, so I left that and went and trained to be a farmer in biodynamic agriculture. While I was training and living on farms I started to understand that there wasn’t really anywhere for me to sell produce. Everyone who is trying to sell produce as a small-scale farmer in the area was doing it by themselves. So I got together with a few other people and we created what we call a food hub. We brought together lots of different producers and we created an online farmers’ market. Producers would upload their produce online and then once a week we distributed out to people. We found that there were lots of other people in the UK trying to do similar things, so we we started to talk with them and link up. We all realised that one of the most onerous parts of this was creating and maintaining good software, so we decided to join forces and build this software together. After a little while of doing this we realised it was still really hard because there’s not very much money in creating local food projects. We realised that there are lots of people around the world doing this as well, so then we linked up with groups in Australia and France and Germany and Canada and Catalonia. We’ve now come together and we pool our resources to try and create the software tools that make this as easy as possible. So it’s been quite a journey.

Will non-techies be able to use your system?

What we find is that if you’re a millennial growing up with computers then you can find your way around it. One of the challenges that we have is working with food producers. Often food producers have actively chosen a life that’s not technical, so there’s a higher level of tech-phobia. I don’t like to generalise but it does tend to be the case. So there’s a really important role for this kind of community-scale middle organisation. Some people in the community can bring together the different local producers and do some of that technical work, and upload products and make sure the photos look good – things like that. So producers can spend their time out in the field doing what they do best. Even uploading an image would be hard for somebody who just doesn’t know how to do it. We do our best to make it as easy as possible. Computer systems have developed so quickly over the past very few years – we can’t expect everybody to prioritise making that knowledge part of their life. In the UK it feels really amazing to be working with a lot of the different food hubs and community food enterprises that we work with across the country and I feel like the real successes belong to them. Like Tamar Valley food hubs for example, in the Tamar Valley down in Cornwall. They’re just an incredible organisation. They work with about 40 different local producers. They build partnerships with the local council to make this food accessible to more people and they’ve been partnered in projects like cooking programmes that teach people how to cook from scratch, so that they can get these affordable local vegetables and actually make best use of them. So that’s been a journey – it goes so much deeper than just ‘hey, here’s some vegetables available to you’, which is not necessarily socially transformative. So they help people really incorporate good food into their lives.

Another project that is absolutely mind-blowingly awesome is New Dawn Traders. They have a ship – actually a whole network (the Sail Cargo Alliance) of different organisations doing this. Alex from New Dawn Traders has been one of the driving forces. People pay for the experience, to be part of the crew. They sail down to the Mediterranean, pick up loads of different crops that don’t grow in the UK (black olives and olive oil etc.) and then they sail it all the way back to the UK and distribute it through the Open Food Network. It’s just really fascinating. Obviously in a country like the UK we can’t produce all of the foods that we consume. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to go without olive oil and chocolate and coffee in my life, so there’s always going to be a role for importing food into this country. Trying to explore that through completely sustainable means like the power of wind is really inspiring.

We get the 5-litre containers of olive oil from the Sailboat Project, who are also part of the Alliance

There’s something so powerful about that story. When food has a story behind it, I feel like it gives it a depth that actually enhances the nutritional value of the food. The feeling that it generates in your body is really positive. There’s so much of our food that can have these kind of stories. It could be the salad grown down the road that’s delivered by bicycle. Bringing these stories into our food and then bringing people together to eat it – I feel that’s what food’s about and that’s part of what we can do when we start to bring food distribution and the sale of food back into the hands of communities.

So imagine I’m a market gardener or a small farmer and I’ve got a veg box scheme or a farm shop and I want to sell food locally. What do I do – how do I engage with you?

At the moment we don’t have a national distribution network and it’s not necessarily what we’re aiming for. What we do try to do is – if there’s interest from a local community and they want to set up some kind of local food distribution project in their area – then we can work with you to fill in all the gaps in that process. We’re developing as many resources as we can to make it as easy as possible. Everybody comes at different stages of the journey. Maybe a local Transition group or a group of buyers come together. We can start to help them get in touch with different producers, understand how they build a distribution route, make it really easy to get everything online, how to market yourselves, how to build community.

It’s all based on local nodes?

Exactly. We operate with the principle of subsidiarity – so what’s the most local organising that you can do? Each farmer driving their produce around is quite resource intensive, and so by cooperating and coordinating regionally or locally you can start to make that more efficient.

Plus when it comes to building the software, it turns out that all around the world we are constantly encountering people with the same problems. The same challenges are coming up in India, South Africa, the UK or Australia, so by pooling our resources to develop the software we feel that we’re getting benefits that reach out around the world.

So if I’m a food provider I can contact you and you can tell me if if I already have a local group I can join; or you’ll help me set one up?

If that’s something that you have the capacity to do. We also have a lot of individual farmer who sell directly through the Open Food Network – so that’s also an option. We’re definitely open to having a chat to see how we can work together.

