Sophie Paterson explores how a movement founded in France is connecting communities to local farmers and food makers across Britain: enter The Food Assembly. But does it really offer the best deal to producers, hosts and customers alike?
La Ruche qui dit Oui!
Or, to translate directly, ‘the hive that says yes!’. A noble sentiment which is perhaps catchiest in French. With a change in name required to appeal to an English-speaking audience, The Food Assembly was born here in the UK in 2014. It was built upon the La Ruche qui dit Oui! movement, founded in 2010 by Guilhem Chéron, Marc-David Choukroun and Mounir Mahjoubi a short hop across the Channel.
Functioning as a hybrid online-offline form of farmers’ market, The Food Assembly connects consumers with local farmers and food makers. It offers an online shopping portal with weekly face-to-face collection events. A chance to meet both producers and your neighbours, the concept has spread far and wide. The Food Assembly boasts 1,100 assemblies across France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Denmark, Germany and Italy.
The first Food Assembly popped up in London’s Hackney, then another close to Wales, in Chester. Now we have Food Assemblies all over the country, giving back power to producers and consumers across the UK. Each one is an independent and local project while remaining part of The Food Assembly collective. It is the local farmers and food makers and a unique community spirit that keeps the Network alive.
How a Food Assembly works
So how does this award-winning food community work? According to their website:
Along with The Food Assembly, two kinds of people make an Assembly happen: Hosts and Producers. The Producers sell directly to [customers] through our online market. Hosts organise the weekly online shop and the local pick-up market in your area. Members pay the Producer directly. Producers also know how much to harvest each week for orders, which means there’s no food waste.
Let’s think about it in practice. If, hypothetically speaking, I lived in Leeds, all I would need to do is locate my nearest Assembly using the search feature on the website’s homepage. By entering my postcode, I’d be directed to Leeds Food Assembly Hunslet.
After joining for free, I could purchase anything from organic wholewheat pasta to the intriguingly named salsakraut. According to information provided by host Anne-Claire, the online market opens every Thursday morning and closes at midnight on Monday. Having made an order in time, I could then pick up my order on Wednesday. The weekly collection slot runs from 5-7pm at The Grub and Grog café, near the Leeds Docks.
So far, so good… but is there a catch?
For, say, a child-free city-dweller with standard working hours and easy access to transportation, this sounds relatively straight-forward. I can immediately, however, imagine a host of circumstances which could potentially limit participation to a rather narrow spectrum. That aside, what about the producers themselves? A major claim made by The Food Assembly is that one of the benefits to producers is the effective removal of a middleman.
In an Assembly, you sell your products directly to Members without [a] middleman. You will earn 83.3% of pre-tax turnover. The remaining 16.7% covers the Assembly Host, Internet service, transaction and technical support costs.
So, whilst farmers and food makers are free to set their own prices and customers pay the producers directly, 16.7% of turnover is essentially redirected. 8.35% goes to the Host and 8.35% to The Food Assembly, who claim to act not as a middleman but instead as a “service provider“. As noted in a recent Farmers’ Guardian article:
The Food Assembly itself gets the same commission for providing the web platform and dealing with payments. These are administered by Mangopay, an online payment technology designed for marketplaces, crowdfunding platforms and sharing economy businesses.
The Food Assembly in turn state that the 83.3% turnover represents a better deal to producers than what they would receive if selling to a supermarket, which they claim would see farmers receive only 15-25%.
The hosts of these events, meanwhile, seem a friendly and enthusiastic bunch, if the Food Assembly blog is anything to go by. According to the website: “Hosting a Food Assembly is a rewarding and rewarded part-time activity! This is a fulfilling and flexible role that enables you to bring fresh food to your family, friends and neighbourhood.” From the profiles provided, it seems many hosts juggle their role alongside existing employment, self-employment or studies.
The gig economy
Digging deeper into the special terms and conditions, however, reveals hosting is quite the undertaking. Significant responsibilities are shouldered by the host and seemingly few by The Food Assembly as a company. Here are some extracts to give you an idea:
Should your application be successful you shall immediately begin the preparation of your Food
Assembly, unless postponed by the Company. As part of Preparation, unless delayed by us, you will be required to find a suitable Collection site for the Delivery of Products ordered by the Members of the Assembly within two weeks of receiving confirmation that your application has been successful (or from receipt of a notification from us that you can commence Preparation if previously delayed by us).
Seems like a pretty tight turnaround there! If you make it, there’s then a requirement to meet various conditions and provide various documentation.
