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.

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