Reducing Community Food Miles

While discussions about saving energy tend to focus on ways to reduce our individual domestic consumption, there are other ways to save energy which can be very effective, particularly if they’re part of a community effort.

The idea of “food miles” has become increasingly popular as a way of addressing the huge distances much of what eat we travels before it reaches our tables. According to figures from DEFRA, moving food around accounts for around a quarter of all heavy goods vehicle movement on UK roads and estimates place the total distances involved at around 20 billion miles each year.

The story, of course, doesn’t stop there; for many of us today, the weekly or monthly shop consists of a car journey to the local out-of-town supermarket to collect provisions that have already travelled so far by plane, boat or truck – and then drive them home. It all adds up to a vast amount of fossil-fuelled transport, and most of the debate about food miles has centred on the carbon-cost this entails.

However, there is an energy cost too – not only does all this travel ramp up the overall embedded energy in the food, but all that driving around in private cars uses a lot of fuel. Reduce your food miles at this end of the process and you should find yourself enjoying lower petrol costs too.

Shop and Grow Local

One of the easiest ways to cut food miles is by growing what you can for yourself and shopping locally for everything else. More and more people have begun growing their own vegetables and salad crops as a highly productive and eco-friendly pastime that helps save money on escalating food bills.

However, one of the big problems with this is that however well you try to plan, you almost always end up with a glut of something and there’s a limit to how much you can store, freeze and pickle. If a number of people in your community are doing the same thing, there’s a great opportunity to swap your excesses – unless, of course, you’ve all grown bumper crops of the same thing!

For anyone without the space, interest or green fingers necessary, vegetable box schemes are available in most places throughout the UK to deliver local, seasonal produce direct to your home.

This represents another good way of saving some of the fuel you would have used to go shopping and since deliveries to particular areas are usually made in one go, it helps keep the embedded energy down too.

Supermarket Shopping

The rise of online supermarket shopping offers another way to save a little energy and do your bit for the environment at the same time. One local delivery van can bring many households’ food shopping to their door – instead of each one having to make the trip for themselves, which is an obvious saving on carbon emissions.

Although you pay a few pounds for the service, it can work out to be very cost-effective, especially for people in a rural community facing a long, there-and-back drive to town. If you can all get together and synchronise deliveries, so much the better, since the embedded energy of everybody’s shopping becomes far smaller since it then only represents a part share of the whole vehicle’s trip.

Another and often forgotten energy saving benefit of switching to this kind of home delivery service is that the vans have refrigerated and frozen compartments on-board. As a result, not only does your food arrive in the best possible condition, but you won’t be using the energy you once did to freeze it or keep it cold at home.

Equally, there’s nothing to stop a community arranging its own group transport – and for those remoter places, where the supermarkets won’t deliver, it makes a lot of sense to run a sort of car-share scheme for food and splitting the cost.

Going to the supermarket yourself also allows you to see how far the products on the shelves have travelled – the place of origin is usually marked – and then make a judgement about what you’re going to put into your trolley. Cutting down on this sort of embedded energy may not do anything for your fuel bills, but it might appeal to your eco-conscience.

Reducing food miles, like the more traditional and direct ways of saving energy, is certainly something that we can all do for ourselves. However, in both cases, the cumulative effect of a whole community getting involved is going to be considerably bigger and perhaps best of all, allows everyone to feel that their effort, no matter how small, is worthwhile.

Making people aware that they can really make a difference is a pretty good start for any community project – and who knows where it might lead?