Relocalising the food chain: Why it matters and how to do it

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust, here.

One of the positive aspects of Britain’s departure from the EU is that it has sparked off a debate on the future of UK farming, requiring us to question fundamental assumptions. Should we see food as a commodity for export, or to feed ourselves? What counts as a public good? And can we restructure our food system in a way that meets more of our needs – nutritional, social and cultural?

It’s hard to escape the growing interest in local food over the past few decades. Whether it’s restaurants boasting fresh, local produce on their menus, the rise in farmers’ markets and farm shops or the growth of box schemes such as Riverford, it’s clear that people value food that comes with a story. Even supermarkets have noticed, as Morrisons credits soaring demand for regional produce for its healthy profits last year. In order to understand the movement better, and to see where it might be headed, it is worth exploring the motivations behind it.

For there is more to ‘local’ than meets the eye. After all, nobody gets excited about eating bacon from the local intensive pig unit or white sliced bread from the in-store bakery at the supermarket. Instead the term is shorthand for a vision of food characterized by small-scale farming and growing, heritage breeds, artisan processing, family businesses and traditional skills.

It is also about self-reliance and ‘taking back control’, in the sense of using what grows locally with a minimum of inputs and rejecting globalization. It is about a sense of connection, which we have traded in for the convenience of the modern food industry, but with mixed feelings, as the Food Standards Authority’s report Good Food for All notes.

But there is more to local food than sentiment. Buying locally – whether it’s food or anything else – helps build local wealth, creating jobs and opportunities. Money spent with local producers tends to circulate in the local economy, rather than being siphoned off to supermarket shareholders. It also builds food security, as it makes us less vulnerable to disruptions in the complex global distribution networks that keep the supermarket shelves full. And arguably, it creates social capital as it builds links between producers and customers and supports a sense of place.

The local food movement has been driven by grassroots action, although often with government support. One classic model is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where customers pay upfront for a share in the harvest, thus sharing the risk with the producer. They will also visit the farm and take part in work sessions and celebrations. It asks a lot of both producer and customers, and it is transformative for that reason.

Vegetables are the traditional mainstay of CSA schemes, but bread, herbs, flowers, cheese and meat may also be on offer. Often there is an interesting twist to the food story. Brighton Sheep Share, for instance, sells lamb from Herdwicks that graze the nearby downland to maintain biodiversity. In Bristol, a micro-dairy called Street Goat uses goats to manage habitat and process food waste, while inviting its members to buy a slot on the milking rota each week, and keep the proceeds. Like many other small-scale food schemes they see themselves as part of a global movement for food sovereignty, well described by the Landworkers’ Alliance’s recent film In Our Hands in which they feature.

Less demanding of their members are the Food Assemblies and similar models based on online ordering systems, such as the Black Mountain Food Hub near Llandeilo in Wales. Here you order what you want and collect it from a central depot a few days later, a system that is close to normal shopping patterns and which saves a farmer the uncertainty and effort that comes with setting up a stall. Such hubs build relationships between customers and producers and can give farmers confidence to expand their enterprises.

Still easier, from the customer’s point of view, is the community shop, of which an example is Cletwr in Mid Wales. This mixes standard items like baked beans and white sliced bread with organic vegetables from local farms, garden surplus fruit and even Welsh wines and spirits. “We want this to be a shop that anyone can come to, to buy food, to use the café, to come to social events and to volunteer,” explains organizer Nigel Callaghan. “We’re keen on local and organic food but we don’t want to exclude people, so we have it alongside the familiar items.”

What the models above have in common is that they recognize that food is more than a commodity, and so build in a social element. This activity is necessarily small-scale, involving groups of people who know each other and leave their unique stamp on their projects. But if we are to harness the enthusiasm generated by grassroots activity and relocalize the food system at scale, other approaches will be needed.

One example is the Transition Towns network, “a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world”, for which local food is key. Another is the Sustainable Food Cities project, which has around 50 members including Cardiff, Leeds and Brighton. These are partnerships between public agencies, businesses, academics and NGOs – including community gardens and CSAs – which aim to “make healthy and sustainable food a defining characteristic of where they live.”

An important part of relocalizing the food system will be to use the power of public procurement. Supporting councils, hospitals and schools to buy food from a range of small suppliers, rather than the usual mass distributors, is a complex task which has attracted some of our best brains. A recent initiative that might make a breakthrough in procurement logistics is the Dynamic Food Procurement national advisory board. So far, though, there are only a few isolated success stories, such as Preston, where school meal procurement is part of the story of how the town took back control of its economy after the banking crash. The potential is there, awaiting the political will.

Could Brexit be the opportunity for a step change in our food systems? The rhetoric of ‘public goods for public money’ means paying taxes for farmers to deliver healthy soil, clean air and water and biodiversity. Why not make it easier for the public to support good farming through the food that they eat, as well? Direct subsidies for food production are out, but government can support local food systems through education, planning, research and procurement. It can also address structural problems, such as the shortage of local abattoirs which could impact the availability of local meat.

