This week, we're sharing a blog post from Natasha at Better Food Traders. Please read the in-depth article, that covers a full discussion about the North of England and the Better Food Shed, at the Better Food Traders website.

Better Food Traders, Wholesalers and the Missing Middle: Why Transparency Matters

Written by Natasha Soares, project leader of Better Food Traders

Transparency is a word that seems to be frequently floating around these days.  It’s often in response to the many layers of wool over our eyes about how our food is produced and how it reaches us – eaters – the end of the food supply chain.  I know I feel resistant to removing that wool.  There’s just too much to think about – human rights, soil health, biodiversity, climate impacts, transport emissions, habitat destruction.  How much do I really want to know?  How much do I need to know to make an informed decision?  How much transparency is enough? What should we be asking of wholesalers?

When we’re talking about food, in our ‘local’, ‘organic’ or ‘agroecological’ sector, there has long been an assumption that food directly sourced from the farmer, or better still, grown ourselves, is best. Lots of stories are told that highlight the rural (or in some cases, urban) grower, with bucolic pictures of seedlings emerging, crops being picked, farm workers smiling as they bring boxes of carrots/squash/apples down a beautifully weeded aisle.  At Better Food Traders we use those images to showcase the growers of the fruit and veg sold by our members. Supermarkets, however, have been rightly criticized for their use of ‘fresh farm’ greenwashing to cover up the rather more industrial realities of the farms that they own or are supplied by, where rock bottom production cost (I’m not going to say value) is seen as an essential component of business efficiency.

As project leader of Better Food Traders, I want to make sure that our organization is being transparent. To me that means giving you, the reader, and maybe the customer of one of our amazing member businesses, the unvarnished truth.  We need to make sure that we include stories about the less lovely-looking, but equally meaningful and critical, links in the supply chains that bring us our food. 

In the UK, most of us live in cities – 83% of the population. It strikes me that until there is a re-ruralisation of the population, the vast majority of us are unlikely to be buying our food directly from farmers, because farmers and farms are mostly rural.  How can we city-dwellers most effectively support our farmers to provide healthy soils, nature-friendly and diverse habitats, climate remediation, decent jobs and clean air?  Are there enough people who are able to buy directly from farms, to create the tipping point of support needed for organic and agroecological farming to become the main source of food in the UK?  And, possibly more to the point, do farmers, busy growing food for increasing numbers of customers, have enough time and inclination to manage all those direct sales to individuals?  I propose that direct sales can and patently do work for some farmers, but are unlikely to become the main route to market – the overwhelmingly urban market – for most in the UK. This is why, at Better Food Traders, we are all about aggregation of demand via retail, and, yes, all of our retailers use (certified organic) wholesalers to further aggregate demand too.

I’ve recently been alerted to a phrase that is used to describe part of our food supply chain here in the UK – the ‘missing middle’.  (Thank you Bella from the Food Research Collaboration at City University). My first take on the missing middle in the local, small scale, alternative to mainstream, food sector, was that we were talking about the retailer.  Ah, I thought to myself, that’s where Better Food Traders comes in – recognizing the retailer is why we exist.  Everyone forgets the retailer – just think of the term ‘farm-to-fork’.  It’s almost as if that carrot leapt from the field straight onto a plate.  But thinking further, I’ve realised that I want to draw your attention to more of that missing middle.  Yes, the retailer plays a pivotal part in looking both ways in the food chain – to farmer and to customer – but the wholesaler’s story is another crucial one that is seldom told.

I’ll start with our very own Better Food Shed (the Shed). Growing Communities developed this operation as a new kind of wholesale business to support the growth of small-scale local food systems – there are now 10+ community-led, organic schemes operating within the M25.

Supply predominantly comes from small, organic farms within 100 miles of London, such as Sarah Green Organics in Essex and Ripple Farm in Kent. Delivering direct requires scale and a minimum order size so this option is not viable for smaller box schemes with small orders or for smaller producers who have less to sell.  The Shed solves this problem by reducing the cost and carbon of the distribution conundrum, providing a hub in Barking – on London’s fringe – where the farmers deliver all their London orders. For the veg schemes, it helps them all compete with larger businesses by pooling orders, thus giving greater buying power.  As a not-for-profit organisation, the Better Food Shed is committed to putting farmers and growers ahead of profit. It’s also committed to supporting small businesses run in an ecologically sound way and to help build a more sustainable food system.  

Danny Fisher from the Shed agrees that the business is primarily about being farmer-focussed, a term describing giving farmers proper support so that they can thrive and treat the land and their workforce with the respect they deserve.  Metske van der Laan, a Shed supplier from Bore Place in Kent, bears this out: “It is a joy to supply and trade with people who are in it for the right reasons, locally produced, respect for nature and the people who work the land. I hope I can pay this back with good quality vegetables for years to come…  The ethos of the Better Food Shed guarantees me and my employees an honest price for our produce… I hope to grow organic veg for many more years. Although no farming practise is 100% sustainable, every acre farmed organic is a step away from a destructive farming practises that are all about quantity and profit for some. I hope and see that our way of farming and trading is about quality and profit for all!”

Carry on reading at

Photo Credit: Jonny Hughes @jonny2love
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