PICTURES: Summit showcases superb range of produce available in West Sussex

Industry leaders have gathered to debate the importance of buying local produce in the current political and economic climate.

Host Louise Goldsmith. All pictures: Southern News and Pictures

The Meet the Buyer food and drink summit at Selden Barns in Patching on Monday brought together top regional producers and buyers to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of West Sussex County Council’s Taste West Sussex magazine.

It was an opportunity for producers to showcase their wares and for buyers to see the superb range of local produce available.

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Host Louise Goldsmith, leader of the county council, said: “It is about the area, the provenance and what makes this such a wonderful county. To me that is incredibly important.

Host Louise Goldsmith. All pictures: Southern News and Pictures

“The food tells you so much about the area and we have got a really great story to tell here. It is all about commitment and dedication. It is the passion for the product that makes it so special.”

Convenience, sustainability and distribution were among key issues discussed but the thread running through it all was provenance.

Simon Eastwood, chief operating officer of food retail at Southern Co-op, said: “The Great British consumer wants visibility of product. They want to understand where products come from, the type of business that produces product and the provenance.

“They are really very keen to think about the environment and some of the larger issues. We think, as a southern-based business, that the opportunity to work in partnership with local suppliers is really very important. We think it is a great relationship to have.

“We know for customers, local produce is something they are willing to pay a bit more for because they absolutely buy into giving back to the community.”

The importance of the story behind local produce was emphasised by Nick Sutherland, director of the Sussex Pub Group, which operates an eclectic mix of six pubs and restaurants in Chichester and the surrounding area.

“We like to think of it as a partnership with suppliers. We like to understand what they are about and ask them to for information so we can build a story,” he said.

“Customers like to see a story and the provenance about where our produce comes from. That has become more and more evident over the last five years. We don’t want the cheapest, we want local good quality.”

Convenience was the buzz word for Adrian Burr, director at Blakes Meats and RP Meats, food service and meat wholesale businesses for more than 40 years.

He talked about the growing desire for ‘fast’ food, saying in city restaurants, people often want to order, eat and pay their bill within 30 minutes.

He also highlighted research that showed the majority of people do not plan their meals ahead. They want quality products that take away the hassle.

He explained: “People don’t know what they want but they don’t want to buy rubbish.

“We are all time poor and a lot more of us are not food planning at all. It is all about trying to get products in front of customers in the most convenient manner.

“We are purchasing and consuming our food in a lot less time than ever before. Consumers want the convenience but with confidence in the product.”

Adrian said petrol stations are looking to source quality products, as they are finding people are stopping off to grab something for dinner on their way home, and butchers were adapting to provide more retail-friendly products to meet the demand.

He added: “People want value but they will pay a premium for convenience.”

West Sussex is lucky to have a number of fantastic initiatives, like the county council’s Beautiful Outdoors project to attract tourism, Horsham District Council’s food festival, farmers’ markets and high-profile events like the Sussex Food and Drink Awards.

But Nick Hempleman, owner manager at The Sussex Produce Company in Steyning, said independent retailers needed more support to stay in business.

He said: “This is a fantasic celebration. However, all is not well in the world of local food and it would be remiss of us if we indulged purely in a bit of self congratulation and back slapping and ignored the elephant in the room.

“I am a passionate supporter of local food but local food needs local outlets. It needs local retailers and these are under threat of extinction. In five years, more than 13,000 specialist stores around the UK have closed their doors and the independents’ share of the grocery market has sunk to six per cent.

“A report from Manchester University suggests there will be no independent retailers left by 2050 and a parliamentary report predicts that many will have ceased trading by 2020. Those that stock local produce are of special concern and in the last year alone we have lost a number. Many more are hanging on by their fingernails.

“Without local retailers, local wholesale markets have shrunk and disappeared. Wholesalers are rather overlooked when it comes to local fruit and veg but they are important because without them, small-scale farmers, the backbone of the countryside since Anglo Saxon times, have no easy outlet for their produce. If they stop farming, their land is sold is sold off for housing or for golf clubs, never to return.

“For millennia, local food was a way of life but over the last 30 years, the growth of the big supermarkets has required the development of industrial-sized farms, often abroad, to satisfy their enormous centralised distribution systems.

This model is neither sustainable, nor local, nor in the interests of basic food security. There is an alternative and that is to support the infrastructure that small-scale food producers need, insist on public procurement for local schools and hospitals, effective regulation against the big supermarkets and an end to the abuse of the planning system.”

He called for meaningful support for small-scale food producers through initiatives like free car parking and streamlining of ‘the crippling bureaucratic burdens’.

He added: “The system must be made more user-friendly if small operations are to have any hope of complying with them as well as trying to run a business that generates profit and jobs.

“We are very lucky in Sussex to have some of the best food and drink producers in the country but if local, sustainable food is to be more than a passing fashion we need an urgent change in how local food is sold, or there will be no-one left to sell it.”