Alternative Food Network

This article is part of a sector report on supermarkets - December 2014



Growing an alternative ‘supermarket’ network 


There are many inspiring examples of shops that provide an alternative to supermarkets in the UK, from the 18 year-old Unicorn Grocery in Manchester, to Brighton’s baby hiSbe, which opened its doors in December 2013. These sustainable food hubs now need to unite to support one another, and networks can play a key role in facilitating this process. 

These new networks are involved in the Food Sovereignty Movement. Photo Credit: GJN


In the past year, two new networks have formed in the UK. Whole Food Action (WFA) is uniting hundreds of well-established whole food shops, and the Food Assembly (FA) is a new network of assemblies that re-create traditional farmers markets.



Anna Clayton meets Ruth Strange from Whole Food Action and Kathleen Cassidy from the Food Assembly.




Whole Food Action


What is the role of WFA?

WFA is about supporting whole food businesses which exist to make ethical choices and products more widely available. It’s about helping independent stores survive and thrive by sharing information and joining forces. 


What motivated you to set it up?

Inspired by Unicorn Grocery, a whole food shop in Manchester, we started one in Derby, Sound Bites. We wanted a hub for social change that recognised the importance of how our food system is organised, the profound impact food has on society and the environment, and a place where ethical choices were made more accessible.

Working there, I recognised the need to be more connected with other like-minded projects, which would enable the sharing of information and best practice, or allow for national awareness campaigns such as the one we ran on genetically modified food this autumn: GMO OMG.


What sort of businesses can get involved in WFA?

Defining our boundaries is an ongoing conversation but essentially, member shops should be driven by the desire to provide sustainable food that takes into account environmental, health, social and economic concerns.


What does a whole food shop offer that a supermarket doesn’t?

Whole food shops exist to make ethical produce more available, such as a range of organic foods, less processed foods, alternatives to animal products and ecofriendly bodycare. They also tend to have some form of ethical structure, whether that be not-for-profit or cooperative.

Most are not primarily driven by profit but have a number of environmental, animal welfare and social values or policies in place that guide business practices. They often function as community hubs where customers meet each other, or get more involved in the life of the shop.

They also provide information on other like-minded initiatives and can inspire others to set up their own ventures due to their ‘DIY’ feel.


What has WFA done so far?

From a survey of 300 whole food shops in the UK, we identified four key priorities for WFA: raising the whole food movement’s profile; creating an online directory and a map of shops across the country; creating a forum for discussion; and offering support for new shops. We have spent the last year addressing these by creating the WFA website,, which was launched in September 2014, and holding our first national gathering in July of this year. 

We have also raised awareness about genetically modified food in British diets and are talking about ways that our members can address the issue of potentially damaging palm oil in products on their shelves.


What are the next steps?

Staff from seven different shops have steered the development of WFA so far. We now need to get more people involved to take this further and realise our potential. We plan to organise regional gatherings of whole food shops in 2015 which will allow more people to meet, share best practice and ideas and visit other businesses. We are inviting people to step forward to help, so if you want a gathering to take place in your region please get in touch! 


How can people get involved?

If you work in a whole food shop or are a supportive customer and would like to help build the network in your region, get in touch via our website.





The Food Assembly


What is a Food Assembly?

A Food Assembly (FA) is an online market with a weekly community collection point and time. It presents a new, transparent way of buying food where members know exactly who made their food, where it comes from, how it was made, and how much money local producers receive from every sale.


What does the FA movement hope to achieve?

FAs aim to change food culture and revalue what matters in terms of shopping, food and broader society. By bringing producers and members into direct contact through face-to-face weekly collections, the FA personalises the relationship between consumers and producers. The FA is also changing the way we shop from the isolating and dehumanising experience of shopping at a supermarket to a more welcoming, sociable and community experience. The majority of members walk just 10 minutes to their local Assembly.


What have you done so far?

Originally a French initiative, the FA launched in the UK in July 2014 with the first Assembly opening in a coworking space and bar in Hackney Wick, London. Four months on there are now nine Assemblies open and trading with communities across the UK, from South and East London to Chester and Lancaster.

Many more are in the process of launching, from a university campus in Canterbury to a village hall in Cornwall. Over 5,000 members and over 80 local farmers and food makers are signed up to the platform in the UK. 


What does the FA offer that a farmers’ market doesn’t?

A farmers’ market and an FA are very similar. However, there are some key differences. An FA’s members order all their food online before the weekly collection, resulting in producers knowing exactly how much to bring to each Assembly, helping them regulate how much they harvest, produce, ferment, grind, butcher, etc. before each collection. It also reaches a wider audience rather than limiting it to the time when the farmers’ market is in town. However, farmers’ markets have the opportunity to make the best of passing trade which is not possible at an Assembly.

Ultimately both projects work in harmony (along with lots of other alternative food initiatives), to build a food system that is ecologically and socially sustainable, and pays farmers a fair price for their fantastic produce.


Do you consider an FA to be an ethical alternative to a supermarket and if so why? 

There are lots of things wrong with the way that supermarkets do business. In the main, they pay producers as little as possible and many prefer to source from larger farms due to economies of scale, giving small and medium-sized producers little opportunity to engage.

At the FA, producers receive over 83% of the sale price, compared with an average of 10% of the retail product price that farmers get through conventional supply chains. 

Supermarkets have also affected choice. Varieties of fruit and vegetables that have lower and less reliable yields but better flavour are pushed out of the food chain in favour of varieties that may taste of nothing but produce in a more consistent way, often requiring chemicals. FAs, however, are perfect for small amounts of produce so producers can experiment with older or rare varieties and see how they sell.

From an environmental perspective all FA producers come from within 150 miles of the Assemblies they serve, with the average around 43 miles. Combined with the freshness of the food, this means that FA food has minimal food miles and little to no packaging.


How have Assemblies differed between countries? 


The FA was born in France, and is now enabling direct trade between local producers and communities in four more countries: Belgium, Spain, Germany and the UK. Whilst the model remains the same in each country, Assemblies do vary between countries and also within countries. One of the key ingredients to the model is flexibility – each Assembly evolves according to the conditions it grows in, much like a plant! 

In France, for example, there has not been much demand for produce beyond the fresh food that is supplied through all Assemblies. In the UK there has been a demand for healthy, handmade and locally sourced cooked food such as quiches, fresh pasta, salads and soups, reflecting differences in the length of working weeks. 


To find out more or to set up your own Food Assembly visit their website.


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