Supermarkets and the fabric of society

At the Welsh Government’s recent Food for the Future conference in Llandudno, the corporate sector was well represented, and rightly so, given the proportion of our food that reaches our plates via the superhighway that is the global food industry. So also was the health sector, there to express concerns about rocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. There was much talk therefore of the relationship between the food industry and the public, and I was struck by a remark made by Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation, the industry body which represents the UK food and drink sector, with members all the way from Tregroes Waffles to Tate and Lyle.

carrots poster

‘Our values make us different’ – but how different?

Food, he said, is part of the cultural fabric of our society, and this is particularly true in Wales, where people have a particularly soft spot for food produced in the part of the world they call home. That is certainly true. It’s what connects us as families and communities: just think of Sunday lunch, picnics at the beach, allotments, cafes and the workplace canteen. And the opposite of that: TV dinners, children who don’t know where milk comes from, adults who can’t boil an egg, junk food and worst of all, no food at all. Food connects us and expresses who we are as a society, and it links us to the natural world too.

So what is the supermarkets’ response to that? Both Tim Rycroft and Nick Canning of the supermarket chain Iceland had much to say about the quality and freshness of their food, the information that they give their customers about what’s in it, and the steps that the industry is taking to move away from special offers that steer us towards buying more than we need, or making unhealthy choices. They are taking confectionery away from the tills, reducing salt content, producing low-fat ready meals and labelling their products to tell us what’s in them. Many of them are also (though they didn’t say this, because the focusof the conference was on the health of the Welsh population above all) sourcing some of their produce ethically through various certification schemes such as Fairtrade, Freedom Foods and organic.

All this is good, and there is no doubt that corporate food is aware of its social responsibilities and taking some steps in the right direction. Still, I felt there was something missing, and I think the problem lay in the rhetoric of ‘the consumer’, and the uneasy relationship between the profit motive and the aim of feeding a healthy population. When the consumer – and in the mass, a local community – is the source of a supermarket’s profits, how much more lucrative to sell them what they want, rather than what’s good for them. In the strange world of the supermarket, where the lights are bright and the choice is vast, it’s easy to do that. Those flapjacks might be clearly labelled as being 30% sugar and 20% fat, but who cares, when they look so alluring?

I think if the food industry is really to serve the society of which it is part, it needs to engage with its ‘cultural fabric’ in a more genuine way, building it up rather than mining it. We all need to stand up as citizens, not producers and consumers, and see how supermarkets can be more a part of their local communities, rather than outposts of their head offices. There are plenty of examples of good practice already: supermarkets have been sponsoring school gardens, donating surplus food to charity, linking schools with farms, promoting local produce, funding community groups to grow food in their carparks, and hosting farmers markets.

What if instead of doing these things in a piecemeal way, with an eye to PR, supermarkets really committed to the job of rebuilding local food networks, and thereby strengthening local communities, and we held them to it? Let’s stop talking about us and them, and join together to transform our food system into one that really embodies our values of care, fairness and balance with nature, not just for ourselves now, but for future generations.

Filling the streets with food

Outside the library in Machynlleth is a set of raised beds with herbs and salads growing in them, plus hazel arches which in summer bear beans and squashes. In the carpark of the nearby Coop supermarket, there are redcurrant bushes, rhubarb and more herbs. Round the back of the Plas, there are picnic tables with apple trees growing up through holes in the middle and troughs planted up with thyme and rosemary.

woman with herb planter

Katie Hastings of Edible Mach, with the herb bed outside the Coop

This is all thanks to a project called Edible Mach, which engages teams of volunteers to maintain eleven plots around the town, growing food for the public to pick and adding an unexpected twist to public spaces – flowerbeds with a difference. It’s inspired by the original Incredible Edible project in Todmorden, the Yorkshire town celebrated for its dedication to public vegetable growing, where the police station is famous for the sweetcorn in its front yard and the concept of ‘vegetable tourism’ was born.

