Guardian: Manchester Uni contract raises questions on organic food market

A new organic food co-op in Manchester is bucking the trend by working with a large public sector client- but can smaller food organisations survive when local organic produce is in short supply? Arwa Aburawa reports.

Box of organic vegetablesOrganic veg – in this case from the Ethical Superstore. Photograph: Organic Picture Library/Rex Features

This September saw the launch of a new organic food coop in Manchester called Manchester Veg People. It had been the culmination of years of work by local organisations such as the Kindling Trust and brought together local organic farmers with various clients such as sustainable groceries and restaurants. The unique thing about the coop, however, was that one of its clients was the Manchester University which has 29 eateries and as such requires a substantial amount of produce.

“We are lucky to have Manchester University as one of our clients,” admits Chris Walsh, who works at Kindling Trust which is part of the co-op. “They are our biggest customer by far and the public sector is a stable market for growers to tap into.” The co-op wants to ensure that growers receive a living wage for their work by selling their fruit and veg at market value and so having a stable market is one way to ensure that. Walsh adds that they are hoping to take on more public sector clients such as prisons and hospitals in the future which will also mean that organic food is reaching those not normally that interested in the quality of their food.

However, there is one downfall to having such a large (and relatively privileged) client taking advantage of fresh organic produce: there is a lot less left for everyone else. Julie Brown, who has been working with a more community-focused food co-op in London called ‘Growing Communities’ admits that Manchester’s co-op differs from conventional sustainable food models due to its focus on public procurement. She adds that as there are so few organic farmers around, there would be times when smaller organisations such as organic veg box schemes would struggle to co-exist alongside co-ops with large public sector clients. She says:

The problem is that there are not a lot of sustainable farmers left and so to make sure that smaller groups have access to local organic veg, you would need to be encouraging more growers. You would need to convince conventional farmers to switch to organic and also get farmers who are currently supplying supermarkets to start working with cooperatives and small groups.

Walsh responds that whilst he hopes that smaller veg groups won’t be affected by their work, he agrees that there is a lot of uncultivated land which could contribute to the sustainable food market. He adds that Manchester Veg People is currently working to establish six new growers which should boost the amount of local organic produce available.

There are lots of ex-growers who gave up farming in the late 1970s and 1980s as it wasn’t economically viable and I’d really like persuade them to start growing again, but this time growing organic as there is a fair market out there for them.

The Manchester Veg People Co-op currently includes the University of Manchester, The Kindling Trust, Dig veg box scheme, Unicorn grocery, Eighth Day Café, Tom &amp Julia Rigby Farm, Dunham Massey Organics, Moss Brook Growers and Glebelands. Growers are allowed to trade outside the co-op and those with established relationships can continue to trade directly. Any new links between growers and buyers developed by the co-op will however trade at an extra cost to make the co-op economically viable.

Julie Brown of Growing Communities insists that there is room for different scales of operations and sustainable food models to exist together as long as they are economically viable and environmentally sustainable. She adds:

The two co-ops may work differently but they have very similar principles so it will be interesting to see how Manchester makes their co-op work for everyone involved.

Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist who also writes for Manchester Climate Monthly.

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