In so doing, it could tap into an unrealized potential. One of the greatest benefits of local food is that it enables the public to form a new relationship with the people who grow and process their food. We can meet the producers and ask questions. What chemicals are they using? Do their animals look well cared for? Are they a good employer? Do they contribute to their community?

Through such conversations a deeper understanding of food and farming emerges and new approaches can develop. Farmers can find more profitable markets, and ‘consumers’ can become ‘food citizens’, confident of their right to shape the food system for themselves and others. We can start to create the food system we really want.

Local food: reinventing the village shop

First published on Food Manifesto Wales

At the chill cabinet of a small shop in mid Wales, a customer reaches for a bottle of wine then does a double take. “Wine from Wales?” she exclaims, reading the label that announces it is from a vineyard near Aberaeron. “Is it OK to take to a party?” She puts it back.

cletwr cafe staffShe might have picked up many other items of locally produced food at the Cletwr Shop, which is a social enterprise on the busy A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth. They sell vegetables from local smallholdings, seasonal surpluses from people’s gardens and their own jams and chutneys made on the premises, besides the usual branded products. There’s even a choice of Welsh gins: Da Mhile from the Teifi Valley, or one from the Dyfi Distillery near Corris.

But Cletwr is not just a delicatessen for the tourist trail. Here you will also find baked beans, white sliced bread and ready meals, because for many people this is their local shop, and that’s what they expect to find. The vegan cheese substitutes in the fridge rub shoulders with their dairy counterparts, and if you’re looking for a toothbrush you can choose between the wooden eco version or the usual plastic.

“We want this to be a shop for everybody, so we cater for all tastes,” explains Nigel Callaghan, Chair of Cwmni Cymunedol Cletwr, the community business which opened its doors in 2013, a couple of years after the original family-owned garage and village shop closed. “At the same time, we’re working as part of a wide group of retailers, producers and suppliers in the Dyfi Biosphere (and beyond) to promote local produce, and through that to develop and strengthen the local economy.”

The shop, which recently moved to purpose-built new premises thanks to grants from the Big Lottery, Welsh Government, the EU and others, does much more than sell food. There’s a busy café and a programme of events, from Welsh classes and ‘knit and natter’ to talks from the RSPB and sessions on local history. They host a fuel syndicate and they organize volunteer litter-picking sessions.

It’s run by a mixture of 18 paid staff (mostly part-time) and around 50 volunteers, and it’s constantly responding to new opportunities. A charging point for electric cars is to be installed soon, they’re planting a garden in the grounds, they’re about to join a toilet-twinning scheme – sponsoring a toilet in a developing country – and they’re looking into further services that they could deliver to the local community.

What Nigel is perhaps proudest of, though, is the opportunities the business provides for young people. “We invite school pupils to volunteer here for a while, and then we employ them. We put about £15k a year into the local economy that way. And we teach them the soft skills of employability, things like turning up to work on time and taking responsibility.”

Cletwr is introducing a new generation of youngsters to volunteering. “We have a lively group of volunteers here, young and old working together,” says Nigel. “Our board has renewed itself completely over the last three or four years as new people have been attracted to it, so we think we have got a good model that will last.”

It’s one of a number of community projects that have sprung up in Wales in recent years. Others are Siop y Parc, a community-owned shop in Blaenplwyf, Ceredigion and Llety Arall, a social enterprise that is building holiday accommodation in Caernarfon.

“We’ve seen the benefits that this shop has brought to the local community,” says Nigel. “We’d encourage others to do the same. All you need is a few keen people and you can bring a community back to life. There’s help and advice available – we talked to the Plunkett Foundation, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and others – and the rewards are huge.”

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

When a production worker at savoury snack factory Calbee UK in Deeside, north Wales, heard that a café serving supermarket surplus food was opening in nearby Buckley, she was keen to get involved. But she didn’t just sign up as a volunteer. She told her employer about it, and now they are one of the café’s regular supporters, donating their own products and releasing staff to volunteer at the café in the company’s time. It’s just one example of their commitment to “make a positive and lasting difference to local people”.

“When we get involved with a local project we don’t just give money and walk away,” explains Mags Kerns, Human Resources Manager and Community Champion at Calbee. “We want to offer personal support, to get under the skin of a project. The café is great because they are making such a contribution to the community, bringing people together and relieving loneliness, as well as serving meals on a Pay As You Feel basis so everyone can afford to eat there. We’re glad to be part of that.”

Values are very important to Calbee UK, which was set up two years ago as a subsidiary of a Japanese company. Calbee Inc was founded in 1949 with the aim of tackling the malnutrition that was afflicting post-war Hiroshima. It was a particular emphasis on calcium and Vitamin B which gave the company its name. The Deeside factory supplies vegetable-based snacks under the brand name Yushoi to most of the main supermarkets, as well as Marks and Spencer’s Eatwell range. The bulk of its ingredients, especially peas, are sourced from the UK, although some such as rice are imported.

