Rural Online Food Markets

Oct 5, 2022

In rural areas, there can be a difficulty in sourcing good quality, fresh local produce. Some villages and smaller towns may be surrounded by farmland and small growers, but there often isn’t a suitable way for these producers to sell their food.

NeighbourFood is an online food market that solves this problem, by giving these small businesses a way to provide access to their local communities.

Between March and August in 2021, Forth Environment Link’s Project Food team delivered a package of training and development to six click-and-collect online markets, specifically designed to boost rural recovery through the local food economy following the Covid pandemic.

This was the natural continuation of a 2-year programme of practical support and training provided to organisers of such food markets in four regions of Scotland. In the Forth Valley, the two regional markets to benefit were Balfron, which launched in October of 2019, and Killin, which launched in April 2020.

NeighbourFood already provided a wonderful resource to people in more rural areas, but adapting to the challenges of the pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021 took it to a new level.
Food and other goods are pre-ordered by customers each week, offering a safe, contactless way to shop from home and still access excellent local food, circumventing the need to opt for delivery from national chains. This keeps the supply chain short and local, which is immensely beneficial for local producers and growers!

Adapting from the original business model, which invited customers to pick up their food at a designated time and place each week, these NeighbourFood markets began to make home delivery available. That helped those shielding or isolating to continue to access healthy, sustainable food.

By being able to operate throughout the pandemic, these markets helped sustain a revenue stream that many small producers may have otherwise lost during lockdowns. Not only were they stopping the food from going to waste and ensuring the future of their small businesses, but they were also giving the local community the good, nutritious food they needed to stay healthy, and providing comfort via food during what was an unsettling time.

In 2020, orders from NeighbourFood markets, supported by Forth Environment Link, peaked at 500% of pre-pandemic levels. Custom trailed off as retail and hospitality re-opened to the public post lockdown. However, despite the trend declining back to pre-pandemic levels overall, Balfron’s orders remained at up to three times higher.


To aid recovery from the impacts of Covid, Forth Environment Link used the 2021 extension to make sense of the findings, and to deliver tailored one-on-one workshops to the teams behind both of the Forth Valley markets to help them plan for future developments.

These workshops included things like recruiting and retaining volunteers; measurable marketing strategies; and smarter use of social media for targeted objectives. They also introduced a training programme looking at “PR for Food Hubs”, and offered weekly peer-to-peer support sessions for sharing knowledge across the whole network.

There were also podcasts produced to promote best practice to newcomers, and an online gathering was hosted with expert speakers providing insights into the opportunities for food tourism, resilient 20-minute neighbourhoods, and what has been learned from other global food movements.

The six-month extension provided an effective way for Forth Environment Link to ensure lessons gleaned from quick-fire adaptation to a global emergency were not lost; and to take what worked in Balfron and Killin, and apply it to other markets, to give the best possible service and future to these innovative, essential local services.