Food systems, social fields and the power of coming together

It is commonplace now to talk about the ‘food system’. By this we mean the vast network of people, organizations and relationships that grow, process and transport our food, from farm to plate (or failing that, to an anaerobic digester). Systems thinking is in vogue, as we move away from the reductionist model that sees food in simple terms of crop yield, price and calories, and embrace a wider reality, from soil bacteria to food poverty and human rights. But what does it mean exactly?

The work of the late Donella Meadows, US environmental scientist and lead author of The Limits to Growth, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand systems thinking. She writes about stocks and flows, leverage points and feedback loops, and paints a picture of overflowing bathtubs and submerged icebergs that brings the topic fascinatingly to life. Systems are everywhere, once you start looking for them.

She also makes the crucial point that although systems thinking is about being ‘holistic’, nevertheless any system is defined by its limits, which means that something will always be left out. A system is after all an idea that we impose on reality; it cannot actually be that reality, or there will be no distance between it and us, no objective distance that allows us to talk about it. Staying silent in the face of reality is of course a very good thing which we should do more often, but it is not systems thinking.

Where then do we draw the limits of a food system? That all depends. A recent report from the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford, Mapping the Food System, defines it in terms of enterprises, jobs, production, sales and the general mechanics of getting food from farm to plate. These are important things to know about, so this document will be very useful. However this view says little about, say, human health. What use is a food system if it doesn’t nourish our bodies?

Different views

In other contexts, therefore, we might define the food system differently. For the organic movement food is the link between human health and a thriving ecosystem – there is a clue in the name of the Soil Association, and a recent seminar from Whole Health Agriculture explains this thinking very well. Still others wish to emphasize social justice and so look at food poverty, trade and working conditions, drawing their limits around those points. They may look wider and include environmental considerations, or they may not.

Sometimes the limits are drawn very tightly. This is often dismissed as reductionism, but there can be good reasons for it. The power of modern science lies in the way that it can isolate the tiniest element – the proteins that surround a coronavirus for instance – and extract from that an understanding that makes a whole world-changing technology work. Reductionist experimentation has produced many good things, in food and farming as in everything else.

The only problem, and it is a big one, comes when we think that because we have understood the small details – isolated the fungus that is destroying a crop for instance, or seen how nitrogen fertilizer makes plants grow faster – we have learnt all we need to know, and can now go forth and change the world. That is why the application of modern science to agriculture has had so many negative effects, from algal blooms in rivers to soil erosion and pesticide poisonings. We have mistaken the reductionist model for the greater reality.

Systems thinking reminds us to recognize our limitations and look more widely before we intervene. But it is not foolproof, because of the way it inevitably leaves something out. We will always draw the line around our own limited field of vision, excluding the unknown unknowns as well as the known ones. We have blind spots and biases that will always get in the way.

One of these blind spots is the way that we tend to see the food system in mechanistic terms, leaving out human (and non-human) experience. Too often, food is reduced to quantities, nutrients, supply chains and prices – things that can be measured – and we lose sight of the way that it is actually experienced. The taste of an apple, the feelings of a cow for its calf and the togetherness of a shared meal, for instance, are just as real as anything else. Our food systems have an interior, which includes the realm of meaning and values. This is key to understanding why we eat and farm the way we do, but it sits largely in our blind spot.

Donella Meadows was well aware of these pitfalls of course, of course, and one of the recommended resources on her legacy website is Theory U , which was developed by the German-American thinker Otto Scharmer. Theory U is a group work methodology that helps us to see these blind spots and allow new understanding to emerge. This is essential if we are to break out of the standard thinking which is ‘creating results that nobody wants’ – ecosystem collapse, social divisions and a crisis in mental health, in particular – and let something new come forth.

A crucial concept in Theory U is the ‘social field’. To illustrate this, Scharmer tells a story of his childhood on a biodynamic farm in Germany. His father would take the family on regular walks across the fields, pausing every now and then to pick up a clod of soil and inspect it. He explained to his children how soil health depends on the millions of microorganisms that live in it, and is of central importance to the farm. For Scharmer, the social field – invisible, and yet deeply sensed – is to human society what the soil is to crops and animals. We need to attend to the human, and non-human, interconnections that create our experience of life.

Shared values

Some years ago, the Food Values project we ran from Aberystwyth University (later Bangor) held a series of conversations over shared meals in order to understand people’s experience of food. It was an investigation of the social field, although we didn’t call it that. Perhaps because of the very fact that we were sharing a meal, we found a high degree of care for the health of our society as a whole. The top concern was that everyone should have good food to eat; price was barely mentioned.

The social psychology on which that project was based is useful because it produces the sort of peer-reviewed evidence that is widely accepted in a modern secular society. But the mysteries of the social field have traditionally been expressed in religious language. As the Sufi mystic Rumi put it, “You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.”

Similarly, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed the concept of ‘interbeing’ to express the way that the relationships between people (and all other beings) are as real as the people themselves. Focus on the individuals alone, and you miss something vital.  The Bible puts it more personally: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

How are we to till our social fields? The first step is to notice that they exist. The way into this is to connect with our own experience, perhaps by meditation but equally by going for a walk, baking bread or washing the dishes – anything that takes us out of our heads. From there we can start to become aware of the collective reality of the groups we are in, through dialogue, which Scharmer wonderfully defines not as people exchanging ideas – we know how badly that can go – but as ‘the capacity of a system to see itself.’

This is perhaps the true purpose of events such as the People’s Assemblies that were held across Wales last year, as well as the recent Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. By bringing together people who would not normally meet, and inviting them to share their views on food and farming, such events make the social field tangible, and that is transformative. With collective self-knowledge comes power.

Scharmer has a great deal to say about all this. But the social field is just another name for community, something that the pandemic has made very tangible. Food is a natural expression of this. