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Five Mile Food has won £19k of funding from Defra and the Technology Strategy Board to research the feasibility of our logistics model and hence demonstrate that we can build a sustainable business delivering local food.

Defra’s announcement about the funding is at http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/2012/07/08/food-innovation (we’re the “digital project making buying local food more convenient and affordable online”).  The Grocer has also picked up news of our win, in the article at http://www.thegrocer.co.uk/winners-named-in-race-for-greener-food-funding/230706.article.

Here’s the video that we included as part of our entry to the competition:

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Industrial processes measure “Quality” in terms of consistency.  If every item the process produces is exactly the same, then the process is said to be of high quality.

This is how industrial food processes work.  They focus on producing large volumes of food that is consistent in its appearance, taste, etc.  This is what the supermarkets mean by “high quality food”.  Unfortunately, most such food is also consistently bland.  It’s all been bred for consistency and high volumes rather than for taste.  It’s been bred for easy handling in the industrial processing and supply chains.

Local food can be different.  For example:

  1. It can be grown and harvested in small batches.  Each batch is timed to become available at different points in the season.  This ensures that food is available across a longer period.  It also ensures that each batch is picked just when it’s ready.
  2. It’s seasonal.  It will only be available at the height of its taste cycle.
  3. It can be bred for taste.  Relieved of the imperative to deliver large volumes of consistent produce, farmers can begin to select varieties for flavour.
  4. It spends less time in transit and storage.  Food degrades rapidly over time.  We aim to deliver it when it’s at its freshest and tastiest.  (This also means that the food is less reliant on preservatives and other additives.)

Local food may be more variable than industrial food.  It’s produced in smaller batches.  It’s attuned to local conditions.  It varies with the seasons, weather, etc.  This is the antithesis of industrial quality.  But it’s from that variability that we gain better taste.

Food miles.

When we think about the environmental impact of food, that’s what we think about.  Reduce the distance the food has travelled, and we reduce all the costs (greenhouse gases, etc) associated with transport.  There are some complications, of course.  We need to consider the impact of growing the food in the first place, for example.  Heating a greenhouse takes a lot of energy, so it may be better to ship food from sunnier climes.  But it’s the miles we focus on.

I think minutes are as important as miles.  How long has the food spent in the supply chain?

This is important because:

  1. Food degrades over time.  The longer we store it, the more we lose through wastage.  And the quality of the remaining food is reduced — it simply doesn’t taste so good.  (That’s one reason why British produce generally doesn’t taste as good as it did 50 years ago — it’s been bred for ease of management in the supply chain, not for taste.)
  2. Food storage is expensive.  It requires a lot of temperature conditioning and suchlike, which is both environmentally and economically expensive.  It also requires a lot of land to build the storage facilities, which is again both environmentally and economically expensive.

Food minutes are often related to food miles.  The further you transport food, the more you typically need to store it.  But storage can be a significant problem in its own right.  So Five Mile Food, although keen to reduce food miles, will be focused equally intently on reducing food minutes.

We can’t eliminate all food storage.  After all, grain stores have been an important part of the food supply chain ever since agriculture was invented.  We need some storage to ensure that food is available all year round.  But keeping the amount of storage to a minimum and delivering food as quickly as possible has to be a worthwhile goal.

We believe the end result will be fresher, tastier food that’s every bit as cheap as what’s currently available from your supermarket.

Call it a new type of fast food.  Fast from the farm to your plate.

What is local food?  Well, of course, it’s food grown close to where you live.  How close?  We think it’s within an “easy travel distance”.  Maybe 10 or 15 miles at most.  Perhaps you could cycle to the farm or bakery or orchard or wherever the food is produced.

We also think you can recognise local food from a number of properties that it has.  For example:

  1. It has low environmental impact.  Local food incurs fewer food miles.  It doesn’t spend so much time in large storage facilities.  It can be distributed with less wastage in the supply chain.
  2. You know where it’s come from.  You know where it’s grown and who the farmer is.  You know who’s processed it.  You can go and see the farm.  You can talk to the van driver who’s delivered it.
  3. It’s fresh.  It hasn’t spent time in the supply chain or in storage.  In some cases, it’s not even picked until you order it.
  4. It’s seasonal.  When you buy local food, you’re in tune with natural cycles.
  5. It’s competitively priced.  You’re not paying for lots of middlemen and storage costs.  You’re not paying for wastage in the supply chain.
  6. It supports your local community.  It helps create jobs for local producers, people who sort and package the food, van drivers, etc.  Profits get put back into the local community (via wages, via dividends to local co-operative members, etc).
  7. It’s unique.  What’s available to you now is a unique offering — what’s available in the next town or next week will be different.  It gives you a chance to create meals that are unique to your locale and the current season.

We think these are all valuable properties.  Some non-local foods have some of them too, but local food has all of them.  Sometimes we might compromise slightly in one area in order to create value in other ways (e.g. some farms may store produce for a while in order to make it available for a longer time period), but our goal is to help you make the most of these seven properties.