“Deeside was a perfect location for us,” says Managing Director Richard Robinson, “and we’re really excited about our growth plans here. The Japanese and Chinese are really investing in food businesses in the UK and Calbee is a great sign of how global the food industry now is.” He also acknowledges generous support from the Welsh Government, who helped them to source their premises and set up an apprenticeship scheme, besides investing in the facility which began production in 2015. Calbee, which now employs 50 people and is still only at about 25% of its capacity, is on course to turn over £65m by the end of 2020, and wants to become “one of the UK’s best savoury snack suppliers”.

Clearly, performance and success are important to the company, but their vision is much broader than that; they also want to have “a leading role in supporting the industry voice on health and well-being” and it’s clear that they see money as being in service to people, rather than the other way around. “Values run through all we do,” says Mags. “We’re proud of our low-fat, high-protein products that are not just tasty but healthy too. And it’s really important to us to be a responsible employer, as well as contributing to the community.”

Sometimes this attitude shows up in small ways that make a big difference. All staff are known as ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘employees’, which reflects the company’s flat structure and helps to create a sense of collaboration in the workplace. When a colleague is rewarded for exceptional performance they are given a day off – that is, time to spend with their families and friends – rather than a cash bonus, neatly demonstrating the company’s priorities. They are also encouraged to volunteer for the local community in company time. “Our colleagues and their families are partners in our business,” as their values statement has it. And they pay well too, as an accredited Living Wage Employer, another reason they have no problems recruiting staff and absenteeism is minimal.

“People knock on our door with their CV,” says Mags. “Of course, they don’t always have the skills we need, but working with Coleg Cambria we are able to offer apprenticeships that lead to a qualification in Food Manufacturing Excellence. In fact, all our staff take it, right up to management level, because it’s important we have a shared understanding of what the factory is about. And we’re glad to be supporting the development of food skills in Wales generally.”

Calbee could have some encouraging lessons for the food industry in Wales. As it takes a stand for shared values centring on human dignity while also achieving healthy growth and profitability, it shows how business can be a force for good. “Together we laugh, learn and love what we do,” they say on their website. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a workplace like that?

Where the food industry meets the public

Last year at a Welsh Government conference, a speaker from the corporate sector remarked on how central the food industry is to our lives, because ‘food is the cultural fabric of society’. My ears pricked up because this echoed so strongly the findings of our Food Values project, which showed how food touches us emotionally, as a symbol of connection and belonging. Food is so much more than a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, even though often we behave as if it were.

Later at that same conference a speaker from the Food Standards Agency presented similar findings from their report Our Food Future. The public, they found, however much they might appreciate the convenience of the modern food system, regret the loss of social connection that it has brought. They miss the cooking and eating together that used to be so much a part of our lives, and they feel alienated from the food chain, no longer knowing quite where their food comes from.

Meanwhile, if people have mixed feelings about the benefits the modern food system has given them, then the food industry too suffers from a lack of engagement by wider society.  According to the Welsh Government’s food and drink action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, businesses find it difficult to attract staff, and there are skills gaps in all parts of the sector. This holds back growth and has led to a reliance on migrant labour, which is a particular worry as Brexit approaches. The fact that even universities and colleges struggle to fill places on food courses suggests that the industry has a problem, as expressed in the National Centre for Universities and Business report Leading Food 4.0.

How then might we build a better relationship between the agri-food industry and the wider society of which it is a part? Clearly, they need each other. Food businesses depend on customers and employees, and the public needs healthy food. Too often though the relationship between the two founders, because it is based on a limited understanding of how people think and act. We talk about the public as consumers who merely buy things, and we see business as being all about money, but these are over-simplifications. A deeper appreciation of human values and behaviour might yield new approaches.

Consumers and businesses certainly do exchange goods and money, but this does not define the people who manufacture our breakfast cereals, manage our supermarkets, pack our fish or serve us tea and a sandwich at lunchtime. They have families and live in communities, just like everyone else. Regardless of our job descriptions, we all want to be part of a society where everyone has enough to eat, where food is healthy and wholesome, and where the next generation grows up able to cook proper meals.

As for the public, we want there to be enough high-quality jobs to go around, we need to know that our food supply is secure and we are capable of appreciating the complexity of the modern food system even if we don’t want to take in all the detail. It doesn’t, actually, “all come down to price” – not if you ask the question in the right way, away from the bargain counter.

Bridging the disconnect

So how can we tackle the disconnect between the food industry and its customers? A good place to start might be the relationship between supermarkets and the public. I was reminded of the ‘fabric of society’ when I visited one of our local supermarkets recently to discuss support for our community garden. I met a member of staff responsible for community links and she explained how we could apply for quite generous funding through a scheme administered by a third-party charity. Our project would be compared with several others, and the outcome would be decided on a vote by the store’s customers. It is a start – a supermarket consulting its customers about how it can support community projects – but it is an arm’s length approach which falls short of genuine engagement.