We were there for a course on how to ‘Fill the streets with food’, which included a guided tour of the Machynlleth project and tips on how to get started. Growing vegetables in public spaces is sometimes known as ‘guerrilla gardening’ but it’s better done with the full consent of the local authorities, who see much to gain from the unlikely vegetable beds: less litter, more neighbourliness, local colour. Councils are often willing to make land available, and local businesses to sponsor materials and plants. Volunteers are of course vital to the enterprise, and in turn gain from the social interaction and sense of contribution, while paid staff are invaluable in holding a project together and looking for new opportunities.

People had come from all over mid Wales to find out more, and there were enthusiastic discussions about what we could do in our home towns: a raised bed here, an apple tree there. The big question though seemed to be: where do the volunteers come from and what keeps them going? Who are these people who are happy to give up their free time to grow food that for the most part they won’t even get to eat? Will the initial enthusiasm last?

This led on to a discussion about selfish and compassionate values, and tied in nicely with research from the Common Cause Foundation which says in essence that people are more altruistic than they are given credit for. Most of us have a strong allegiance to values such as kindness and justice, and really want other people to be happy, even if we are fickle and easily panicked into looking after Number One. However, we tend to think that it’s just us that wants to contribute to a better world, and that everyone else is driven by the profit motive. We always put money into honesty boxes, but we are pretty sure most other people don’t. And so we go along with the general assumption that other people are selfish and have to be bribed and coerced into doing the right thing, and because that is a soul-destroying way to relate to each other, we give up.

edible mach libraryInterestingly that gap between holding compassionate values ourselves, but thinking that other people don’t, is particularly marked in Wales and leads to a general pessimism about our neighbours which holds us back from positive action. If we only realized how much other people care, we might not feel so much embarrassment about asking them to contribute to community projects, and we might create a positive spiral of good actions, building higher and higher levels of trust and cohesion.

Growing vegetables in public spaces is powerful because it makes altruism visible, in exactly the same way that giant advertising hoardings promote the profit motive. Visitors to the library at Machynlleth see that their fellow citizens have gone to the trouble of creating a pleasant experience for them, providing both beauty and food, and that challenges their assumptions about selfishness. It creates trust and shows that people are valued as humans and citizens for once, not for their spending power and their achievements. It reminds us that we are all equal in our need to eat, and that providing food for each other is one of the most basic human obligations. And that is maybe why people want to help keep the vegetable beds attractive and productive.

Schoolchildren, organic artichokes and soup

March 2015

Our Food Values project has been an opportunity to look in depth at how we get organic food messages across, and to find out what really resonates with people who, unlike us, don’t talk about it all day. What do they really care about? How can organic food meet those needs, and how do we communicate that?

In February we worked with two communities, one in Cardiff’s inner city districts of Adamsdown and Splott, and one in rural Gwynedd, around Penrhyndeudraeth. As you might expect, there were some striking differences in the sort of conversations that come up in those two areas, but there were many common experiences too, and the general theme of food as a means of building or maintaining community came across as a strong concern in both of them, whether we were talking Sudanese soup recipes, lobscows or school meals.

Both events involved the local primary schools. It’s interesting how a primary school draws a community together and becomes the focus of change and of hope for the future. This is where the next generation is being formed – so what do they think?

Cardiff soup twoIn Moorland School, Splott, I visited the school’s Eco Committee who were busy making soup to be served to the public the following day. A key ingredient was organic artichokes, sourced from Riverside Market Garden in the Vale of Glamorgan, and they excited a lot of comment, particularly for being hard to peel.

The next day I interviewed a group of 10-year-olds to find out what they thought was important when choosing foods. It was clear that the children had got the message about healthy eating, as most of them put that near the top. As one said, “If you are not really healthy you grow up really weak and tired and doing nothing, you have a really bad life”. But they had other concerns too, especially for fair trade and wildlife.

