When it comes to confidence in our food, all the data suggests ‘local’ is best – but is that right?
The most recent food attitudes survey, The Food Statistics Pocketbook 2015, produced by Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, shows that 65 per cent of us are ‘quite’ or ‘very’ concerned about food which comes from outside the UK.
When it comes to local food though, we’re far more trusting, with 21 per cent of us actively seeking food of a ‘local origin’. A quarter of consumers consider reduced ‘food miles’ as a positive selling point and being able to trace the food right back to the farm has the biggest rise – up eight per cent – of any of the food confidence indicators published this year.
But how ‘local’ can you stay when choosing all your food? For two weeks, two volunteers, Ian Ruddock from Heckington and Alex Praszczak from Boston, joined me, James Waller-Davies, in eating only food produced within 10 miles of our homes.
Off the menu went all processed food, along with daytime staples, such as tea and coffee, and all non-Lincolnshire herbs and spices. We kept only salt and pepper – food has to taste of something, and it’s an exercise in experimentation, not taste-torture. And with no vineyards in the Fens, out went the dinnertime wine too.
Clearly, living in Lincolnshire, some parts of the diet are easy to get close to home.
Vegetables from farm shops are locally grown and clearly labelled. A good butcher can tell you the farm where your meat has been reared. In the middle of the game season, you’re never far from a pheasant or a partridge. I found a local brewer, with Nick and Marion Wilkinson at the Red Lion, Stickford, making a great homemade cider.
The biggest disappointment was not being able to get local dairy produce, especially milk. South Lincolnshire is not a big producer of milk, but it is a shame that the one product we associate most with freshness, milk, is not available as a locally produced and Lincolnshire-labelled product.
The positives far outweigh the negatives though. It’s amazing just how much fresh food you can find being sold by small producers from the roadside – eggs, vegetables, honey, apples, even walnuts. All far fresher, and cheaper too.
So, down to the nitty-gritty, how hard was it?
Ian, who doesn’t consider himself an especially great cook, found the cooking side more challenging than usual: “I thought it would be quite easy, but it was harder with less cooking skills. I stayed in my comfort zone. For two weeks it was OK, but for any longer, I’d have had to become more adventurous. We didn’t have anything sophisticated. Quite old-fashioned meat and veg. What we ate was good, but it did get a bit monotonous.”
Variety was also initially an issue for Alex, who for an added twist, is also a vegetarian. She said: “At first it was quite boring without my usual ingredients. But when I found the farm shop at Swineshead, I could buy eggs and more vegetables and could be more adventurous. I got so much – all local and cheaper. It was so much fresher too and it tasted so much better. A totally different experience.”
There were also some unexpected benefits. We’re not claiming to have discovered a new wonder diet, but we all lost weight and both Ian and Alex thought their skin complexion had got better from eating a healthier diet with more vegetables and less fats.
Good local food also makes for good business. Roy Hilton owns the multi-award winning Manor Farm shop in Swineshead and is dedicated to locally sourced produce.
“Customers are interested in local food and want to support local businesses,” he said. “There are an abundance of producers out there. People are more savvy now and appreciate food that hasn’t travelled a million miles.”
Similarly, Lincolnshire Co-op has a long established tradition of actively seeking out the county’s best local produce, working with local farmers, growers and producers, and marketing it under the ‘love local’ brand.
Emma Snedden, Lincolnshire Co-op’s communications manager, explained: “As Lincolnshire Co-op, we are a local business ourselves. It’s all about supporting the community. We like to use local businesses and look to supply local producers. We get a lot of positive feedback on ‘love local’.”
The 10-mile food challenge has been an interesting way to reassess what we all eat and our attitudes to food.
As a working father, Ian was aware of some food issues within his family and lifestyle.
“I have two young kids who are becoming a little fussy. I’m also conscious that because of my work, I work shifts, that my diet’s not always brilliant,” he added.
For Alex, it has been more about finding out about quality local food: “I’m interested in healthy living and cooking. I thought it would be nice to see what’s available locally and when you start to look there’s just so much.”
And, at the end of the fortnight, it was easy to agree that the food we got locally tasted much better, but what did we have first when we could have anything we wanted? For Ian, it was a takeaway curry. Alex went for bananas, followed by five fruit-corner yogurts. As for me, it was just a nice cup of coffee.