On another occasion, I saw the awkwardness of this relationship from the other side of the fence. A colleague and I were visiting the smaller supermarkets in town to invite  them to an event on food waste. None came in the end, mostly because they were too busy, but one manager did seem genuinely interested. She told us how she liked to support local activities, supplying school sports events with snacks for instance, and took satisfaction from the end-of-day discounts at her store which benefited people struggling to make ends meet. She obviously saw herself as a part of her local town and was proud of what she did, but regretted that her work had to be invisible because head office did not allow her to give interviews, and anything outside the control of their corporate PR executives would be regarded with suspicion.

This suggests a major, missed opportunity. What if supermarket staff were encouraged by their head offices to take a few risks and engage with community groups and local government to help shape and learn from the local food system? That would be very much in the spirit of the Well-being of Future Generations Act that Welsh Government has made a high priority. And what if the public broke out of the consumer mindset and emerged as active citizens, ready to speak up for the things they really care about: health, friendship and thriving communities, not just convenience and affordability?

A recent report on Food Citizenship indicates some of the potential that could be unlocked if businesses invited the public to participate more fully in the food chain. The Coop, one of the participants in the report, has an inclusive business model, being formally owned by its customers. They are looking at making this more visible in their stores, and it will be interesting to see how far they take it.  Other businesses are using the B Corp certification model to develop their social and environmental performance.

There are other links to be made too. A school visit to a farm or a food business can open young people’s eyes to the technical challenges and job satisfaction brought by a career in food, whether in an artisan workshop or a huge production line. Food festivals are an opportunity for food manufacturers to meet the public, engage them in tastings and explain their values. These initiatives all serve to bring food businesses and their customers closer together, with benefits for recruitment and understanding. They also oblige businesses to be more accountable, which might not be comfortable but is the other side of that valuable coin called loyalty, an increasingly important quality that forward-thinking companies honour through their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

There is much more we could do in Wales. As a nation we are an ideal size for low-risk experiments and new approaches to food values. We are a nation of innovators and ready to embrace change. We are limited only by the stories we tell ourselves, especially the one which says that business is just about money, and that money is all that matters. It will mean some radical changes in how we work, but let’s build new partnerships between business and society. Let’s go beyond PR and advertising, to transform the food system from within.

Organic farming: values that won’t go out of fashion

Organic sales from Welsh farms are up, according to the Organic Centre Wales 2016 producer survey report published last month, even though the area of land certified as organic has fallen. This piece of good news reflects a 7% increase in UK retail market sales of organic food in 2016, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report, which puts growth down to continuing enthusiasm for healthy lifestyles, ‘free from’ eating and knowing where food comes from.

But are consumer trends really a sound basis for a food production system that is all about the long-term care of soil and nature? Given the interdependence of food producers and the people they feed, it is vital to bring the two into the closest possible shared understanding of what it is all about. That means looking at our values, which was the topic of the Food Values project that we ran at Organic Centre Wales in 2015 in partnership with geographer Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, now at Bangor University.

Part of our role at OCW was to build the organic market, working in partnership with farmers and businesses to develop and share messages which went out on leaflets, on social media, and even the backs of Cardiff buses. We put a lot of thought into this, working out what people were looking for, and how to give them reliable information that would help them choose. One thing we knew was that food scares like mad cow disease or the horsemeat scandal are good for organic sales, and we tended to take that as a starting point, even if it did feel opportunistic.

People obviously don’t like the idea that their food might be contaminated, and even without a major scandal like BSE, there is the ever-present problem of pesticides. The obvious tactic is to say that “organic food is free of pesticides” – except that it’s not true. Pesticide residues are everywhere on the planet by now, and more to the point, organic producers do use a few pesticides under certain conditions, just not very much.

This introduces an unwelcome shade of grey into the message. But it gets worse. Saying that organic food is relatively free from pesticide residues carries the implicit message that non-organic food might poison you, and quite apart from the negative advertising which so irritates conventional farmers, research from social psychology suggests that playing on people’s fear in this way might in the long term actually be detrimental to sales.

The thinking, summarized by Common Cause, an organization whose aim is to strengthen compassionate values in society, goes like this. We all hold a mixture of values, ranging from what might be described as the self-centred ones of security, status, wealth and power, to the altruistic ones of social justice, unity with nature and equality. However, we are social creatures who change our allegiances constantly according to what we are talking about or where we are, seesawing between these two tendencies with little awareness of how easily we change our minds.

Primed to think about our health, for instance, we temporarily forget about social justice and the environment. Telling people that organic food is safe, therefore, while it may help sales in the short term, also makes us that bit more selfish. We start to turn organic food into a mere consumer item, and a luxury one at that. This is not what the organic movement was supposed to be about. Lady Eve Balfour, when she wrote The Living Soil in the 1940s, was talking about a healthy society, based on healthy crops and livestock, reared from healthy soil. She was not thinking of a niche product for ABC1s living in the southeast.

The key shift might be to stop talking about consumers, and start seeing the public as citizens who want to make the right choices for future generations, because actually that is what makes us happier in the end. This is the argument behind the New Citizenship Project’s recent report on Food Citizenship. If we talk to people as if they cared about the animal welfare, the environment and the health of humanity in general, then they will tend to respond in kind, welcoming the opportunity to step out of their passive role and make a real contribution.

