Updates about the Horticulture Wales project, along with industry news and opinion.

Environmental Excellence Award Winner – Community Food Co-Operative Programme In Wales

06 December 2013

The winner of our inaugural Environmental Excellence category is the Community Food Co-Operative Programme in Wales. Delivered as part of the Rural Regeneration Unit, the initiative incorporates a network of more than 300 volunteer-led co-ops that give local residents the opportunity to buy affordable, seasonal fruit and veg from local suppliers. Resource efficiency is engrained throughout the project, from the recycling and reuse of packaging, through to the careful co-ordination of suppliers and delivery routes to minimise food miles, with this culture reinforced by the introduction of 10 specific measures to monitor – and improve – sustainability across the entire concept…

Debbie Neale of the Food Cooperative Programme in Wales with Alun Davies AM reduced (268px * 178px)Bringing together more than 300 food co-ops across the country run out of schools, churches, village halls, offices, and community centres, the Community Food Co-Operative Programme in Wales aims to give local residents the opportunity to access affordable, quality, seasonal fresh fruit, vegetables, and salads, whilst also providing an additional outlet for local growers to sell their fresh produce – a model that promotes healthy living and community spirit, but from a horticultural perspective, also advances sustainability by increasing demand for locally-grown produce, shortening supply chains, reducing waste, food miles and the need to import from overseas, and encouraging the recycling and reuse of packaging materials.

Our judges saw all these principles (and more) in action at a visit to see a co-op “in action” at Llanasa Village Hall in Flintshire. Like most co-ops in the programme, it operated to a weekly order cycle – although customers do have the flexibility to order two weeks in advance for instances when they are on holiday, and likewise growers don’t have to supply each and every week if, for example, their produce is out of season. This model helps to reduce waste, as the growers know in advance the quantities they are required to supply, and as customers pay up front too, participating suppliers also have the reassurance that they will be paid for their produce, making it a worthwhile venture they can commit to long-term. It also offers great flexibility that enables growers to get rid of any gluts of produce they have, or even try new or seasonal lines – with Christmas just around the corner at the time of visiting, our judges learned that the Llanasa co-op was planning on including locally-grown holly as an item in the following week’s bag of produce.

Debbie  Marina 640x480 (180px * 135px)As with all of the co-ops involved in the programme, plastic bags (reusable ones provided by Welsh Government) and cardboard boxes used to package the produce given to customers are collected and either reused the following week or sent for recycling. And to ensure any potential food waste is minimised, customers are given the option to buy “half bags” (ideal for single people), “double” or “quadruple boxes” (suitable for large families), or even bags tailored to the tastes of particular communities – for example, a Cardiff co-op has a bag specifically for the sizeable local Polish community, while a group in Wrexham came up with a “stir fry bag” idea especially suited to the tastes of local students.

Another way the programme as a whole aims to promote sustainability is by helping local co-ops to co-ordinate deliveries and suppliers to cut food miles and distribution costs. For instance, rather than a grower transporting a small amount of produce to a single co-op running on a particular day, numerous local groups are co-ordinated so that they are held on the same day, and special routes are devised so that growers drop off at various points during the same journey. The programme team, led by General Manager Debbie Neale, also advises local co-ops about potential suppliers and growers in their area – risk needs to be managed so that co-ops aren’t negatively impacted in cases where one of their growers drops out of the scheme, so a central database of 400 plus producers is readily available where needs be.

DSCF0287 (180px * 165px)While local co-ops are very much volunteer-led, the overall Community Food Co-Operative Programme in Wales is on hand to provide plentiful promotional flyers, leaflets, and posters to ensure local groups are successful in spreading the word and becoming self-sufficient (although still not-for-profit) entities in their own right. However, all these marketing materials are printed on recycled paper using eco-friendly, soy-based ink. Similarly, the Rural Regeneration Unit – the organisation which delivers the overall programme – encourages its staff to work remotely, thereby reducing the need to run resource and energy-intensive offices, with the scheme’s Food Development Workers all based in the regions they work in to minimise commuting costs.

Though many of the overarching aims of the programme such as cutting waste, reducing food miles, or increasing recycling, could be seen as rather “obvious” or “self-fulfilling”, and perhaps therefore unnecessary to write down or formalise, the project has made great efforts to put in place a system that will help it to monitor and subsequently improve sustainability on a local, regional, and national basis. Working in partnership with sustainable business development consultancy Ecostudio, it has developed and trialled a suite of 10 performance indicators measuring environmental, economic, and social factors. These indicators will be rolled out across all 300 plus local co-ops in the months to come to measure success and identify areas of potential improvement, with the data used to empower positive change across the entire programme.

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