Interview with Bea Oliver of Real Economy, a co-operative that’s aiming to improve access to fresh food throughout Bristol with a group online ordering system sent directly to food producers
Please introduce yourself
My name is Bea and I work as Real Economy Co-ordinator. Real Economy is a sister project to Bristol Pound, so I sit in their offices at the Corn Exchange, above St. Nick’s Market. My role as co-ordinator means that I spend my time helping people to start food buying groups and contacting children’s centres, community centres and other community groups to find out if they’d like to host a food drop-off point.
What is Real Economy?
It is a co-operative based around buying groups – just groups of neighbours or friends – which we put in touch with local producers: vegetable growers, dairies, bakers, butchers and wholesalers. We have created an ordering system that takes on the admin and payments. It sends people’s orders to the producers, who deliver to one drop-off point per group – a bit like online supermarket shopping, but you get together with your neighbours and support local farmers. We have designed it so that only one person per group needs to be computer literate and the person who does the organising gets some credit in the system to buy free food. People can also choose to pay for their orders with Bristol Pounds so that their money is re-circulated around Bristol.
What is a food desert?
A food desert is any area where there are lots of people but not enough food shops! Unfortunately, planners often assume that everyone can (and wants to) drive two miles to a giant supermarket, so new-build estates often have loads of houses but you can’t find a carrot or pint of milk for love nor money. That means people’s diets are being affected simply by where they live and whether they can get to the shops. But buying groups can be anywhere because the producers deliver to the group. Saves the bus fare, too.
Will Real Economy lead to different attitudes to nutrition and bring a community closer? How is this so?
There’s plenty of opportunity for that, though they aren’t things that we push on the groups. We’ll be partnering with community kitchens to offer cooking classes soon but that’s optional, so it’s not nutrition school. The same goes for community. Buying food is something everyone needs to do, so it’s a neutral way for people to meet. If a group wants to have a meal together or hold a tasting event, that’s fantastic but it’s completely up to them. One group in Knowle West is planning to use the community transport bus to send food orders to people who can’t get out the house easily. Another group wants to link it with their enterprise project as a way for people to gain employment skills – both great examples of taking the idea and using it for what they need.
What has the reaction been so far to Real Economy?
100% positive. I didn’t make up the idea, but it’s great working on something that, when people hear about it, everyone gets it. It seems to tick a lot of boxes – health, food miles, fair access to food, carbon emissions… and local economy of course! Some people expect it to be like a fancy farmers’ market, but there’s a real range so people can choose to prioritise price, ethics or social impact. Fifty-nine pence for a pint of milk ain’t bad.
What else will this project be doing – any farm visits?
We support the buying groups to do what they want to do. Some are already talking about visiting the farms (and some farmers are dying to show off their fields and livestock), others want help to hire space to gather for meals. One thing we’re particularly keen to try out is for buying groups to visit each other. I live in North Bristol and, until I started going there for work, I thought of South Bristol as practically a different city! Some buying groups might have things to offer to other buying groups – time, experience, a different way of seeing the world – so helping them to meet is a good way to get people out of their bubbles and see a new area of Bristol. Again, it’s up to the members themselves, but we hope that buying groups can become a solidarity and exchange network of sorts.
How will this project fit in with the independent retailers of Bristol?
The project is aimed particularly at areas where there aren’t many shops. I generalise, but most ‘food deserts’ either have nothing or they have a non-independent shop, like McColls or Spar, and people travel to large supermarkets for a big weekly shop. So we’re not setting up as competition to Bristol’s wonderful high streets – that’s not at all the point. But we could certainly be accused of pitting ourselves against supermarkets! One buying group in Emerson’s Green wants to support the high street butcher in Staple Hill, so they asked the butcher to join Real Economy, and now he can sell his stock in Emerson’s Green, and the rest of the city if he chooses to, just by making a weekly delivery. In Lockleaze the new grocer in Gainsborough Square has decided to use Real Economy, getting people to pre-order fresh foods so that the shop doesn’t end up with waste produce. So it can help independent shops too.
Anyone can start a Real Economy buying group – you only need five people to get started, follow the steps here: www.realeconomy.co.uk/starting-a-buying-group/ or contact Bea: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07443653172
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