Instead of customers they will then become participants and even partners in the organic movement, as Community Supported Agriculture schemes have long demonstrated. This is an opportunity for the organic sector to shake off the elitist image it has acquired in the UK and to position itself as part of a progressive alliance for social change. Sustainable food production is a natural companion for global justice, equality and human rights, and the shared values behind these campaigns means that they reinforce each other’s messages.

How to talk about organic food

As a step in that direction, we produced a guide in 2015 called Communicating organic food values, a guide for producers, which is available on the OCW website. It explores the values that producers hold – for instance, benevolence, self-direction, achievement, security, tradition, recipra ploughed field on an organic farmocity, pleasure and broad-mindedness – and asks what these mean in the context of their work. Our message was that producers should sift out for themselves which are most important to them. They should then speak out confidently for what they believe in, facing honestly the tension between the idealism that has driven the organic movement and the need for businesses to make a profit.

Organic producers need not be at the mercy of food fashions powered by consumer anxiety, and maybe they shouldn’t exploit them either. They can instead help to shape the food system by engaging with their customers as fellow citizens, making it clear what they stand for: a farming system that builds the soil rather than depleting it, that coexists with nature, that provides meaningful work and is the basis for a fair and healthy society.

The OCW survey, which was commissioned by the Organic Research Centre, found strong interest from farmers in converting to organic production. With dwindling government support for organic farmers via the Glastir Organic scheme, and with no staff at OCW, the organic sector in Wales might appear to be at a low ebb. But the values that it stands for will not go out of fashion and that’s something that farmers, growers and the public can all get behind, organic or not.

Picture: organic farm on Anglesey by Rosie Boden

Business and well-being go together: a look at corporate food values

This post originally appeared on the Food Grads website

Food businesses like to talk about their values. Many of them have obviously worked hard to identify the fundamental principles that underlie what they do, and to communicate this to their staff, customers and trading partners. And the clear message is always reassuring: we do the right thing at Megafood PLC because we really care, and so you can relax. We are good guys.

It’s great that any business examines its values. But it’s worth taking a closer look, because values are not always what they seem. A  body of social psychology research compiled by Common Cause has found a complex picture. One of their findings is that we all hold a wide range of values, many of which appear to contradict each other, such as power versus equality, or ambition versus humility.

This means that we are constantly balancing one against another – but it’s more like children on a seesaw than an acrobat on a tightrope. Sometimes we behave selfishly and sometimes we are generous. One minute we want to belong and the next we want to stand out from the crowd. Out shopping, we are seduced by novelty and back home we cherish tradition. It’s a story of polar opposites.

There are laboratory experiments to demonstrate how readily we change sides. Engage people in conversations about achievement and success, and they are less willing to do someone a favour. Talk to them about kindness and generosity, and they temporarily forget their concerns about getting ahead. And there are real life experiments too. Live in a country where health care is free at the point of delivery, and you get citizens who value interdependence and a sense of belonging. Weaken the welfare state and values of self-reliance and individualism start to flourish. Values are in endless flux, both shaping and responding to the world in which we find ourselves.

What does this have to do with food businesses? Unfortunately, many of them miss this dynamic quality and put out messages which are oversimplified or even contradictory. Take UK supermarket Sainsbury’s, for instance. They say: “Our values underpin our strategy – they make good business sense and give us real competitive advantage.”

A supermarket poster about values

Supermarkets: do they live up to their values?

Now, there is a real power in that statement. The way that food businesses talk about their values, backed up by heart-warming promotional videos, does indeed make them more attractive. But does it really make sense to say “our desire to be nice to everybody is going to knock the opposition out of business”? And what if sticking to your values means losing money, as it sometimes must?

The fact is that businesses do need to turn a profit, and so the corporate sector isn’t purely altruistic. None of us is – we all practise a healthy selfishness. So it is not a criticism of food businesses to point out the limits of their generosity. The problem is rather that they gloss over this when they claim that to be ethical and profitable are somehow the same thing. They may go together, and they may not. That is why it is so important to hold businesses accountable, and see how they put their values into practice.

Telling a bigger story about our values

The answer is to tell a bigger, richer story about the world. We need to honour the tension between making a profit and doing good, rather than pretending they are the same thing. It’s not that self-centred values are ‘bad’, and altruistic ones are ‘good’. It isn’t a choice between economic realism and fluffy idealism, either. It’s about holding both sides of the story, seeing how our way of flipping between them is a limitation of our minds rather than a fact about reality.

Ethical business means treating money wisely, using it to do good. It means thinking about money, but seeing beyond it. It’s challenging, because money has a way of taking us to places we do not want to go. We all live with that – individuals , businesses, community groups chasing funding, and governments. Whatever PR departments may say, there are no easy answers. There are only people who are willing to hold that tension, take risks and turn their minds towards the common good. Those people are to be found in government, in community groups, in schools and hospitals – and in food businesses. Business and well-being go together, because we need them to. It’s our only hope.