Can an existing community-supported agriculture scheme just join the Open Food Network?

Yeah, absolutely.

And what about customers – how do they interact with you?

We work with our producers to better market their own produce and so a lot of that happens through social media. Social media is really effective – people hear about it through Facebook and click the link and can start shopping. We tend to work in the local areas, to understand the different ways that people can reach as many people as possible with no budget. Social media and word-of-mouth tend to be the ways forward. We have a map on our website that shows where all of the producers and hubs. You can see if there’s something close to you. Another thing is that most of our food hubs don’t promote themselves as the Open Food Network. We feel that our role is to stand in the background and support the local enterprises. So have a look at the map and see if there’s someone close, and if not then it would be great to be building more of these around the country.

Communities design their own distribution systems, so a lot of the different enterprises do home delivery; most of them have pick-up points – so maybe there’ll be a pick-up point at a local school or a local pub or the town hall. It’s one of the challenges of the Open Food Network because everything is really community-centric. It’s about what’s going to work well in your community. In some communities everybody just wants home deliveries, so that’s what the community will do. In other communities nobody wants to pay for home delivery, because they’re too geographically dispersed, so going to different nodes / pick-up points in different villages around the area makes more sense.

What are the biggest obstacles you face?

There are many. I feel that the obstacles vary from place to place. In urban areas I think there’s a high expectation of convenience. At the moment I live in London, and at the end of my street I can go and get organic lentils at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. As a pre-ordering food system we can’t compete with that. So in urban areas there’s a really high expectation of convenience. But that’s different in rural areas – people don’t have the same expectation of convenience, and we actually find that these projects have a lot more success in rural areas where people are prepared to order and have a delivery of good quality food a couple of days later.

Often the challenge is distribution logistics. In a lot of areas it takes a lot of driving to get things from place to place. Things are quite far apart and that adds to the cost of the food, which means that people pay more than they pay in supermarkets. Some people are willing to pay more for their food, but that’s not everybody. So we also try to work with communities to figure out how they can create pricing structures where maybe if someone can afford to pay a bit more then someone else can pay a bit less; or what can we do to try to make it more accessible.

How do you make your money?

We charge a percentage on each sale – about two percent, which is pretty small in the scheme of things. At the moment we’re still grant funded mostly, and that applies on the global scale. We have a vision to get to the point where sales turnover and consultancy can cover all of our costs; but at the moment we’re dependent on grants to make everything work.

What criteria do you use for food producers to be on your site? If a corporate food provider approached you, what would you do?

It hasn’t happened so far. A lot of this is really blurry. We have some some projects that are working only in areas of social deprivation or lower incomes and so we can’t say you must be organic, because you’d be missing out on all the social benefits you get from bringing people together to start to think about food. Plus we can’t say only local food because that means that we could never sell coffee. But there are some great local roasters; or we could never sell bananas – but that means that people would have to go to the supermarket for their bananas instead of supporting a community food enterprise. So we’re operating on a case by case basis so far, and it’s working well. If we get to a scale where suddenly one of the bigger corporate players comes knocking on our door, we’ll have to address it then.

So you’re like a portal for anybody interested in buying or selling real / local food? Can small producers use you as their website – could they have a page on your website so they don’t need a website or online shop themselves?

We we serve as an online shop, and you can certainly put all of your information up there in terms of pictures and what you do and what you’re about. We tend to find that most producers and hubs will have some kind of about page, and they’ll link to the shop from their website. But others don’t, others just have all of their information and all of their products and that’s their web presence.

Can customers get deliveries from more than one supplier in the area in the same delivery?

Yeah – that’s the role of the food hubs. They bring together the different producers under one umbrella as an online farmers’ market.

One thing I didn’t understand – for some shops it said that they’re closed for orders. Why was that?

The way that we structure the ordering is that we have what we call an order cycle, which essentially means that there’s a closing date for orders, so the producers have time to prepare them. That means you bake the number of loaves of bread or you pick the number of bags of salad and then they get delivered in a couple of days. There’s less wastage this way.

We get a veg box delivered from Sutton Community Farm. We used to get a fish box from a guy who drove down to the coast and met the small family fishing boats, but he stopped doing it. Can I use the Open Food Network to find another one?

Yeah – we have an amazing fish supplier that distributes nationally by courier. They’re based in Plymouth (I hope I got that right). They only work with small fishing boats, and they’ve done a lot of research into the most sustainable fishery practices. They provide fish that’s frozen as well, because with fish life-cycles, actually there are certain times of year where you can catch a lot of fish without damaging the population, and other times of year you can’t. So they really try to encourage people to be ordering frozen fish when that fish is out of season.

Highlights

  1. Our entire food system has been taken out of the hands of the people and put into the hands of enormous multinationals.
  2. We’re starting to bring food distribution and the sale of food back into the hands of communities.
  3. We serve as an online shop for local producers and food hubs – like an online farmers’ market.

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