As another one put it: “We can’t only think about us. We need to think about other people as well or it won’t be fair because we’ve already got all the food and enough money to live,” and she went on to express a concern for wildlife and the need to be kind to animals.soup on the table

I think it’s fair to say that organic food was not something that they knew much about. It was clear though that they knew that some foods were better for them than others, and that they cared about doing good in the world and had some idea of what difference their food choices would make. It was encouraging to hear how seriously they were discussing their food, and with a hatching project and maybe a farm visit to come, they will be well on the way to being well informed food citizens.

After school, we met again outside St German’s Church in Adamsdown and local volunteers served the soup the children had made, alongside contributions from the church itself and a nearby synagogue. It was a cold day but the children were happy to sit outside, sharing soup with their parents and other visitors and drawing pictures. Among that cosmopolitan group, which included recent and not so recent immigrants from several continents, homeless people, long-term Cardiff residents and professional groups, the primary school and their soup, with its organic artichokes, were very much at home.

Putting the glue back into society

Published on the Organic Centre Wales website in May 2015

Writing in the introduction to Feeding Britain, the all-party report on food poverty published in 2014, the Bishop of Truro made a plea for a discussion about values. As he put it, “We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state.” He went on to describe how we have lost the glue that holds society together, that is, the informal networks of families, neighbours, community groups and so on that people can turn to in a crisis, and how we need to put it back.
soup event

Food poverty is often framed as the problem of certain unfortunate individuals, an attitude betrayed by suggestions that if only they knew how to cook from basics, they could afford to eat on a tiny budget. The Feeding Britain report suggests however that food poverty is inevitable in an economy where the minimum wage does not allow people to live with dignity and it calls for radical moves to put the situation right.

At a recent conference on food poverty in Cardiff, the lesson that emerged for me is that our entire society suffers a disconnect from food, buying much of it in prepared form, processed with sugar and salt, and never having set foot on a farm or grown so much as mustard and cress. No wonder that obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and all the rest are affecting our quality of life, while our farmers are at the mercy of the commodity markets and public subsidy.

Our Food Values project, which has been running for six months now, has been looking at some of the underlying values that determine people’s attitudes to food. We’ve supported food events with local partners in Cardiff, Newtown, rural Gwynedd and Aberystwyth (twice) and talked to people about food. What does it mean to them? How important is local food? What’s their favourite recipe? Do they grow food themselves? How do they decide what to buy? And what is organic food all about?

As we expected, food is very close to people’s hearts, and everyone has a view on it or a story to tell. It connects us to each other and to the local area, it is associated with cooking and growing skills passed down through the generations, it is precious and should not be wasted, we want the people who produce it to be fairly rewarded. These conversations brought out, through food, some of the fundamental values that we live by: those of meeting our own basic needs for security and health, looking after ourselves, caring for others, creating pleasure, finding our own way in life, caring for nature, and creating a just and peaceful world.

Which brings us back to the Bishop’s plea that we look to our values, and begin a much larger and deeper conversation about how we live together. The organic movement has a vital contribution to make here. Based as it is on principles of health, ecology, fairness and care, it has always been aware of the social context of food, and promoted a vision of a healthy soil supporting a healthy human population. In this view of things, food is not so much a commodity as a human right.

Happily, although the values by which we live have clearly resulted in an unjust society where some people are going hungry, food is also an important part of the solution. At a soup event organized by a church in Cardiff in February, a young man living in a hostel and getting by on a mixture of low pay and benefits came in off the street and accepted a bowl of (organic) soup and bread, which he wolfed down before eyeing up the fruit and vegetable display nearby. It was a sobering reminder that there are people for whom a food event is just that. We talked about why we were doing it, and he said “Yes, food is like music, isn’t it? It brings people together.”

Our project has shown some of the power of food to connect people and to start a conversation about the food system and the society we want. We will present the results at our closing conference on 3 June in Cardiff, where we will explore how a shift in values might improve food security and sustainability for the people of Wales, and also how food itself might be the means of building a more just and sustainable food system in balance with nature. We have also produced a set of publications which are available here.