The power of food businesses to do good

One dark, damp evening just before Christmas, my partner and I turned up at a local supermarket. The Fresh Produce Manager, who was expecting us, proudly handed over thirteen crates of assorted produce and helped us stack them in our campervan. There were carrots, satsumas, potatoes, grapes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, little pots of fresh herbs, lettuces, a melon or two and a LOT of beetroot. All appeared to be in perfect condition, but there was one thing wrong.  They had passed their Best Before date and would be thrown out unless we could use them quickly.

The next day we dropped the food off at various charities around town. Several crates, including the sprouts and satsumas, would find their way into a church Christmas dinner, and a hostel for homeless people took much of the rest. It was satisfying to think of the herbs going into stuffing, of the fruit sitting in a bowl to grace the hostel table, of the solid nutrition for people who perhaps didn’t always eat so well, and even of the cash that hard-pushed charities could save on their bills.

We were working a shift for a surplus food distribution group that sprang up recently in response to public outcry about food waste. According to FAO figures, roughly one third of all food grown is lost or wasted at some point between the farmer’s field and our stomachs. It is built into the way food is handled, from the outgrading of misshapen fruit and the Buy One Get One Free offers that encourage customers to buy more than they need, to the public expectation that shops will always be stocked with everything and the fact that for most of us food is cheap enough to waste.

Surplus food waste redistribution takes many forms. There are dedicated organizations such as FareShare, community fridges both literal and virtual, apps and surplus food cafes. Where I live, a group of volunteers pick up produce from two supermarkets which they pass on to a handful of charities. Once a month or so they use it for a community meal, bringing people together and raising money for local causes like the community garden.

There is no doubt that the exchange meets a need on both sides. Supermarkets hate the bad press that results from sending perfectly good food to landfill while demand for food banks is rising, and for charities and community groups it’s a nearly-free resource that can save money, generate goodwill and bring people together. But it’s worth a look at what going on under the surface.

THE SHIFT FROM CONSUMER TO CITIZEN

Talking to shop staff it’s clear how much they enjoy the chance to do something useful. After all, it’s their local community too. For every supermarket worker who sticks to their job description and accepts the routine waste of good food, another is thrilled to do a bit extra. As we accepted our random abundance of food from the supermarket worker that December evening, our shared good deed felt like a triumph of common sense over the system, and we celebrated.

What if that spirit of common humanity was allowed to direct our food system? The story of profits and shareholders is not the only one. It’s a noble calling to feed people, as food businesses do, and we are missing something if we assume that making money is what they are ‘really’ about.  As Henry Ford said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”.  We need to tell a bigger story.

In our local communities we know the power of relationship and generosity. We sense that it’s a stronger story in the end than the one about money. And that spirit lives just as strongly in the people who work in the food industry. Now is the time to name it, so that we unleash the power of business to do good: for our health, for our farming systems, for our communities.

It’s the shift from the consumer to the citizen. One is passive, the other is able and ready to help shape the world in which they live. In the UK the New Citizenship Project has been asking: Could a small shift in thinking – from Consumer to Citizen – make a big difference in our food system? Let’s see what we come up with.

 

On food businesses, innovation and values

When you have finished making crisps out of a batch of potatoes in your factory, what do you do with the leftover peelings? You could feed them to pigs, which certainly turns a waste product into a resource, but how much more exciting to mash them up, extract the soluble fibre and use that to give texture to your muffins, enabling you to reduce their fat content. Healthy food and profits, all in one, brought to you by the Irish firm CyberColloids.

microscope and peppersThen there’s fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS, which despite the offputting name occurs naturally in many vegetables, including leeks and Jerusalem artichokes. It’s a sugar polymer which is mildly sweet but indigestible to humans, therefore serving as both a sugar substitute and a dietary fibre, while also feeding certain beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Bifidobacterium. You can use it to make such things as high-fibre, low-sugar chocolate sauce, and even mix it with water and vitamins to make a palatable drink that helps towards your Five a Day. You can buy it from the Chinese firm Quantum Hi-Tech.

These were just two examples of food wizardry on show at last November’s Food and Drink Business Europe New Product Development and Innovation Summit in Birmingham, where stakeholders in the food and beverage manufacturing industry met to hear about such topics as reducing sugar in processed foods, identifying gaps in the chocolate biscuit market, and trends in loose leaf tea. Running alongside it was a Quality and Safety Summit where we learnt about things like the need to check your turmeric for contamination with lead chromate, and how best to train staff to follow hygiene procedures. With much mention of regulatory frameworks, horizon scanning and of course innovation, the impression was of an industry that is pulling out all the stops to get us the tastiest and healthiest diet possible.

