The arrival of supermarkets has put many neighbourhood stores out of business, but the small fry are fighting back.

As the whale-like Wal-Mart opened in Bristol, with its 100,000sq ft maw of shopping space primed for 60,000 customers a week, yet again smaller neighbouring shops faced the prospect of becoming sacrificial plankton. But while the first branch of the American giant has left visitors awestruck, appalled and admiring of its size and supposedly low prices, campaigners are working to reintroduce small grocery shops to communities that have lost them.

As the whale-like Wal-Mart opened in Bristol, with its 100,000sq ft maw of shopping space primed for 60,000 customers a week, yet again smaller neighbouring shops faced the prospect of becoming sacrificial plankton. But while the first branch of the American giant has left visitors awestruck, appalled and admiring of its size and supposedly low prices, campaigners are working to reintroduce small grocery shops to communities that have lost them.

Since supermarkets arrived a generation ago, an estimated 100,000 neighbourhood and independent grocery stores have gone, and they're still closing at a rate of 10 per cent a year. With 1,500 stores between them, the multiples account for 85 per cent of grocery sales. Meanwhile, the Government has expressed concerns about the proliferation of out-of-town superstores, and there's a groundswell of opinion that believes they're not the answer to every shopper's prayer.

An alternative is to rebuild local shopping. And last week a report by food policy campaigners Toby Peters and Tim Lang called for recognition of the way small grocery stores give those on low incomes access to affordable healthy food, with the knock-on effect of reducing car journeys, improving diet and tackling social exclusion - issues dear to the Government. The report, 'The Crisis in UK Local Food Retailing', envisages a new generation of shops and food outlets, with a community-led approach and closer links with farmers and growers. Such locally-run retailing "is the key to healthy communities - the cement that holds them together", says Peters.

Concentration of the market has led to unequal access to food - as the Competition Commission's report into supermarkets, just delivered and due to be published in a couple of months, may show. Though cut-throat competition between supermarket chains has led to the 15p loaf, in practice it's hard for those counting the pennies to get to out-of-town shops. As supermarkets drive out smaller shops, there are now an estimated 1,000 "food deserts" where there are no shops within reach, especially for those on lower incomes.

"It is now impossible for many of the poorest people to obtain cheap, varied food," says Sir Donald Acheson, former chief medical officer, who chaired a Government inquiry into health inequality earlier this year. "Local shops have closed down, leading to the creation of 'food deserts' in the inner cities and increasing poor nutrition, putting mothers and children at risk."

"But if local shops made themselves indispensible we'd use them," argues Peters, director of Community Owned Retailing, started two years ago to set up shops run by communities. He'd like to see evidence that such stores do more than make food readily available, and has already been applauded for his work improving public health through good food. His vision is one of grocery shops as a focus of urban renewal and serving rural economies cut off by poor public transport. The project's backers include Business in the Community, Booker plc, Unigate and Birds Eye Walls.

So far COR has helped set up two stores in very different areas at opposite ends of the country. The first was in Longley, Sheffield, a deprived estate with a dearth of facilities. Now people can buy fresh food on their doorstep, and, because they have a stake in the business, crime in the neighbourhood has dropped and adjacent traders have prospered. The year-old shop in better-off Rusper, West Sussex, bakes its own bread from frozen and sells food sourced as locally as possible: bread from a bakery in Horsham, milk from a local dairy and some runner beans and tomatoes from a nearby market gardener.

Rusper has 1,000 residents within walking distance of the shop (one for each of the parking spaces outside Wal-Mart in Bristol) and three quarters of the families living there paid £10 for a share in it. Run by a committee and employing local people, it responds to exactly what the villagers want. The arrival of a Tesco Express nearby has apparently made no difference to the takings.

Toby Peters would like to see cafes attached to community stores, credit union services and post offices. He envisages internet shopping as a way of "breaking the umbilical cord to the supermarket", with the corner or village shop acting as a collection point for bulky basics like lavatory paper, washing powder and cat food - freeing up shelf space for perishable food. "The local shop's time has come," he says optimistically but inspiringly.

Projects in Gateshead, Hull, Sheffield and Tower Hamlets in East London are in the pipeline, and Peters hopes to see 10 urban and rural community-run stores, like those in Sussex and Sheffield, up and running in the next 12 months.

Wal-Mart is not going to lose sleep over them, but thriving community stores bring new life - and food - to their neighbourhoods.

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