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Who provisions Frome's fruit & veg? [WFJ #27]
The town's traditional fruit & veg retailers, ranked
The last time Britain had a well-functioning high street was probably back in the 1960s, when butchers, greengrocers, delicatessens, and fishmongers still had an equal share of things.
Then along came shareholder-backed supermarkets, muscling in with their lure of a ‘one stop shop’. Now, they’ve well and truly taken over, and sell 97% of our food.
With the homogenisation of high streets cometh the homogenisation of food choices. And, along the way, somehow we forgot about exploring the alternatives: What’s the best way of supporting local growers, and at a fair price? Which shop is more likely to sell food that is not only nutritious but actually tastes like something?
To better understand the sourcing credentials of each shop in Frome town centre selling fruit and veg, I submit to you a ranking system: Shops supporting shorter supply chains and opting for better production standards get a plus, while points are lost for a lack of care for transparency or seasonality.
There is a caveat to this – shorter supply chains means a fairer price for producers (and consumers), which strengthens their role in the food system, involves fewer food miles, and boosts the local economy. All this is important, but only to a point – when talking about environmental sustainability for example, where food is produced is less important than how it’s produced.
Anyway, you get the jist – Tier A very good; Tier C not so good.
Note sourcing info is true at the time of writing, and is subject to change
Tier C: Supermarkets
Whatever the industry, those in the most powerful positions of their respective sectors have a habit of squeezing those on the ‘lower’ rungs for all they’ve got.
And supermarkets are one of the worst offenders. A mere 8p in every £1 you spend at a supermarket goes to the producer, and if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re now at a point where producers are paying supermarkets to sell their product, in a kind of extra-late stage capitalism.
Supermarkets promote an unseasonal approach, and are carried by ideals of cost and convenience. Even though these costs are, inevitably, passed on to other people and places.
That, in a nutshell, is why they score the lowest.
Tier B: Greengrocers
While not necessarily a bad thing, greengrocers are almost entirely reliant on wholesalers. In Frome’s case, this means those based out of Bristol Fruit Market, such as Arthur David, Total Produce, E W Jenkins, and Mack Wholesale. These in turn source from farmers and other wholesalers, some of whom are overseas.
Some middlemen, like Total Produce, are more forthcoming about who they source from (apples from Four Elms Farm in Sidmouth; Cornish New Potatoes from Mazarin), but getting a concrete idea of what wholesaler a retailer has used, and what farmer they have sourced from at that particular time, and what standards that producer grows to, is like following a trail of breadcrumbs in Black Dog Woods with a candle on a windy night.1
As opposed to supermarkets, buying fruit and veg from the independent retailers in this tier is likely to benefit the local economy. Greengrocers also often pip common supermarket procurement practices – especially in terms of seasonality – and have a considerably lower carbon footprint (unlike supermarkets, for example, they don’t rely as much on refrigeration).
But they are far from perfect. Greengrocers aren’t the best in maximising how much compensation farmers get as part of the deal, and often don’t make clear the food standards used by the farms they buy from. They also tend to sell fruit and veg of a lower quality than organic.
Retailers in Tier B:
Stacey’s Fruit & Veg
Mendip Market, Cheese & Grain car park
Stacey, who sources her produce solely from Bristol Fruit Market, tells the WFJ she aims to “source as local as possible” when procuring fruit and veg. This results in a more seasonal display than most retailers (and especially supermarkets), with kohlrabi in the autumn, chard in winter, and strawberries in August.
S K Fruits
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Tier A: Grocers
Grocers, at least those in Frome, take things up a notch from their fruit-and-veg-only counterparts. These guys are more selective about who they source from, and often have a more direct relationship with the growers rather than the people who make up the link in between.
The main distinction, however, is their criteria for organic produce. As certified by the Soil Association, organic principles include good health (of us, the environment, and the soil that grows our food), and treating things and people – especially the farmers – with fairness.
While organic is probably the best, or most recognisable barometer of quality, it doesn’t account for locality. There is also a significant cost for accreditation, meaning even the most ecologically-friendly farms aren’t necessarily officially ‘organic’.
Retailers in Tier A:
Though Wholefoods’ fresh fruit and veg section is relatively modest, it’s almost always a reliable bet for staples such as potatoes, garlic, onions, and salad leaves. Wholefoods source their stock from 4 Seasons Organic, based out of St Philips in Bristol. A company that, in their own words, buys food that “doesn't need lots of weird stuff added to it to make it safe, fresh and delicious”.
The Shop Next Door
Though TSND also goes through wholesalers – such as Langridge Organic – it often DIYs their procurement directly as well, as is the case with Wild Garden, a market garden near Bruton, and The Tomato Stall based in the Isle of Wight.
Tier A+: NTD (Non-Traditional Retail)
Producers, you might’ve noticed, have a significant lack of control over the sale of their own food. There is a solution to this, but it transcends the realm of traditional retail – so while it doesn't have a place in these rankings, I wanted to point out why the bricks-and-mortar model of food retail isn’t the optimal solution in a lot of cases.
So what does this better option look like? In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no ‘supply chain’ per se. It’d be where the food sold is produced on-site or, like with farmers markets, peddled directly by the producer. Choice of produce would be limited, as the seasons get most of the say in what you eat, rather than the ‘everything all the time, no matter what’ philosophy most of us are used to.
In the context of Frome, Vallis Veg and Root Connections are two of those falling under this bracket. Without getting too specific just yet, they will soon be the subject of upcoming WFJ articles on accessing quality local fruit and veg producers.
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More difficult than it should be, extracting this information from the farms these wholesalers source from. On a phone call with Frederick Haim, who supply Total Produce and Mack, they did not want to tell me to what standards they produce, or whether they get a better deal with greengrocers than they do supermarkets. Though they did suggest, due to security, a supermarket contract is preferable than the uncertainty of selling to market.