It is always good to hear from people who are enthusiastic about what they do. These were scientists, engineers and managers who have found a way to put their gifts to work in service to something bigger than themselves, and their delight in their own mastery was infectious. It is a reminder of what the human brain can achieve in the right circumstances – in a team, with a lab, a factory, a market and finance. It demonstrates the power of business to innovate and bring about change, running ahead of government and shaping our day to day lives with its convenient supply of necessities and luxuries alike, raising our standard of living to heights our ancestors could not have imagined.

And yet, questions arise. What problem are these highly processed, highly packaged treats really solving – the need of the public for healthy food, or the need of the company to devise new products and make an income? Replacing sugar with healthy sweeteners, for instance, does nothing to cure us of our sweet tooth or help us resist all the other sugary temptations that will still come along. High fibre vitamin drinks may have their applications but why not eat an apple and drink a glass of water? The fact is that the food industry has supported and driven changes in our eating habits that haven’t always been good and the problems are piling up, from tooth decay and diabetes to food waste and excess packaging.

How can we  channel all that creative energy towards solving some of the urgent problems of the day – obesity, diet-related illness and the ills of agriculture – in a way that really gets to the root of the matter, rather than tinkering with the details? That is where values come in, as the guiding principles which shape our activity, the compass by which we set our intentions. Innovation by itself is not enough; as George Orwell put it, ‘Put a pacifist to work in a bomb-factory and in two months he will be devising a new type of bomb.’  There needs to be a moral compass and accountability.

It’s time to bring the innovative power of business into alignment with genuine human needs so that it helps to create a healthier society for everyone. That was the theme of my workshop in the afternoon, encouragingly entitled ‘Food Values: business and well-being go together’. Of course, there are plenty of examples of corporate food messing up. But it isn’t inevitable, and it’s time to start telling the story of how industry can help the world, and how money is only a means to an end. We need to talk about how people in business are doing good things, because they are the right thing to do. It’s not a simple story though, and I’ll say more about that next time.

Feeding future generations: the need for collaboration

This month, Wales sees the Well-being of Future Generations Act pass into law. That means that public bodies in Wales will be required to explain what they are doing to safeguard the wellbeing of people not yet born, and how they plan to make the world a better place for everyone.

The Act does not just describe the sort of Wales we want to see – thriving, prosperous, healthy and living within environmental limits, with strong communities, social justice and a bilingual culture – the principles that have inspired the Welsh Food Manifesto. It also provides guidance on how we get there, specifying five new ways of working for public bodies (and, let’s hope, everyone else) to follow. These are: to think long-term, to focus on prevention rather than cure, to integrate different activities and be consistent, to involve everyone in the decision that will affect them, and to collaborate with others.

Collaboration works best over a meal

Collaboration: talking over a meal usually helps (pic by Anthony Pugh)

Collaboration was one of the main topics of discussion at the Delivering for Future Generations conference on 16 March at which Sophie Howe, the recently appointed Future Generations Commissioner, took up the baton from Peter Davies who had led the process of developing the new Act and the ‘Wales We Want’ conversation which informed it. The big question was: How can businesses, the public sector and the third sector – that is, charities, the voluntary sector, campaigning groups, and the public generally – work together effectively to give us the Wales we want?

Sophie Howe was quick to celebrate the third sector, which with its inventiveness and freedom of movement can do things that government can’t, citing the example of Actif Woods Wales, who have been working with Aberystwyth MIND to take people with mental health problems out into the woods where they find a space for healing through nature, crafts and companionship. Examples like this abound, supported by a combination of public sector funding, civil society volunteering and business sponsorship.

Speaking from the public sector, Paul Matthews of Monmouthshire County Council was inspiring on the need for public servants to show leadership by moving out of their comfort zones and risking failure. The challenge of the future was not a technical one so much as a test of adaptive leadership, he said, and this was what public servants most deeply wished to offer. Businesses meanwhile, with their capacity to innovate and drive change, are encouraged to engage with the Sustainable Development Charter, where they can be acknowledged for the steps they take to improve their practices and learn from each other. As Peter Davies said, we need a business sector that supports the environment and social justice, so this is a crucial area.

So how is all this going to pan out? There were many positive examples of collaboration at the conference, but there are also all sorts of reasons why the three sectors, and the many subsectors within them, don’t always get on. Our Food Values project last year revealed some of the differences as they play out in the food system: businesses may be driven by a profit motive that sees food as a commodity, while community groups see it more as a social connector, and lament the lack of food skills in the younger generations. Government is torn between apparently competing objectives of health, economy and social justice. NGOs compete for funding with their niche approaches – should we be spending public money on food festivals, or teaching children to garden, or health education, or food poverty, or protecting wildlife?

Some groups are even in outright opposition to each other. There is not much common ground between the pro-GM and anti-GM lobbies, and there are plenty of polarized debates about farming versus wildlife, globalization versus local food, and livestock rearing versus reduced meat diets, to name just a few tricky areas. Everyone has plenty of reasons why it’s going to be difficult to change the way they work. That isn’t a reason to draw back, though. Just as the boundary between two cultures can produce a rich diversity with possibilities all of its own, as Wales demonstrates, so the faultlines between and within business, civil society and government are where different value systems rub up against each other and change happens. All three sectors are simply ideas to which all of us subscribe to a greater or lesser extent, and it is our humanity that counts in the end. Are we up to it?

