Finding the beginning or where does our food come from?

03 19 08 Bradford wholesale market 012

I once conducted a research project that examined the consumption practices of middle-class households in the UK.  I was interested in the knowledges they had about what foods to buy and how their own understandings of local fit into this.  As part of that project I went to visit the wholesale market in Bradford, which is where most of the fruit and vegetables one finds in the various corner shops within the region are sourced.  It was both an interesting and illuminating trip at the time, and has informed my reflections on where our food begins its life as food any number of times since then.  What, in particular, it has caused me to consider is not only the socio-cultural relations that inform the origins of our food, but also the contexual usefulness (or uselessness) of the idea of local when we think about whether or not our food is local. 

What inspired that initial visit was a discussion with a green grocer in a small town on the outskirts of Leeds. The green grocer was part of a group of local businesses trying to prevent Tesco from building one of those large superstores in the area.  The fear was that if Tesco were to build a bigger store (than the one that was already in the town), this would not only change the nature of the town in ways that would be irreparable, but it would also further erode the viability of small retailers such as the green grocer. The green grocer argued that his was a local business, while Tesco was not.  The man, and his family, lived in the town. He was a neighbour. He donated fruit to a children’s cross-country group.  He was from here.

But, somewhat ironically, his food was not.  When I visited the wholesale market where his fruit and veg are sourced I discovered that the vast majority of the foodstuffs where from a considerable way away–South America and Africa.  The wholesaler in the market in Bradford is not even the only middle man, he purchases his food from another wholesale market in the Netherlands or Miami if the food originates in South America or from London if the food comes from Africa. Meaning, of course, that the fruits and veg from this small, local green grocer at some point travelled via distant ports (many of which are owned by the Hong Kong Tycoon Li Ka Shing, whom I have written about here). The green grocer was just one node in a complex international web of exchange.

One of the many interesting facts I learned from talking to one of the wholesalers was that there are historical national connections that inform the supply lines.  He told me that the French, for example, get their bananas from Morocco, while the Spanish source their bananas from the Canary Islands, and the former British colonies are the source of the bananas we get in the UK.  Looking at where our food begins, before it comes to us reveals historical relations of (radicalised) power that are obscured by the debates around supporting local businesses.  There were complex radicalised dimensions to these networks and nodes as well, which I elaborate in the paper.  But, with consumers, the green grocer’s claim to be local resonated somewhat, if not entirely because on one hand at some level the people I talked to were aware that it is difficult to buy a banana grown in Britain, but on the other this did not mean the banana was not at some point in its commodity life part of empire.


You can find a PDF copy of the paper that came out of the research above here.  It is called Buying Local Food:  Shopping Practices, Place, and Consumption Networks in defining food as Local.

This post is part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. The theme this week is Beginning.  You can find thechallenge here.

6 thoughts on “Finding the beginning or where does our food come from?

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  6. Excellent. Local is not only a slippery topic with the long supply chains, but also domestically. Is a shop local if it’s a franchise? Or owned by people out of town? Or if, as often happens, the produce comes from a few hundred miles away and is sold in a farmer’s market.

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