Regional and local food groups are generally not-for-profit organisations, funded through Food from Britain and regional development agencies. Most have websites explaining what they do and how to get in touch with them, and they can be contacted through local government agencies.
Retailers who contact food groups can, at the very least, expect free advice and support and they may be invited to become a member. Members are entitled to additional services ranging from discounted equipment to marketing support, usually for a fee. The services and facilities vary from region to region, and if your local food group can't help, they'll certainly be able to direct you to someone who can.
The Heart of England Food Group is one of the largest in the UK and has several initiatives on the go to bring retailers and producers together. Trade development manager Debbie Coxon explains: "We are probably one of the most proactive food groups in the UK. We have a Meet the Buyer programme to introduce retailers and producers, which gives us the opportunity to get to know what a retailer wants and gives them the chance to sample products.
"We also conduct Buyers' Choice visits, where retailers get to see producers at work so that they have a better understanding of where the products come from."
Savour the Flavour is another initiative from the Heart of England Food Group. It offers retailers discounts on shop equipment. "There are three discount tiers: retailers who source products from six producers through the group can choose equipment up to the value of £500; sourcing from 12 producers brings this sum up to £1,000; and retailers who do business with 18 producers can choose equipment up to the value of £1,500," says Coxon.
Retailers who pay the two-year membership fee of £150 plus VAT also benefit from free branded plastic bags, an organised open day and one free press release a year.
While few food groups have the capacity to offer as many services as The Heart of England, most will make the necessary introductions and hand out free pos material.
Some go further and help retailers with the logistics of getting local products to their door. Regional food wholesaler Taste of Anglia Table, for example, is the brainchild of regional food group Taste of Anglia. It was launched in 2001 to simplify the distribution process for members and find new customers for members' products. The wholesale arm now supports about 48 producers from six counties; 900 products are listed on the sales catalogue, including ambient, chilled and frozen products; and it has 130 trade customers.
If retailers prefer to go it alone, then scouting local farm shops could provide a good indication of what's available. Most towns also hold farmers' markets on a regular basis and are the perfect places to network.
Markets may be organised by local government agencies (Business Link or councils), or by food groups. There are also farmers' groups like Hampshire Farmers Market, which organises markets throughout the county.
Sophie Boxall is local food marketing officer at Hampshire Fayre and is all for the idea of working hand in hand with the farmers' markets. She says: "We work with and promote Hampshire Farmers Market because we are behind any initiative that supports local producers. It organises the UK's largest farmers' market, in Winchester, which attracts 10,000 visitors. It takes place twice a month and offers a good shop window for retailers to see the food and meet the producers."
Business Link advisers also offer retailers a direct link to farmers. Ian Round is rural business adviser at the Business Link in Northumberland and his remit is to support businesses in rural areas; his job also includes giving advice to urban retailers looking to source locally.
Round says: "As a rural business advisor I regularly communicate with local farmers so I know exactly what's going on. For example, if a farmer decided to diversify I'd be the first to know and would be able to tell retailers about it."
Northumberland Business Link has just started organising free local food forums for the benefit of both retailers and producers. The first was held in Hexham and 30 local producers who have the capacity to supply village stores took part. "The event was advertised in a local magazine to attract visitors," says Round. "We put on a buffet of local produce and invited retailers so that they could try the food. Our intention is to hold forums on a regular basis."
It's clear that if retailers take a closer look and make use of the resources out there, there's nothing to stop them from sourcing local.
This website was launched in November 2003 with the aim of providing local retailers and caterers with a one-stop shop and distribution service for locally produced foods. It is owned and operated by Arden Solutions (UK), based in Shropshire.
The site provides a channel through which local food businesses can purchase local, high-quality foods in one order and receive next-day deliveries. There are about 40 trade customers actively using the site and 23 local producers who supply more than 500 ambient and chilled products across a wide range of categories. Products from further afield are included where they cannot be produced locally.
The company is looking to roll out the model to areas beyond its current Shropshire catchment.
East Midlands Fine Foods
Tel: 0115 875 8884
Heart of England Fine Foods
Tel: 01746 785 185
North West Fine Foods
Tel: 01695 554918
Tel: 0845 456 2340
South East Food Group Partnership
Tel: 01730 893724
Taste of the West
Tel: 01392 440745
Tastes of Anglia
Tel: 01473 785883
The Regional Food Group for Yorkshire and Humber
Tel: 01937 830354
Highlands and Islands Enterprise
Tel: 01463 234171
Tel: 0845 601 3752
Welsh Development Agency
Tel: 02920 828946