Using surplus food to power community growth

This was originally published on the Food Manifesto Wales site

Next to the offer of plum crumble on the blackboard at the Fishguard Transition Café  in north Pembrokeshire is a helpful note: ‘may contain stones’. That remark sets the tone for our visit to this pioneering enterprise, where meticulous attention to detail and a warm human touch combine to form a community project with an imaginative contribution to a town’s food system.

three women in a cafe

Serving customers at the Fishguard Transition Cafe

Most of the food served at the Cafe, which offers a choice of home-cooked dishes in bright and tasteful surroundings, is supplied by local food businesses. It is surplus produce, mainly fruit, vegetables, bread and dairy, but also some meat and other items, from the no-man’s land between the much misunderstood ‘best before’ date, which marks the point at which the manufacturer estimates that it might start to lose its premium quality, and the ‘use by’ date, after which there are real dangers to health and it cannot legally be served.

Perishable food in this zone is perfectly fit to eat – certainly the plums were at the peak of perfection, aromatic and sharp – but it needs to be used fairly quickly, and what is a liability for a supermarket becomes an opportunity for the enterprising bargain-hunter or in this case the community project with the facilities to handle it. Tinned and packaged foods, meanwhile, can be kept for months and even years. The Fishguard Transition Cafe turns surplus food – around 850 kg a month of it – into nutritious meals while also providing a space for volunteers and community groups to come together, forming a lively hub for discussions.

It’s a simple concept but a complex operation. Food arrives daily and menus are planned around what’s available – the main dish when we visited was mushroom stroganoff, with roast beetroot – while some of it is frozen, preserved or pickled. Like the supermarkets which supply it, the cafe has its own waste stream, with excess food given away in the cafe, sent for composting or biodigestion, or diverted to animal feed. Record-keeping for the Cafe, as for any food business, is demanding. Besides weighing the daily food deliveries, a note is made of allergens, food that has been cooked but cannot be used immediately is labelled and frozen, and cleaning routines are checked off. It’s clear that managing the surplus food for a small town and its hinterland is no small task, but the very intricacy of it also allows for a scale of human involvement that brings opportunities.

The cafe obviously makes an important contribution to improving the diets of local people who cannot afford to cook such meals themselves, although as volunteer director Chris Samra says, the stigma of ‘food poverty’ sometimes deters people who might benefit most. However, it was actually set up to reduce carbon emissions by diverting food from landfill, to the tune of an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon savings per year. It gets its name from the Fishguard Transition Group who formed in 2008 from a group of citizens who identified with a wider movement to make the ‘transition’ to a low-carbon society.

They began by setting up allotments and running gardening courses, with the aim of helping more people to grow their own, together with other activities to engage the local community. In 2012 they hit upon the idea of a cafe running on surplus food, acquiring premises rent-free from the next door Coop supermarket. A plaque on the wall acknowledges donations of furnishings, equipment, labour and cash to the project, from a wide range of donors including several national chain stores, a youth club, a farm, a solicitor, a hotel and a range of voluntary and government agencies.

woman weighing carrots

Behind the scenes: weighing produce

Around about the same time, they embarked on the lengthy process of owning a wind turbine, raising loans from local residents. Generating an income from the wind is important, because the grants that helped the cafe get started are not such a renewable resource. Support by Environment Wales for a part-time project manager post, now in its fourth year, was key to getting the project started, and the Jobs Growth Wales scheme helped to get some young people onto the staff, which together with support from the group’s voluntary directors meant that they could run on volunteers to begin with.

The cafe has also been supported by the Wales Cooperative Centre, who funded a business plan, and it won the 2014 Sustainable Communities competition at the Hay Festival which provided a grant. Takings have grown and it is becoming more financially viable, but it still needs grants to cover some of its running and labour costs, including some part-time kitchen staff who provide continuity for the volunteers who assist with food preparation, record keeping and service at the counter.

The cafe is not just a means of turning surplus food into affordable meals. It is also a training facility, where volunteers, catering students and others with learning disabilities can acquire skills in a safe environment. It is a social hub where anyone can come for a healthy meal during the day from Tuesday to Friday, and at many out-of-hours events. It runs play sessions for families with young chidren, craft sessions for older children and adults, and drop-in sessions for Welsh learners. It also distributes food parcels on behalf of the Pembrokeshire food bank scheme PATCH, which means that some see it as a place ‘for poor people’, but it has always drawn in people from a wide cross-section of society, using food as a point of connection to drive social change.

The Fishguard Transition Cafe shows what can be done when food businesses, big and small, identify with their local area (in this case, within a 15-mile radius) and make common cause with community groups, so that surplus food builds social capital. There are other examples, like the Pay as You Feel cafe in Bethesda, Gwynedd,and the Real Junk Food cafe in Cardiff , each with a different take on the theme.

Wouldn’t it be great if every neighbourhood in Wales had one?