Eating Local: Celebrating Northern Irish products

In this series, Slow Food in the UK meets different growers, producers and small business owners looking to find innovative and sustainable ways of improving the food supply chain. This week, we meet Belfast-based couple Lydia Hodgins and Justin Thompson, founders of LocalBox, a food delivery service encouraging members to celebrate local Northern Irish producers right on their doorstep. 

Northern Ireland is rural, with farmland and food businesses that have been run by families for generations. There is a real knowledge, pride and connection with the history of the farm, the land and the trade which leads people to value traditional quality. Our farms, sea and land produce fantastic ingredients for cooking and baking, which means we have the best cafe culture where the traybake or a generous slice of cake rule supreme.

For a long time, I’d been leaving the supermarket nearly empty-handed because I was so disappointed with the packaging or sourcing of the food as well as the poor quality. When we switched to a local vegetable box delivery scheme and discovered the butcher on our doorstep, we noticed that not only did we go to the supermarket less and less, but we rarely needed to empty our landfill bin.

The big missing piece for us was bread. Northern Ireland is home to plenty of long-established, family-run bakeries as well as a strong collection of new-generation bakeries turning out a fantastic variety of breads. However, buying fresh bread early in the morning, perhaps multiple times per week, is a tricky switch from long-life bread available all day in every shop.

This is what it boiled down to – getting all of these bits and pieces together takes time. Sourcing the products you like, getting to the markets, delis, butchers, baker, greengrocer – it could take a whole Saturday morning and you might only do that occasionally. To encourage people to switch to buying local produce regularly, it needed to be as convenient as the one-stop supermarket shop. And so, because we wanted fresh bread, we decided we would start delivering local food to people’s doorsteps so that they could easily and regularly buy, eat and support local produce.

LocalBox is about more than great taste and good quality food, there’s the economic benefits of spending money locally and shortening the supply chain. The food producers we stock set the price at which we buy their product. When a farmer controls their own prices, they can ensure they receive a fair wage for their work. Supermarkets push down the price they pay farmers and growers in order to maximise their profits and deliver products to consumers as cheaply as possible. They often create loss leader pricing for our staple food items like butter and milk. This results in farmers adopting intensive practices so that they can earn a living wage. At LocalBox, we value the farmer, the animals, the land and their products. For many of our products, the farmer delivers from their farm to our door, so when people buy from us they are one small step away from buying from the farmer.

We want people to engage with where their food comes from by introducing them to the producer. We can tell customers the name of the food producer, their back story, and how far their food has travelled for every product we stock. While it’s not the only environmental factor to food sourcing, buying locally does reduce food miles and we want people to see that there is so much choice from what is around us. We have chorizo that comes from less than 60 miles away and a brie-style cheese that travels just 40 miles to get to Belfast. Both are produced from small herds on small farms. With very little effort, we can trace those food products straight back to the animals they came from and the hands that made them. That’s quite a different experience than buying a cheese labelled ‘French Brie’ in a supermarket.

We also wanted to address waste, both packaging and food waste. We take the packaging of products into careful consideration before choosing what we stock. We reuse our delivery boxes, freezer packs and cool bags. We take back crisp packets and bring them to a Terracycle scheme and we are using a return and refill system for granola – something we hope to use with other products. Thanks to the fact that our suppliers are relatively small and nearby, we’re able to order from them based on our customer orders, which means we don’t create food waste.

We have felt so supported and encouraged by local food suppliers who have been so willing to work with us to make LocalBox happen. As Northern Ireland is a small place, it means people can work on smaller scales to maintain quality and work collaboratively with others to strengthen the overall vision for great food across the region.

Over the last few months, it has been great to see more farms and businesses across the UK dip their toe into deliveries and stick with it. Lots of the fruit and veg delivery schemes cover large areas so there should be something close to everyone and this is where I’d encourage people to start with buying local food regularly. Even if you aren’t home to receive the delivery, the produce definitely won’t spoil, and they often have add-ons like free range eggs.

It’s a great way for people to engage with eating seasonally without having to think about it. When you see the difference it makes to the diversity of what you eat and cook, the quality of flavour and how much less plastic packaging you produce, you’ll be encouraged to continue your journey into eating local food.

LocalBox makes it easier for people to buy quality, local produce by delivering it to their door. Founded by Belfast-based couple Lydia Hodgins and Justin Thompson, LocalBox launched on April 25th, although the concept was something that they had been working on since the end of 2019. It was not a response to lockdown or coronavirus, but the circumstances and context suited what LocalBox aims to achieve – getting more people eating more local food. Learn more at https://www.localboxni.com/