Blogs >> The New Economy In Practice 3: “From Small Seeds……”

The New Economy In Practice 3: “From Small Seeds……”

By: Tim Crabtree
Senior Lecturer, Economics For Transition
Schumacher College

On a summer's afternoon a few years ago I was standing in the playground at Bridport Primary School, waiting to pick up my children after class. A woman in her 60’s came over to me and introduced herself:

"Hello. I'm Ryan's grandma – he’s in your daughter’s class. I just wanted to tell you that when he ate the fruit salad at Sports Day – that was the first time he had ever eaten fruit. And when he brought home the pizza with peppers and mushrooms on, that was the first time he'd ever eaten vegetables – he was really proud to share it with us."

Fast forward 10 years, and I have just attended the annual general meeting of Local Food Links Ltd, a social enterprise I set up in 1998 to help promote a new food culture in the county of Dorset. AGM's are not normally very exciting events but this one had a particular significance. The school fruit scheme and cookery workshops for children which we set up all those years ago led on to the development of a school meals service – and this year it finally moved into surplus, with a turnover exceeding £1 million.

Local Food Links Ltd was originally set up as the trading company of an educational charity called West Dorset Food and Land Trust. The charity helped schools develop "Grow it, Cook it, Eat it" activities such as creating vegetable gardens and organising cookery workshops, while Local Food Links developed the first farmers markets in Dorset, established Dorset Food Week and created the Bridport Food Festival, all of which remain regular events.

In those early days, one area of concern had been the food purchasing policies of public sector bodies such as hospitals, councils and schools. Very little local, fair trade or organic food was being purchased. We engaged in lobbying, and helped run workshops that brought together "public procurement" officers and local food suppliers, but little progress was made due to the regulations imposed on the public sector by the European Union. For contracts over a certain size, it was illegal to choose local, as this was seen as a restraint on "free trade". However, for contracts below £100,000 there was much greater 

freedom, so we started to wonder what we might do to get around the restrictions.

A second area of concern was that local food was becoming a "niche" market affordable only to those on higher incomes, so we decided to explore ways that children might be able to access local and organic food. We had already begun running cookery workshops, such as the one where Ryan had made his first vegetarian pizza. Then a conversation with Ruth Clench, the Headteacher of Bridport Primary School, led to a new initiative. She had decided that children should no longer be allowed to bring in sweets, chocolate or crisps as a morning snack and instead could only eat fruit at break time. However, what then occurred was that the younger children would take one bite of their fruit and throw it in the bin, while older children stopped bringing anything at all. So all the children reached lunchtime feeling really hungry.

In response, we asked the children what they would like, and they said: "fruit salad, in-class, after break, so we don't have to waste time eating during our play-time". This led to the setting up of a fruit scheme which proved extremely popular with both children and parents, many of whom became volunteers helping to cut up fruit at the start of the school day.

The scheme was supported by government start-up funding, which had to be matched by sales of fruit – and soon we had 396 out of 400 children buying fruit salad every day for a nominal sum. We felt very pleased, but one of the things you soon learn when you start running an enterprise is that things seldom go according to plan. After a year of running our fruit initiative, the government introduced a National School Fruit Scheme, and so we lost our market, and the match income required by our start-up grant.

It was another conversation with Headteacher Ruth Clench that led to the next initiative. In 1981, Dorset County Council decided to close down kitchens in primary schools, following the decision by the government of the day to abolish nutritional standards for school meals – these standards were seen as an unwelcome restraint on the free market and consumer "choice". As a result, children in Dorset were asked to bring in "packed lunches" – usually a sandwich – while children from families on low incomes would receive a free school meal. The problem, as Ruth Clench explained, was that these free lunches came in bright yellow bags, were of poor quality and were made in London every night before being trucked 140 miles to Dorset. Take-up of these free school meals was low, and this affected the level of funding that the school received, so we wondered if there was something that could be done.

The result was a new "soup lunch" scheme, which grew in popularity as the children began taking part in a series of 40 soup making workshops – 10 children at a time, with soup shared with their classmates. Soon we were serving hundreds of bowls of soup a week, providing a market for local vegetable growers, and giving more opportunities for parents to come in and volunteer their time.

