How do you shop? Stand in a queue outside a supermarket? Or hang out in the park? Gilly Smith knows
It’s 7.45 on a Friday morning in St Ann’s Wells Gardens and the dog walkers are trading dramas and training tips as the late November wind begins to nip. No-one pays much attention to Barnaby and Manon, heavy-booted and finger-gloved up as they haul their produce from an old horse box turned mobile farm shop onto trestle tables. By 9am a chatty queue has formed as locals flock to stock up on Sussex’s best meat, cheese, fish, dairy and fruit and vegetable from The Sussex Peasant.
It’s the brainchild of 32-year-old Ed Johnstone, a former recruitment consultant from London whose foodie lightbulb began to flash on a rugby tour to Argentina. “I realised that they had a much greater connection with their food system there” he said. “I felt there was a huge opportunity coming back to England a year later to try to establish that here.’”
And he did. The trademark trucks have now become a fleet, selling produce across the city every weekend from a handpicked selection of local farms and growers who are the stars of this show. “Toos Jeuken from Laines Organic Growers is a Dutch lady in her fifties who has done this her whole life” said Ed. “It’s not a trend for her. She’s up at four o’clock every morning, and has a real interest in making a difference in how people choose to buy produce.” There are stories behind all the stalls. “Jayne and Michael at Jacobs Ladder” added Ed. “They grow native breed beef and sheep and are all about the whole outdoors. They’re 100% pasture-fed.”
Is it much more expensive? Not if you follow the #lessbutbetter ethos; an occasional 2kg organic chicken may be £15, but a £5 BOGOF (buy one get one free) factory-farmed supermarket bird will very likely have broken its own legs by the sheer weight of its fast-grown, hormone-fed body by the time it’s ‘dispatched’.
The cost of cheap food has a heavy carbon footprint compared to the light touch of Ed’s pick of producers and he pays it forward. “Every time a customer comes in, they’re investing in this network and their livelihoods. And the fact that every 70p of every pound goes directly to the person who’s grown it is a massive difference compared to how other farmers are getting paid.”
Karma provides. “Lockdown has been a bit of a gift”, said Ed. “People’s buying habits were changing anyway, but with Lockdown, they’ve been forced to look at how they shop.” So there’s the choice. Queue up outside a supermarket, silently masked up and distanced? Or stand in the park – St Ann’s Wells Gardens on a Friday, Hove Park on a Saturday or outside The Chimney House on a Sunday, chatting about produce with Barnaby who makes their sauerkraut or Manon, a graduate in Sustainable Development and herself a grower? I know where I’d rather shop.
Christmas is coming and the geese, turkeys, beef, vegetables and cheese boards are all ready to order from the website. You can even get your Christmas tree from the trucks. What about the hungry gap, the bleak end of winter when very little grows? “That is a challenge,” he admits. “But we always have plenty of kale, potatoes, carrots and leaks that run through the season. It’s a smaller offer from the land so it’s about getting more creative in how we cook it. And when March comes again, it’s like we got through the winter and here comes the light.”