Locally produced food is increasingly popular in schools and may become more important than going organic, writes Angela Youngman

Nurseries and schools are increasingly coming under pressure to ‘buy local’ especially where food is concerned. All the signs are that this movement will ultimately become as big – if not bigger – than the organic food sector.

Buying local has its origins in the growing awareness that local businesses can only be successful if the community around them is thriving. Global and national businesses have little real loyalty to any one area. If a large manufacturer or service provider finds that facilities can be obtained cheaper elsewhere and thus give better profits, they move. This happens in all industries – rationalisation within the food industry for example has been happening recently; while virtually all sectors have been affected by transferring UK jobs to call centres in India.

This takes money out of the local economy due to redundancies, thus people no longer have as much money to spend, which in turn reduces the profitability of local companies, which in turn have to cut back and so the vicious circle continues.

Recognising this, councils and locally based organisations such as schools are beginning to focus on the merits of buying and supplying local needs locally. By using local businesses, it keeps money in the area, thus encouraging local employment and profitability.

Two reasons why local is better

The place where food is produced can make a difference for two important reasons:

Food miles

If food is bought locally it is fresher as it does not have to travel so far. Stories of carrots and other vegetables being transported half way round the country via centralised warehousing and preparation plants, before being delivered back to schools and shops only a few miles from where they were grown, are all too common.

This year, there was a great demand for mini-cucumbers during the summer term. These were picked twice a day in Israel, flown to the UK, transported to a central processing plant where they were washed, graded and packed before delivery to distributors for further onward delivery to schools nationwide.

This is what is referred to as food miles – the miles food has to travel before it reaches the ultimate consumer. Such miles are not environmentally friendly as they use up considerable amounts of fuel and energy in transporting the produce. Produce grown and used locally does not incur such massive food miles.

Seasonality/extended shelf life?

Wholesalers and retailers buy in produce from all over the world ensuring that all types of fruit and vegetables are available all year round. This inevitably means that the food is bred for a long shelf life and has less flavour. Apart from the food miles such food travels; it has meant that we are losing contact with the seasons. For children this is very important as the changing availability of food helps them to understand the passing of the seasons, while learning to appreciate food at its best.

For nurseries and kindergartens the advantages of a buying local policy are many. Food is fresher, which is better for the children, and it also supports the local community within which the unit is based.

Higher quality

Suzanne Cartwright-Powton, manager of the Just Learning nursery at Darlington, has been an advocate of this policy for some time. She comments, ‘We like to develop links with the community. We felt someone local would be more reliable and give better customer service. A big company does a sales pitch, and then you never see the same people again. With a small local company you know the people you are dealing with. If a problem arises, it is sorted quickly because they are close.’

‘Parents like the idea we are supporting the local community. We have fresh fruit and vegetables, nothing processed. It is about supporting each other and it is very important to use your local suppliers – this helps the community be successful.’

Suzanne believes that local sourcing has provided higher quality fruit and vegetables than if sourced elsewhere simply because it is fresher and has not travelled as far. Contacts have been established with local farmers who can supply most of what they need.

Growing their own school food

In Norfolk, the county council has a policy of encouraging pre-schools, nurseries, and schools generally to source locally wherever it can be arranged. The council encourages them to develop links with local farms, farm shops and other suppliers. St Andrews Primary in North Pickenham, for example, seeks to include as much local content in school meals as possible. Local farmers provide regular supplies of potatoes, vegetables and meat. Whenever local people have gluts of crops such as plums they sell them to the school. In addition, all the children from a very early age are encouraged to participate in the school garden growing their own crops. When ripe, the crops are taken into the school kitchen and used for the children’s meals. They have even planted a small orchard to provide apples and pears.

The effect has been spectacular. The numbers of children taking school meals has tripled within a year. Children in the Foundation and Year 1 groups are brimming with pride over their efforts. They spend three quarters of an hour every week learning how to grow their own crops, gleefully telling their headteacher, ‘We planted potatoes today so we can eat new potatoes with our Christmas lunch.’ They have even experienced the pleasure of picking blackberries from the hedges around the school for lunch – although this school is in a rural area, many of the little ones had never done this before.

And there is one more important benefit for any setting which goes down this route: sourcing locally is proving cheaper too. A recent report from the New Economics Foundation indicated that buying direct from farmers resulted in prices up to 11% less than on fruit and vegetables brought from supermarkets.