The Assembly must be opened in accordance with these conditions within six months of the launch of Building. If an Assembly is not validly opened within this six month period due to any fault of yours, we may suspend you from acting as an Assembly Host. You will not be entitled to claim any damages, compensation or remuneration solely as a result of such suspension.
Ouch. Assuming as an aspiring host you made it so far:
The opening date of the Sales Space will be determined by us in our absolute discretion. We
reserve complete discretion to delay the date and/or to decide that the number of Members
and/or Producers is insufficient and/or due to our management or organisational constraints.
And when it comes to the running, you’re responsible for maintaining and moderating the individual assembly’s web pages and features, managing both members and producers and their sales, maintaining database records, actually running the events and personally employing any personnel you might bring on board to help you with all of this. And of course you:
…assume liability for all information you provide in the course of the approval of Products for Distribution. In the case of an error or an omission to the detriment of the Members and/or the Producer, you will bear all costs and accept that we shall not be liable in this respect.
If, for some reason, as a host you’re unable to hold a Distribution Day and cannot find an alternative date, you would be solely responsible for any additional charges or costs incurred by the Members and Producers. In the event you decided you no longer wished to act as a host, a three month notice period is in place. On the other hand, The Food Assembly retains the right to close any assembly:
that, after 6 months activity, has not yielded at least twenty orders a month for a period of three consecutive months by providing one month’s notice of the Company’s intention to do so. You will have no right to any damages, compensation or remuneration as a result of such closure.
And to top it all off, there’s this lovely rather open-ended line to boot:
You will be fully responsible to all Members and Producers for the consequences of the closure of your Assembly.
It seems clear where the real power lays and it’s definitely not with the hosts. Despite their many claims of ‘fairness’, this self-described ‘social and collaborative enterprise‘ perhaps has some way to go to merit them.
At face value, The Food Assembly appears to chime with many of the values we at Lowimpact.org share: supporting local, independents over corporate conglomerates, fostering community connections, strengthening sustainable agriculture in rural economies. There is no doubt it has helped to raise the profile of the local food renaissance. But for me, there is a big but.
Whilst providing an alternative to supermarkets is not something to argue with, I must admit feeling a little uncertain as to whether there isn’t really a middleman of sorts after all. Although it seems to work well for many customers, hosts and producers, I can’t help but think that producers often already offer plenty of opportunities to support the local food economy – and in ways directly in common with growing the solidarity economy, rather than the sharing economy. Think community-supported agriculture, veg box schemes, direct farm sales and even ye olde traditional farmers’ markets. Meanwhile, the terms under which the self-employed hosts work distinctly strike me as reminiscent of the less savoury elements of the so-called gig economy.
Ultimately, I’ll be sticking to buying directly from the farmer but I’m tempted to visit what will soon be the nearest Assembly to me in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to see it in action. In the meantime, if any of our readers have experience of shopping at, hosting or supplying a Food Assembly, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
About the author
Sophie Paterson works as part of the Lowimpact.org team with a focus on social media and book promotion. She spent the past year living and volunteering on a farm in Devon. In any spare time she undertakes natural building work and training and attempts to keep up her Arabic language skills.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1John Harrison - Allotment Gardening February 8th, 2018
If it looks like an Uber style biz and sounds like it too, then maybe it is. Yet another jump onto the bandwagon with a green cloak for the wolf.
One of the few youtube channels I follow is Richard Perkins about small scale farming. They’re in Sweden and have something called rico(?) where the producers advertise on a local facebook group, the customers then buy and the suppliers drop off the produce at pre-set times and places. No charge to either party… they just have to suffer facebook adverts and privacy violations ?
2Mike Eaton February 8th, 2018
Without getting too deeply into this the first thing that springs to mind is “it’s a con”! How so? Well it seems to contain all the ideas that they (the Assembly) rail against – there is a “middleman” (under a different name), who it seems does better than the standard “middleman” for doing very little and whatever happens “it’s not their fault” – blame the producer/host or the purchaser. Also of course you have to go collect the stuff, from a set point using your own transport. Now my “veg box” supplier can and does provide all that this Assembly provides, there is no middleman (they do their own thing) and they bring the stuff TO me at no extra charge, OK ’tis only one day a week but if they are willing to deliver to my door then I am willing to let them – handy if you don’t drive of course. I for one won’t be going anywhere near this little lot, it would I feel be both churlish and foolish to change my supplier. I won’t mention their name but I believe these kind of outfits have been going for several years now and there are an adequate amount about (it’s something to do with crossing water in Devon).
