A better food system
One of Kent Food Hubs, “Bare Bazaar: food, but nude” opened last month in Park Mall, Ashford. At last I have found somewhere that sells dry food (grains, seeds and nuts) from dispensers into paper bags. Thus I can buy the quantity I actually need, and also do away with the shiny non-compostable packets that the supermarkets use to sell ‘snacks’, which is how they label nuts and seeds on the display shelves.
Whilst I took photos of the dispensers, I chatted with Kate and her six year old son on school holidays. She was also measuring out quantities in paper bags to make up the orders which she would deliver to various customers who had ordered online.
When I got home I looked at the leaflet she had given me:
“Kent Food Hubs online food market is now delivering to your area. More than just a veg box. Fresh, locally sourced organic veg, pasture fed, free range meats, local cheeses and dairy, store cupboard essentials and dried goods, bread, vegan food, ready meals and more.”
I browsed the website which has information about some 45 Kent-based food enterprises, who work as a co-operative, sharing the outlets, delivery and online facilities. Their slogan is, “We are stronger together. Join us on our journey to a better food system.”
How food shopping has changed
Within my lifetime, I have seen food shopping change from local family-owned shops to huge supermarkets, financed by international chains. In my childhood Wealden village, the grocer also baked bread on the premises; the butcher had a field where the lambs spent their final weeks before being taken to Ashford abattoir; the fish man came once a week in a van, bringing the fish from the coast.
Our mother would walk to the village almost daily with her shopping basket to buy the fresh food for the day’s meals, and chat to the assistant at the counter whilst her order was packaged (in paper bags). If she was busy, it was also possible to use the technology of the day, and telephone an order to one of these shops.
A few hours later a boy on a bicycle would come to the house with a delivery of bread or meat or whatever. There was mostly no need to take the car and go to the Co-op in Cranbrook, or to the gleaming new tiled supermarket of Sainsbury’s in Tunbridge Wells, which was using the new system of pick the packages from the shelf, put them in a shopping trolley and then pay at the till.
Kent food hubs vs supermarket harm
Supermarkets have changed food shopping in drastic ways, which we now realise harm the planet and our health. The list of harms includes:
- Too much packaging, necessary because of the self-service system, the shelving needs and to keep the product intact during long road haulage
- Too many shelves devoted to shiny snacks, good for profits but bad for our health
- Over-processed food, easy to package, store, and display but bad for our health
- Long just-in-time supply lines, with HGVs roaring along the motorways
- Food from distant places (prawns from the Far East, Soya from Brazil, almonds from California), where the environmental costs of production are out of our sight, and the possible labour exploitation and pollution
- Round-the-year out-of-season produce, some produced by energy guzzling methods such as salads in heated polytunnels, like Thanet Earth.
- Warehouse hubs to stock supplies offering mostly zero-hours contracts
- Out-of-town locations of supermarkets necessitating car journeys for household food supplies, thus taking footfall away from town centres
- Queues at the till which, unless carefully spaced by COVID precautions, can spread infection.
To be fair to the supermarkets, some have been trying to improve on some of these counts. Some have cut down on the plastic packaging of fruit. However, even with the plastic bag tax, the UK is nowhere near the US with the use of paper carrier bags for groceries. Customers concerned about ethical sourcing or about nutrition, can read their labels more carefully and make their choices accordingly.
What food hubs achieve
Firstly, as their website shows, this is a way local Kent producers can reach more customers. As they also use online ordering, they probably reach more customers than the farm shops.
But the delivery method is still by car, I was told by Kate. If we really want to reduce air-pollution from traffic, deliveries need to be shifted back to cargo bicycles, as they are in some parts of London, from delivery hubs in ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zones). The other way is to situate the hubs as physical shops in the High Street that people can walk to – as I did – or go on cycles or scooters to collect their goods, thus reviving the High Streets.
Secondly, the co-operative structure enables a variety of local producers to reach out to the customers online and via the hubs. The ‘farm to fork’ movement of knowing where your food comes from is appealing to many living in the Garden of England. However, many of the foods that vegans buy (quinoa, almonds, wild rice etc) do not grow in Kent. One advantage of packaged goods is that the labels can give information about both origin and nutrition, information which is lacking if there is no label.
Probably the current customers are already so well-informed about food choices that they no longer need labels. They can easily source the information online. This is not true of all the enterprises listed on the Kent Hub website, but it gives details for some, such as Canterbury Cheesemakers, and the Rebel Farmer of Wye.
Third, the “Bare Bazaar: food, but nude” notion certainly strikes a blow at plastic packaging of food. As the UK currently ships our plastic waste to other countries any move to reduce plastic waste is worth supporting.
KBL wishes them well: may there soon be a HUB on every high street in Kent!