In a school hall in Frome in Somerset several tables have been arranged in a large square and people are already distributing the local produce they have brought along. Greeted by the organisers of the town’s weekly Food Assembly, I’m handed a printout of my shopping list and politely directed to walk around and collect all the things I ordered online two days ago; some breads from The Old Bakehouse, sliced ham from Bill the Butcher, milk from Ivy House Farm Dairy and a bottle of Worley’s cider from More Wine.
For a Food Assembly first-timer, walking into this pop-up marketplace initially feels a little strange, both modern and old-fashioned at the same time. Perhaps this is because the experience is so at odds with the way that food shopping has developed into a largely anonymous experience – order online from home and have it all delivered, or visit your local supermarket (reading labels for ingredients or cooking methods), talking only with the person on the till. Meeting the butcher or baker in person … isn’t that the kind of thing that used to happen on the high street?
The Food Assembly movement began in France in 2010 as La Ruche Qui Dit Oui! or ‘The Hive That Says Yes!’ It was conceived by designer and entrepreneur Guilhem Chéron as a “connected direct sales network where local people could buy high quality products directly from farmers in their region”. Chéron, whose CV includes projects as diverse as designing a vegetarian restaurant in Cuba to setting up cooking workshops for disabled children, soon brought in co-founder Marc-David Choucroun and the first LRQDO platform launched in 2011 in a small village near Toulouse. There are now over 700 groups all over Europe, with ‘hive leaders’ organising markets in local buildings and enticing a growing number of shoppers to buy foodstuffs direct from the producers. In July 2014 the idea arrived in the UK as The Food Assembly, the inaugural event taking place in Hackney Wick in London.
Part of the reason the idea has caught on is that the process behind it is so well designed – and designed to be as straightforward as possible. Customers sign-up for free online and select an Assembly near them to join. Each group has a list of local producers, all of whom are based within 100 miles of that particular Assembly, though many of the sellers – farmers, dairies, bakers and so on – are in actuality based just a few miles away. Each of these producers displays their goods for sale that week on a personalised web page; members browse these online shops, selecting items for their basket as they go, which are then paid for at the end. A list of the order is then emailed out to the buyer and all they have to do is turn up at the allotted time and place to collect it. On the day itself, rather than simply handing over a bag of goods, the shopping list is given back to the buyer, complete with a customer number, who then picks up the food from each producer. In Frome, I was one of a good gathering of people who turned up on a wet December evening from a local membership of over 2,100.
BELOW: The Food Assembly, hosted at Memorial Theatre before it moved to the Steiner Academy
One of the central ideas behind The Food Assembly is that it gives buyers a chance to meet the producers and generates a real sense of a community market. While the purchasing of the goods has already taken place online, meeting face-to-face connects producers directly with consumers and forms the distribution side of the process. Richard Hamblin of More Wine sells through the Frome Assembly and says it benefits from being “very professionally managed, yet easily accessible to a new supplier. It’s an ideal environment for a small start-up business to gain feedback from actual consumers, with the only outlay being a commission on goods sold.” Producers take 83.3% of the sale price of their goods (in comparison to the 15-25% they would take through supermarkets) with a commission of 16.7% split equally between the host (for organising and promoting the sales and managing the buying community) and The Food Assembly itself (for tech and commercial support and ongoing network development).
There are numerous other benefits for sellers. As a flexible model, prices and minimum order levels are decided upon by the producers themselves, while each week they can select what produce from their stock they would like to sell. As all orders are placed before the collections take place, each producer knows what to bring to market – if everyone turns up to collect their order, nothing is wasted. (Equally, if a producer doesn’t hit their minimum order level for a particular item, all buyers are informed and refunded). “The online element where suppliers place their goods for sale is extremely easy to use and provides fantastic archive data for VAT returns and sales analysis,” adds Hamblin. “The opportunity to meet other local food and drink retailers has proven to be invaluable.”
The community aspect to Food Assembly is well documented on the organisation’s blog – donations, loans and crowdfunding campaigns have been arranged to help producers, while various hosts have organised concerts, workshops, machine and product demonstrations and art exhibitions in their venues. In one Parisian Assembly cited, members apparently vote for the vegetables they want to eat the following season – an act they refer to as ‘participatory germination’. But the community focus works on an individual level, too. When I arrived at the Frome Assembly, the fact that hosts Pia and Lindsay knew I hadn’t been to one before and were able to explain the process step-by-step, added a great personal touch to the experience.
“The model is hassle-free,” Guardian journalist Rich McEachran wrote in a recent post on the Food Assembly blog. “And unlike most buying groups, the weekly meet-up is attended by both customers and the farmers and producers selling the goods. Eating is a political act and showing your support can have a positive impact on the money in their pocket.” Indeed, as a participative and engaging process, it seems to work for everyone – and I can vouch that the communal aspect, being a small part of a wider local economy, is as rewarding as the quality of the food and drink available.
Writing on the NESTA website in 2014, Theo Keane, the first organiser of the Haggerston Food Assembly in east London (now hosted by Becks Scurlock), detailed the advantages and challenges that he noticed in getting people along to this new kind of marketplace. “As with all these things, the test will be the extent to which the Food Assembly model can become normal in everyday life,” he considered. “It is apparent that new forms of citizen participation in the economy carry huge potential for transformative change. For example, look at how Airbnb and eBay have shifted how we consume and contribute. I can affirm that being part of it at an early stage is extremely rewarding and empowering. I strongly encourage you to get involved.”
The Food Assembly is about to launch new groups in Bristol, Glasgow, Sheffield and Hove. See thefoodassembly.com