Clare Horrell from the Real Farming Trust looks at which enterprises can help change our food system and introduces a new loan fund – LEAP – that is designed to support them.

Last week, I woke up to the news that Cancer Research UK had announced that obesity now causes more cases of four common cancers in the UK than smoking. Obese people now outweigh smokers two to one[1].

We live in a time of crisis on so many fronts – public health and the environment being two of the most pressing and seemingly hardest to crack. The food we eat is the key to addressing them both. Yet our ways of producing, buying and eating food are not helping us make better choices, entrenched as they are in a food system controlled by corporations driven by profits and the needs of their shareholders rather than consumers.

So sometimes, on mornings like these, I can just want to curl up under my duvet and despair at the state we are in. But, instead, when I heard about the Cancer Research UK report, it made me think of all those amazing local, community-based food enterprises that I have had the privilege to work with over the last 10 years, that are actually addressing these issues and making a difference right now. Giving people access to better quality, fresher, healthy and nutritious food. This is no time to be hiding under that duvet. The solutions are already out there, we just need to help them along!

Last year, as part of a research project we did with Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) we collected data from five community enterprises that grow food. We found that their customers said that buying from them had resulted in them changing their diet, eating more fruit and veg, wasting less and being more adventurous with their cooking by trying things they had never tried before[2]. And this morning I also thought of the projects, like the Woodbank Community Food Hub in Manchester, that are working with their local GPs to provide opportunities for social prescribing using food growing as a form of physical and mental therapy rather than drugs.

The growth of community growing and community supported agriculture schemes over the last 10 years, means that the UK is now brimming with examples of enterprises where consumers have a direct connection with the people that grow and produce their food. We are still at an early stage of collecting the data that evidences the impact these connections have on health, wellbeing and the environment, but what we know from our small survey with CAWR is that that impact is there.

But we need more than just growers. We need this change and connection to embed across the whole food chain, taking in shops, cafés and restaurants, ready to eat products and public sector catering like in hospitals and schools. In part, one of the problems we currently have is there are not enough local outlets to sell the produce that is being grown locally, using agroecological growing methods that work in harmony with the environment. We know this is the form of agriculture we need to move to if our grandchildren are still to be able to produce their own food. Data suggests that if we don’t, we face the prospect of less than a hundred harvests left in the UK[3].

Shops like Unicorn Grocery in Manchester, Locavore in Glasgow, HISBE in Brighton, The Real Food Store in Exeter and food hubs like Tamar Grow Local all show what can be done. They provide a reliable and secure market for their local agroecological producers encouraging them to grow more, experiment with new crops and pulling in more new farmers to meet demand.

Many years ago, one community grower told me “get the outlets right and the rest will follow”. Nearly 10 years on from that conversation, that is still true.

At the Real Farming Trust we are really keen to encourage and support shops, hubs and caterers that provide outlets for food produced in a way that nurtures and restores the environment. Our £1.4m loans programme – LEAP – offers unsecured loans of between £25k and £100k over 5 years at interest rates below the market rate together with a small amount of grant to support enterprises in the delivery of their social impact. We also offer mentoring support to help enterprises become ready and confident in taking on the loan. So this could mean reviewing supply chains to improve the environmental footprint of the produce or it could mean help with business planning or governance.

We’ve had lots of applications from growers, but we’d really like to see more projects that are selling, processing and cooking produce so that our loans programme can help nurture more of the “pull” as well as the “push” towards a better food system.

If you are a community food enterprise looking for funding, please complete our short expression of interest form and look at our website for further information. We look forward to hearing from you!