However, another new government program now undermined our soup lunch scheme. After years of work by campaigners, the government finally agreed to reintroduce nutritional standards for school meals, but this proved difficult for Dorset County Council, as they had removed all the kitchens required for such a service in 1981. To deal with this, they agreed a contract with a factory making frozen ready meals, 220 miles away in Nottingham – the aim was to truck them down and reheat the meals in microwaves.

We were appalled, and with Ruth Clench’s help we called a meeting of the Heads of the eight primary schools in the Bridport area to discuss an alternative. The schools had no space to reinstate kitchens and the only possibility was a central hub kitchen in the middle of town, from which hot food would be distributed to the nearby schools. This required significant initial funding, but with a yellow bag and a frozen ready meal as props, I went off to speak with funders in London and soon had raised £250,000 to build the hub kitchen and recruit new staff.

It was an enormous challenge to go from running a soup scheme with lots of volunteer help, to running a commercial catering service that required a shift to a more "professional" approach. There were many people who helped make the new school meals service a success, but one of the key people was Martin Settle, a Canadian who had joined me as our finance officer when we were developing the fruit scheme, and who also turned out to be a computer wizard. In just a couple of years we grew from the initial eight schools to 25, and from running one hub kitchen in Bridport to opening a second in North Dorset. During this time it was Martin's online menu planning, logistics and ordering system that held the whole enterprise together.

Sadly, Martin moved back to Canada in 2010, but he helped lay the foundations for an organisation that has now grown to serving 33 schools from 3 hub kitchens, with a turnover of £1 million – representing around 400,000 meals a year. I decided to stand down as chief executive a little while after Martin left, staying on as a board member. Having led the development of Local Food Links Ltd into new territory, it was now time to appoint managers with catering experience to consolidate the organisation.

The school meals service continued to need social investment finance and grants until last year, but the big breakthrough came in 2013, when the government announced it would fund free school meals for all 4 – 6 year-olds. This meant a large increase in take-up, and has allowed Local Food Links to reach the scale it needed to achieve financial viability, with the number of meals doubling in a very short space of time. This was a great achievement, coordinated by the new chief executive Caroline Morgan and the operations manager Gillian Reynolds.

I think that one of the key lessons to be drawn from Local Food Links Ltd is that viability can take many years for a social enterprise to achieve. In a very narrow sense, it can be more "economic" to produce school meals in a factory hundreds of miles away using low quality ingredients of uncertain provenance. To do something different can take many years and much hard work. It requires patient funders such as the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, CAF Venturesome and Wessex Community Assets. It also means being prepared to improvise new approaches when things don't go as expected. Even now, Local Food Links Ltd is vulnerable, for example, to changes in government policy or shifts in the cost of food or fuel. As an organisation it moves forward into a complex and uncertain future and will have to carry on 

adapting to new circumstances. However, it has certainly grown in impact since those early days of fruit salad and soup.[1]

Read: The New Economy In Practice: Part 1 Community owned energy: Two steps forward, one step back!

Read: The New Economy In Practice: Part 2 Savings Not Suitcases


Tim Crabtree has been involved in “new economics” for 30 years, after studying economics at Oxford University and then working for the New Economics Foundation for 5 years. He has experience in policy development, local economic development and business advice, and was the co-founder of a number of a successful social enterprises including the Wessex Reinvestment Trust group and Dorset-based Local Food Links Ltd – where he was responsible for developing farmers’ markets, food festivals, community gardening projects, a specialist workspace (the Centre for Local Food), a vocational training programme for young people and a school meals catering service employing 25 people which now supplies 31 schools.

After stepping down as chief executive of Local Food Links, Tim then worked for Cardiff University, researching the future direction of the community food sector. He continues to work with one of the Wessex Reinvestment Trust social enterprises - Wessex Community Assets - which co-ordinates the UK's largest programme of community land trust housing, as well as supporting community share issues in areas such as renewable energy and local food.

Tim has worked with international organisations such as the Resource Centre for Philippine Concerns and the International Institute for Environment and Development, for national organisations such as the New Economics Foundation, and for South West based organisations such as the Bristol & Avon Community Enterprise Network, Dorset Community Action and the SW Protected Landscapes Forum. He was a founder Director of the UK Social Investment Forum. Tim has a particular interest in reflective practice, both in the field of economics and also in mindfulness related disciplines (meditation, aikido and shiatsu) which he has engaged with since 1984.