Foodie heaven in Stroud

Date: 21.09.2018

Rachel from our Enterprising Solutions team attended the visit to Stroud in mid September to explore a range of food related projects and community enterprises.  Hosted by one of the Enterprising Solutions Peer Mentors, Nick Weir from the Open Food Network, we visited a range of activities in the Gloucestershire town.  Here are Rachel’s thoughts:

Having never been to Stroud before, I was struck by how hilly Stroud is.  Not unlike many Valley communities of South Wales, Stroud is located in the bottom of a 5 sided valley, albeit surrounded by green hills rather than former mines.  It was market day (one of the reasons we visited on a Saturday) and parking in the town was at a premium.

     

We met first at the HQ of StroudCo for an introduction over a cuppa.  We introduced each other and Nick explained at the start of the visit that the projects we were going to see throughout the day were all based on co-operative principles in terms of how they ran, although they each had different legal structures.  Bringing the projects to life, Nick explained that later we’d meet Oliver, the StroudCo Food Hub Manager, Sam the Grower at Stroud Community Agriculture and Carol the Shopkeeper’s daughter, who are all involved in interesting and interconnecting food related activities in the town.

The Open Food Network is an online network and community of people promoting local food, giving people the tools and resources to create an online shop for their local activities, accept payments or process invoices for customers to pay by BACS.  As well as Paypal it can also synch with the Stripe payments sytems (a new one on me but with much lower fees than Paypal).  Lots of shops and producers in Wales are already members of the Open Food Network too, including some Enterprising Solutions clients like Welcome to Our Woods in the Rhondda, whom Nick has mentored.

StroudCo uses the open source software from the Open Food Network which is available via their website (see the links below).  The order book closes on a Thursday morning and then producers deliver the goods over the next couple of days before orders are packed and collected by customers from Saturday lunchtime onwards.  Although not just for perishable goods (or even just food products), the food hub now has a storage unit with a fridge and freezer inside, which producers and customers can access (via a keypad system) to deliver or collect their produce at their own convenience.  Customers in the town can also have their produce delivered.  As well as speaking to Oliver, the Manager, we were able to meet some of the customers coming to collect their orders, and ask them directly about their experiences of using StroudCo.

Although well established the Food Hub’s customer base has dropped back to around 18-20 regular customers of late, with capacity to handle up to 50 as they had done in the past.  We were able to brainstorm together ideas for promoting this more widely in the local area, perhaps looking at student projects to take on some of the social media and online marketing, and connecting with local community shops in the area who may be interested in being additional collection points for customers outside of the town itself.

From StroudCo we had a quick trip to the farmers market where we had lunch.  Everyone was free to choose where they dined.  I chose a delicious falafel filled pitta from Falafel Mama, a relative newcomer to the market area in a shop there.  It had queues out the door, and I am not surprised.

Next we had a walk up the hill to see the Stroud Community Allotments, a beautiful and peaceful growing space with amazing views across the valley.  These are 5 combined allotments where 7 local families grow and produce food.  They work co-operatively to share the workload and watering, and the harvests, meeting weekly on a Friday morning and devising a rota of tasks for the week for everyone to contribute toward, and they sell any surplus produce via StroudCo to recoup some of the costs involved.

From there we drove to the other side of town to Hawkswood, one of the sites where Stroud Community Agriculture is based.  We met Sam one of the Growers there (there are 2), who explained about the community co-operative’s activities here and on their other sites in the town.  SCA lease 23 acres at Hawkwood, and a further 23 acres of land at Brookthorpe, three miles away on the way to Gloucester.  They aim to create a connection between people and the food they eat.  Their 300+ members support the farmers to produce their food. Members pay an annual membership and a further payment in order to receive produce including vegetables, pork and beef, and the farm is exploring diversifying into other produce.  In return, the farmers receive a reasonable wage and everyone shares high quality, locally-grown organic vegetables and meat. During our visit, lots of people were coming in to collect their weekly share of the produce.  Families with young kids, weighing out and packing their own produce, tucking into tomatoes along the way.  We also saw others picking flowers or their own rainbow chard, or just walking their dog in the grounds.  The whole system works on trust.  So the growers pick the produce fresh that day (based on the orders) and leave it in the shed for people to come and collect their share (or half share).  Customers are trusted to weigh out the right amount, or only take one head of broccoli or the right piece of meat out the freezer.  It seems to work well and is very well supported.  People can collect from the farm or from a drop off point in town, and stick to a regular collection day.

Lastly we headed back into the town to meet Carol in her beautiful home, who currently handles the administration side of things for SCA, but has also worked at StroudCo in the past (and is still a customer).  The daughter of a grocer, dealing with customers, handling stock and processing orders is obviously in her blood.  Good customer service is something they work hard on and if customers wish to leave the scheme they are asked for feedback and told that SCA also supply the food hub if people wish to buy from there.  Carol is also a member of a local food co-op with some friends and neighbours.  They source from a supplier in Bristol and do a bulk order periodically between them, taking turns to accept delivery and process the order for the collective thus driving down the cost of food for everyone.  It was refreshing to hear that she’s not been in a supermarket for years!

What struck me in every place we visited is the commitment from the people involved.  Its more than just about the food.  It’s created a real, tangible community.  Often the Board members and founders of the various different enterprises are the same people, and they have been working for a long time – years in some cases in terms of promoting local food networks.  They practice what they preach, being customers of the various enterprises, and not just on the Board.  The customers of one enterprise, support another too and help cross-promote each of the ventures.  They benefit from being geographically close to each other as well – so people with similar values and who support the ethos can support more than one at a time with their custom as well.  Let’s hope their work inspires more communities across to look at working more co-operatively, more in harmony with the land and more as a circular economy in their own localities.  Definitely lots of learning for Welsh communities to take on board.

Find out more about the projects we visited on 15th September 2018 using the following links:

Open Food Network UK

StroudCo

Stroud Farmers Market

Stroud Community Allotment

Stroud Community Agriculture