Open Food Network - Nick Weir

Date: 06/05/2020

Food producers, community food enterprises and resilient local economies all face threats from the COVID-19 situation.  This is also a time when there are massive opportunities to support and strengthen them as they are playing a vital role in ensuring food supplies in communities worldwide.

 The Open Food Network (OFN) is a platform co-op of farmers, growers, food producers, food hubs, markets and food banks working together to use the OFN toolkit to build short food supply chains using online OFN shopfronts.  OFN UK is part of a global community of enterprises using the OFN system in 15 countries – with another 25 countries in the process of setting up.  

In the 5 weeks since COVID-19 hit; the sales through OFN shopfronts has increased seven-fold.  These shopfronts are supporting vulnerable families and individuals who find supermarket delivery slots are booked out for weeks.  This growth pattern is replicated in all OFN countries.

Nobody was fully-employed by OFN – they all had jobs running community food enterprises.  Now they are working very hard to onboard new enterprises and support them (and all the existing users) who are all coping with hugely increased order volumes.

This is very pleasing because it validates everything that OFN was set up for eight years ago.  It is difficult because the changes to our food systems; that we have been working towards for years; now need to happen in a matter of months to build the resilient food systems that the world urgently needs. 

To cope with OFN’s growth, our small but amazing development team is completely deployed on performance and infrastructure improvements and OFN is getting faster.  We are also developing functionality that enables shopfronts to prevent panic-buying, cap order volumes when they reach capacity and scheduling collections to maintain social distancing at pick-up points.

However, this does mean that everything else that the OFN development team were working on (improved user experience on mobile devices, feature development and anything other than critical bug fixes) is not currently moving forward.

We are experiencing growth in many places:

  • Farmers Markets online: although farmers’ markets are still classified as essential services, the risks of potential COVID transmission has driven significant behaviour and process change, including many Councils closing them down. Many farmers markets are responding by rapidly developing an online option so that people can buy from farmers and farmers markets, either instead of or as a new ’socially distanced’ option. OFN supports at least four different models of doing this and have been rapidly on-boarding farmers’ markets over the last 3 weeks. 
  • Producer Shops: OFN is uniquely suited to farmers selling and managing their own distribution. They can do this independently, or alongside their sales through farmers markets and hubs – all from the same interface and account.  
  • Food Collectives and Hubs: There has been exponential growth in demand for local food from existing collectives and hubs, as well the establishment of new ones. We are working with our existing users as they rapidly expand, as well as holding the hands of many new regional groups working out how to get their food to people.
  • Wholesale:the collapse of the hospitality industry has meant large amounts of food are being produced which are no longer have a market – they are getting turned away from the wholesale markets and dumped. We are working on a pilot to use OFN to coordinate information about this produce availability and streamline it into larger wholesale markets.

How OFN is supporting farmers and growers during the pandemic:

  • Providing growers and farmers who were supplying cafes and restaurants with new outlets for their produce.
  • Facilitating shoppers who had been relying on imported produce to now in some cases switch to more locally-grown food. 
  • In the longer term, short food supply chains and a shift towards small-scale farming and growing will result in more resilient food systems and help us cope with future similar crises as well as reduce the environmental footprint of our diets.

How the public is benefitting:

  • With a large number of small-scale growers and farmers supplying a wide network of hubs there is a lot of built in resilience in the case of crop failures for one grower, others can step in to fill the gaps.  Also the OFN Network connects up the producers, enabling them to distribute each other’s produce (getting it to the hubs) and sell each other’s produce.
  • Food hubs are small enough to personally get to know most of their customers – witness the way OFN food hubs are giving vulnerable people in their communities priority access to limited food stocks
  • Food hubs provide a local employment by making a mark-up on producers’ prices; keeping money in the local economy.

Examples of groups using OFN systems during the crisis:


    • This group runs a delivery service that serves homes along the Tamar Valley into Plymouth. Simon Platten, one of their organisers, says “Drawing on the produce from small scale local growers and producers we have found our short supply chains have been able to respond more quickly than those of supermarkets. We’re taking so many orders from older people in the community who don’t know what to do. It’s breaking our hearts”. This week their orders have increased five-fold as they work to make sure deliveries can be made to people self-isolating.
  • Glasgow Locavore
    • This organisation runs a good food store, cafe and wholesale operation. Their online (OFN) sales have increased  5-fold in the past three weeks, providing resilience where revenue in other parts of the business has dropped.
  • Farmers’ markets
    • Farmers’ markets across the country including AberystwythOxford and Stroud are shifting online using OFN to help communities practice distancing.