3Dave Darby February 8th, 2018
I’m sure the people who started the Food Assembly are really good people, but it’s a for-profit company that can’t help but suck money out of communities and away from smallholders, and like John, Uber sprang to mind. It might help smallholders make more money than they end up giving to the Food Assembly, so that overall, they’re better off, which is a good thing. So maybe it’s a transitional step, to help small farmers survive. In the long term though, a platform co-op, owned by the farmers themselves, would do exactly the same job, without having to enrich shareholders who do nothing useful. Platform co-ops are coming. I don’t know how effective they’re going to be – I hope very, but they’re coming.
In the mean time, we get a veg box direct from Sutton Community Farm, so we won’t be changing.
4Sophie Paterson February 8th, 2018
Thanks for all your comments so far. I maybe didn’t make it as clear as I could have in the article but I do agree that it no doubt started with good intentions and I’m sure achieves some good for farmers and the general public alike, albeit with the reservations we all seem to share. Ultimately, platform co-ops are the fairest way to go in the hopefully not-too-long-term and I look forward to supporting them all the way.
5Rosewood Farm's Robert Rose February 8th, 2018
Taking 16.7% makes it a middleman and you have to be making a hefty profit to absorb that.
6Sophie Paterson February 10th, 2018
It’s reassuring to hear this rings true from someone in the business like yourself, Rob.
7SjL March 3rd, 2018
Hi great article and low down. I am in the process of setting up a food assembly as part of a community gardening and local food group I run and thought I could add a bit of insight. Our food assembly will be part of our connection to small local food producers and other community led food projects.
I have been working on it for over a year and have had some delays due to health, family and other projects.
I have met the person running things on the UK, A as well as having skype calls with other members of the team.
Your concerns about the T’s and C’s is understandable but in reality A is very laid back and easy going. My delays havent been a problem, there hasnt been a heavy handed ‘right we are closing things now’ response, she has been helpful and undersatanding.
Its a collaberation, the website is gorgeous and a great piece of kit that effectively maps small and local producers in the areas where there is an assembly, all of this information is shared.
They provide the host with loads and loads of support, training, resources, downloads, templates and planning tools and there is no financial ‘buy in’ like there would be with a franchise or other business type.
They were even producing and shipping marketing material at no cost to hosts.
Yes there is alot of work involved but the aim is to connect local residents with small and medium local producers which is worthwhile.The middlemen mentioned are wholesalers and importers or shops…
yes producers are paying a percentage from orders to the host and company.
That is the only point at which customer or producer are charged. Producers can register, sign up to supply multiple assembies and offer products for sale all at no cost for listing they can also change their offer weekly dependant on seasonal supply and their business needs. They can supply weekly, fortnightly or monthly and set a minimum order, they are processing pre orders and delivering them once a week… this means there is less wasted stock than a normal farmers market. The marketing, recruitment, admin, collection planning and hosting are what they are paying the hosts for. The website that allows them to list and sell their products to as many assemblies as they can supply as well as processing orders, payments, refunds, keeping records and generating reports are what they are paying the company for. They can set their prices to accommodate these costs in a similar way to traditional wholesale supplying.
They do not need to set up and maintain their own website.
The other difference to other online farmers markets is the ability to purchase from multiple suppliers in one basket with one payment and not then get charged lots of different amounts for delivering each item.
Many assemblies also offer delivery free or at low cost and many have multiple collections, the model is flexible enough for your assembly to respond to the demands and requirements of your town and customers.
There is a great amount of variety in the way they are run and each assembly has its own personality. The branding is strong, its fun and modern and a good addition to the current online food ordering offers.
The emphasisis is strongly on small, local, small batch, micro food producers… we are encouraged to avoid the large farmers and food producers and seek out the hyper local, its about the balance and supporting new enterprise and community business.
8Dave Darby March 4th, 2018
I completely understand the advantages that you’ve pointed out. There are advantages that can be pointed out for Uber or Airbnb as well – but those companies are extractive – ie they extract wealth from communities and deposit it with shareholders. It’s a more complicated argument than the argument about the immediate benefits. The structure of the company itself means that, as it grows, wealth will be siphoned out of communities all over the world to enrich shareholders. That’s just the way for-profit companies operate. I’m not saying that the Food Assembly is as ruthless and exploitative as Uber, but the model is the same. I just wonder what’s wrong with the community-supported agriculture model, which isn’t extractive.