Sunday, 23 February 2014

Follow the van

I was recently privileged to cater for the Food for a Greener Future conference, and got to hear some great talks in the afternoon after lunch. The most interesting part for me was the workshop right at the end, where Jacky Sutton-Adam and Duncan Catchpole discussed the Transition Food Hub and invited everyone in the audience to say something about what the concept meant to them.

This was a chance to get a consensus about what Cambridge needs, how to address perceived issues with food and community, and potentially begin a new profit-making spinoff from the Transition community. The appetite in the room was clearly for a space where sustainable food could be sold - and where people could come together. There was some murmurs about including educational activities, selling CamBake bread, and a definite preference for a venue somewhere central with a shopfront that could provide a visible site.

Potential visibility is a massive benefit that I would love to see the Hub project explore, and I'm going to restate my suggestion for a mobile hub after a little bit of research.

The challenge of a static site is that property rental costs are so high in Cambridge, that it seems hard to imagine even a temporary makeshift site being affordable. And as with the Cafe Project and Cambridge Carbon Footprint, being evicted by the landlord would be quite a setback after working really hard to get people turning up. Perhaps there is a way to find a permanent home for a sustainable local food enterprise, I would love to see this, but I am afraid that it might be too well-hidden to get the custom it deserves.

I'd like to seriously think about having a Transition food truck, fitted out to run off solar energy and cooking oil, and weaving a route through business parks, community kitchens and schools. The benefit of this approach would be that the vehicle acts as both marketing and point-of-sale, popping up in the city and the villages making people think "What's that beautiful, positive, hopeful thing doing here?".

Transition doesn't have the resources to advertise heavily in the press or the busy places, but the word of mouth and social networks have a limited extent. In fact there were some legitimate concerns at the conference that the attendees were white, middle-class, middle-aged and upwards, and the message wasn't getting out beyond that very small group. A hub bus would be able to both sell to and engage with diverse groups, and learn a great deal about what is really in demand in the wider populace. Organic food is seen as expensive, vegetarian food is seen as bland, these ideas can be challenged more effectively by lunches than by lectures.

A bus or a van would also be flexible enough to respond to opportunities - travelling to festivals and invitations, while learning which areas generate enough revenue to maintain running costs. It would be able to resell on behalf of community bakeries, chefs and farms if the terms were good, perhaps even working with Outspoken couriers to fulfil deliveries for each other.

Spare room could either be used for storing additional food, seats for outdoor occasions, or projector equipment for showing Transition related films. The van might even be kitted out as a mobile library for some situations.

Financially, most of the cost would come in terms of set-up, rather than in terms of monthly expenditure. This seems more suited to the type of money that could be raised from a council or developer grant, or from investment - a predictable cost that can be budgeted, and a liquid asset.

Perhaps the team who take this on could focus on generating turnover to begin with, turning up at large office buildings with delicious food to buy, and proving the concept of the hub bus so that the outreach and education activities can be gradually brought online while keeping the balance sheet healthy. Opportunities to reduce food waste and to create community will reveal themselves every day, and a digital presence can also take shape.

The next step would be to contact green businesses who have tried similar things, The Big Lemon and Buddhafields Cafe for two examples, to seek out more advice about costs and processes. I will offer to do that myself if there is a enough interest in the idea.

The Big Lemon is a public transport company in Brighton which uses cooking oil for fuel

A detailed breakdown of setup costs for a Food Truck in New York, in dollars.


  1. In Exeter we had the Love Local Food van which sold dry goods and veg and meat from the local organic farm. Had it come close to where I live as it drove round Exeter's residential areas. We also have the Real Food Store in Exeter, which came about as a result of our transition food group wanting a hub. The Real Food Store is really great - already won a BBC food and farming award... Maybe get in touch with either of those initiatives to get advice? The mobile hub idea sounds great.

  2. The Love Local Food van looks like just the right kind of thing! Yes! It's really good to have a working example of this kind of thing for reference, thanks. I thought there must be something like it.