Most of us buy our food from supermarkets. Schools, hospitals and universities typically use national food-service companies to supply them. What’s wrong with that? Well, the more I unpeel the onion of the UK food industry, the more I discover what is wrong with it. Farmers and fishermen are paid a shamefully low percentage of the retail price we pay at the till and so much of our food is subject to such long supply chains that it is impossible to who know where it comes from or how it was made. The freshness and nutritional value of mass food is impaired due to the time it must be stored and transported. The opaque nature of food supply chains sometimes results in cases of food fraud, animal welfare concerns and ingredient cross-contamination issues. The mass-food system of storage and holding stock almost guarantees food is wasted on an industrial scale. Can’t we do better than this?
Other Oxford alumni have blazed a path in this area – I know Rick Stein (New College), of sea-food fame, has featured in Oxford Today before, while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (St Peter’s) has been a very successful campaigner around reducing food waste and reforming food policies such as the EU fisheries policy. Even London’s Evening Standard has recently had a huge campaign to reduce the shocking food throw-away habits of supermarkets.
In 2014 along with my brother, Rich Osborn and business partner Lee Butler, I founded fresh-range.com in a bid to make buying the freshest food from local producers as convenient as shopping online with Tesco or Waitrose. This was a dramatic change in direction for me. Having graduated with a degree in Physics from LMH in 1993 and then spending twenty years developing software - first in telecoms and then in my own software company - I was more used to bits, bytes and high margin enterprise software than the insanely tough competitive landscape of retail food and logistics. Yet my background also paved the way to technology (software) that might fundamentally change how food gets from farm to fork.
For years there’s been a lot of talk about ‘locally sourced food’ but the reality is that very little food in the retail and catering world is locally sourced. This is because it’s just too difficult and time consuming for customers and chefs to order from lots of different small suppliers. For suppliers, dealing with huge numbers of tiny orders is equally inefficient. We realised what was needed was some clever technology combined with local logistics capability that would for the first time make it simple and convenient to source from small independent producers alongside large produce suppliers, thus ensuring a sufficiently broad range of products to replace most of what you would buy from a supermarket.
We left no stone unturned in reinventing the online grocery shopping experience. Customers can get to know the farms or markets they are ordering from. At the time of ordering the produce may still be in the ground or the fish in the sea. Orders are relayed to producers who can harvest to order and who also receive the majority of the retail price (with no enforced loss-leading discounts or kickbacks typical of supermarkets). We consolidate a customer’s order from all the different producers and deliver in one convenient drop at an hour of their choosing. Along the way we put a strong focus on making everyone happy - from customers to producers to team members.
It’s been a challenging journey but since our launch we’ve grown quickly and now thousands of people across the West Country are eating locally-sourced food from fresh-range each week. Dozens of local food producers and suppliers have joined the platform, cutting out financially and environmentally expensive mass haulage and storage. Most exciting of all has been winning the contract to serve the primary schools of Bath and North East Somerset in a ground breaking £2m three-year deal. That success has opened the door to new opportunities and we’re already talking to many other major public institutions in the West Country who want to follow suit amidst growing government pressure around sustainable procurement.
Pictures all by fresh-range