The pandemic has highlighted both the fragility and adaptability of Cornwall’s food supply chains, with many primary producers resorting to direct sales when facing shutdown of tourism and the food service sector.
With the added uncertainty of Brexit trade agreements, researchers at the University of Exeter joined forces with the Rural Group of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to undertake a 12-week study.
Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund in partnership with Agri-tech Cornwall, the study investigated the potential for more local produce to be used within care homes and schools, and interviewed farm shops and fishermen to understand the challenges they face.
“We estimate that schools and colleges in Cornwall spend about £1.06m per year on school dinners, but a surprising 49% of schools surveyed are unaware what proportion of their food is locally sourced (from Devon or Cornwall),” explains Clare Parnell, board member and rural lead at the LEP.
Cornwall’s care home sector spends an incredible £11.69m on meals per year, but 37% of those surveyed don’t know how much of their food is locally sourced.
“There is a common perception among both the education and care sector that increasing local produce would not be cost effective and that finding appropriate suppliers could be difficult,” she adds.
“This research shows the scale of the opportunity available to local food and drink businesses - and distributors - to supply into this market.”
It is important to raise awareness among schools and care homes of the availability of local produce at comparable prices and delivered with high levels of service, says Mrs Parnell.
“We need to highlight the difference between buying local food and national or international food delivered by local wholesalers, alongside the environmental benefits of reducing food miles.”
Farm shops and local independent food stores in Cornwall played a vital role in the pandemic, easing pressure on larger retailers and offering a calm shopping environment.
They proved readily adaptable, catering to customer requests and developing suitable delivery and collection systems.
“These outlets provided a reliable route to market for many independent producers who saw their usual supply chains disrupted,” says Mrs Parnell. “With many more people turning to farm shops during lockdown, 74% of those surveyed saw an increase in sales, with 37% planning to expand.”
Faced with market closures, Cornwall’s fishermen were forced to reduce their fishing activity. However, 86% of respondents found new ways to sell their catch, including directly to customers online. Although these new routes to market carry disadvantages like increased administration, three-quarters of fishers want to sell more produce locally in future.
Parnell said this was where the LEP and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Growth Hub can help to bring supply chains together to improve local public procurement and direct sales.
“We will seek to find partners to support the development of a more regional food supply chain infrastructure, nurturing the growth of a diverse base of small and medium food producers and strengthening the local economy.”
The LEP Rural Group brings together individuals from agriculture, food and drink, tourism and environmental management.
“This recognises the importance of these sectors working together to develop sustainable businesses that contribute towards a low carbon economy.”
As a one-stop shop for information on grants and business support, the Growth Hub can help producers find the right support to build their businesses and leadership skills so they are in the best position to compete and supply local markets.
“The Covid-19 pandemic impacted the Cornish food and drink industry very significantly, but it also created new routes to market and reconnected people to local food,” added Mark Duddridge, chair of the LEP.
“This study has helped us to understand the above in great detail and will signpost many initiatives to build a stronger sector while also informing an ask of Government to put in place local powers that can best support growth.”