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Why research the performance of rural community food hubs?

Why research the performance of rural community food hubs?

4 January 2022

Origins of interest

Before we present the findings of research funded by the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) into citizen food hubs, I wanted to look back at how these seeds of interest were first planted around 50 years ago, writes Nigel Curry, a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln and chair of the Lincolnshire Food Partnership.

I did my degree in economics in the early 1970s. Within a diet of neoclassical economics, I remember how seductively satisfying ‘marginal utility theory’ sounded. Producers would always get their costs and their revenues into a position that would maximise profit.

I was lucky enough to grow up in rural England within the North York Moors National Park. Armed with the above seduction, I approached our five neighbouring upland farmers to test this ‘marginal analysis’. None had the first idea of what I was talking about: some were bewildered; some a little abusive, and all had a very different business model, built around succession: “We have farmed this way for generations.” For them, ‘marginal analysis’ didn’t seem to be true.

In contrast, nowhere in my economics curriculum was there any room for questioning the big issues. We learned nothing about the environmental and resource costs of economic growth, nor its impact on the distribution of wealth. We skirted around market failure.

Efficiency of British agriculture

I’ve been interested in understandings of productivity and how it accommodates market failures ever since. That this has played out in a rural context is due to a very specific instance.

We had a guest lecture by an economist from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – the forerunner to Defra - who proudly asserted that British agriculture was one of the most efficient in the world. Our tutor asked two short questions at the end: “If agriculture is so efficient, why does it need so much subsidy?”, and “how do you measure all of the environmental damage that agriculture does in the formulation of efficiency?”. I’m still mulling over the answers.

I now work in the rural economy in practice, running a food hub in Lincolnshire – or ‘food partnership’ as we call it. Its economic activity creates jobs and incomes in rural areas and brings in quite a bit of state support to more remote places. And it stimulates considerable voluntary activity: the Bank of England reckons that volunteering is worth £50billion a year to the UK economy – around 3.5% of GDP, the same size as the energy sector (extraction and utilities together).

But we spend most of our time dealing with market failures: we have 59 food banks (helping with food poverty amongst those often furthest from the rural job market). We have over 90 community food growing projects (shortening food miles, promoting plant-based diets, farming with the environment, and going some way to tackle obesity). We divert food waste (from retail and processing) to those who can use it to feed their families. We enhance community capital (through working as a collective through a range of different positive social interactions’).

As a collective, we applied for NICRE funding to explore measures of performance in what are known as ‘citizen food hubs’ in ours and also in Brighton and Hove and in Cornwall. This was because they make a positive contribution to rural economies and communities, yet under most conventional measures they are neither productive nor efficient. So, underlying our application, is whether we should try and make them more productive, or seek to measure their impact on rural economies and communities in a different way. Our findings will be published on NICRE’s website in the next couple of months.

Find out more about NICRE