Steve OsbornMost 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. 

CarrotsIn 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 jess delivery and halloween-18 (1).jpgreceive 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

Steve Osborn (LMH, 1990) has made a film about his vision, which he is currently seeking investors for, https://www.seedrs.com/fresh-range. He is based in Malvern, Worcestershire. www.fresh-range.com

Comments

By Malcolm Thomas
on

Sounds good - please let me know when you begin home deliveries in West Somerset!

By Dick Morris
on

Fascinating idea and a very worthy one. It deserves to be successful for all the reasons set out in the initial part of the article, but it will certainly be an uphill struggle. The Farmers Market movement has similar aims and with a few exceptions, has never really taken off. Indeed, my impression here in North East Scotland, which is a major food producing area, is that the Farmers Markets are shrinking compared to a peak two or three years ago. At the same time, there are local some producers who are breaking into institutional markets, which is where the big gains can be made, if institutional procurers can look beyond the cheapest. It will be interesting to see whether the stupidity of leaving the European Union allows expansion of local networks, but all the signs are that it will just produce an undignified "race to the bottom" in terms of price and quality.

By Mr Julian Mathias
on

I take a very dim view indeed of this blatant attempt to promote a personal business interest in the editorial pages of the Alumni website.

I would like the editor to explain why this was published.

By David Reston
on

This model should be adopted throughout the UK and the government, charged, as it is, with its prime job of looking after UK people, should make it a national policy and move it ahead of any formal Brexit closure and join it to a high tax policy on all supermarket sales, thus redressing the immoral imbalance between small local suppliers and the unaccountable owners and shareholders of the international food mongers. This should be joined, too, with anti sugar, salt, chemical additives to prepared foods and to the restoration to school curricula of wise buying, food preparation and knowledge (science) leading to an affordable and workable anti obese and tooth loss programme. See also the growing and increasingly successful current USA anti GMO and pro organic natural food programmes.

By Arnold Guetta
on

Some decades as a professional mathematician in Ottawa (but U.K. and elsewhere I see similar) capitalism and its efficiencies are generally maligned and obstructed by those who have never met a monthly payroll.
Mathematicians for the Crown are persecuted and even manslaughtered In Ottawa.
www.maths1951.wordpress.com

By Shona Tatchell
on

Hi Steve. Really interested in what you are doing. I am working on something which may be very complementary to your work using blockchain technology to track provenance of products and automate access to lower cost working capital/cash flow for suppliers in return for participation in a system of verifiable ethical compliance. Please do get in touch so we can share thoughts.
Shona

By NJ
on

Thank you for featuring this story. It is so good to hear that initiatives like this are taking off - good luck to Fresh Range in the Bath and Bristol markets, and I hope you can expand to London in the future!

By Ann Robinson
on

Excellent initiative. Well done. I hope Fresh Range will soon be available in other areas.

By Raul Ponce-Hern...
on

Very timely article. In Central Ontario, Canada, we are reviewing public policy that may help shape up the nexus between agriculture and local food security. So some of the concepts and thinking revealed in this article are good "food for thought".

I would have liked it to learn about Osborn's thoughts on how climate change mitigation and adapttion efforts would interface with his shortening of the supply chain and would mitigate local food insecurity

By Anna Kingsmill-...
on

This is a brilliant move and I wish Steve every success. I've been passionate about eating local for the past 40 plus years and have sometimes despaired at the attitudes shown by supermarkets and major suppliers. I have also despaired at the complete lack of knowledge - and sometimes lack of wish to have knowledge - of consumers. I do hope that Steve will be able to address this issue too.
Best of luck and I hope you roll out to the Eastern side of the country soon, too.

By Robert Floyd ( ...
on

This is very exciting as a potential game changer. It is my hunch that most consumers are far more concerned about the traceability and quality of the farm source of their food than whether or not the farm is managed on Soil Association or Steiner principles. A "farm to fork", or in Ireland viz Quinlans in Kerry "Tide to Table" programme can be very attractive . best wishes RF

By Margaret Forey
on

Splendid idea. As soon as you start up an Oxfordshire branch I shall sign up.

By Roger Green
on

Replicating the idea is a problem
Guy Watson at Riverford did it by francihising. Seems to work
Perhaps Riverford buys through you. I know they use other farms other than their own

Beating the supermarkets is not easy. Their field to fork on a big scale does work. How much of the food is wasted, I do not know. Certainly odd shaped parsnips are not wanted, though supermarkets are now taking them following criticism, but are sold at not much lower prices

Profit is not a 'bad' surplus, as you use know yourself probably. Capitalism can be efficient use of capital. What is bad is the excess profits made at the expense of other stakeholders. The satisfying of those who supply capital is not a bad return(We all need a pension). What is bad is the misuse of supermarkets power to achieve this at the expense of relatively small producers. The Govt has gone a little way to reduce this by appointing Christin Tacon as Grocery Adjudicator. Slowly small producers are taking their justified complaints to her about being the butt of supermarket discounting for example.

Matching customers demand to the needs of suppliers is easier said than done. I am glad you have achieved this. Riverford seem to do this by arranging what they they supply, through an extensive box scheme. Customers insist only that the products are organic and in season. What a good idea! I know they have problems with supply at times, and over production, but the wastage of food in the field seems to be minimal. But you probably know all this by talking to Guy Watson at Riverford

In terms of food security, it is said that we have only several days food on the shelves of supermarkets. Perhaps this 'insecurity' is achieved by having minimal stocks, Those with the power to do can get it. But what about the rest of the world? Is our food security at their expense?

It is said that competition would secure the best for all stakeholders. It is surprising that supermarkets, acting as a cartel, can do what is best for them.

Finally, I was surprised the alumni magazine gave you space to promote your ideas and business. But I can see, if I were you, I would want to use any channel of publicity open to me. Go for it!

By Wallace Kaufman
on

I wish all honest entrepreneurs a success that rewards their hard work and willingness to take risk.

Having run a small organic farm in the late 60s, I understand too well what may be deliberately missing in this article.

First, price. Can Fresh Range compete or is it a niche market like organics still are--appealing to the health-worried, afluent and others willing to pay 20 to 100% more for what may or may not be a more nutritious and safer product.

That leads to the second missing piece. Where's the nutritional science behind the idea that local food is better? Some aged foods are more willing to give up nutrients, and after all, cooking and marinating are more or less ways of aging foods.

Third thing missing is support for the idea that mass farming is less efficient or an energy waster. Sure trucking takes fuel. At the same time the right measure of total energy used can actually be calculated. One has to consider energy put into production, harvest, packaging and transportation. To use only miles to market is naive at best, deliberately deceptive at worst. Let's try for something like calories of energy per delivered pound of food or delivered basic diet.

Finally, shouldn't we know if Fresh Range won contracts because it played to public fears of mass produced food without presenting the kind of evidence I ask for above? And was Fresh Range the lowest bidder? If not, let's admit that they won the contract because public officials, lacking necessary data, made a political decision to use taxpayer money to subsidize personal biases.

I wish Fresh Range all the success possible in adding something new and more efficient on an even playing field of competition and choice.

By MLHS
on

As an alumni who has worked in the supermarket industry for 15 years I am sad to say that you do not have your facts straight. The reason I take pleasure in my job is because of the high standards applied, the genuine passion to feed the nation healthily and on the lowest carbon footprint possible. There is a huge amount of collaborative research with academia in achieving this for the whole nation providing product that the whole spectrum of consumers in our nation can afford, can access and find suitable for their varied tastes and needs.
I support your idea but don't take an unnecessary pop at the supermarkets who have a critical role in providing a fair service to tens of millions of shoppers each week.

By Roger Short
on

The market will be a leveller in such ventures, and in this case I applaud the vision, effort and risk associated with this example.
I wonder why the french markets are so enduring and pervasive and particularly that local chefs tailor their offerings to the local supply in many cases.

Add new comment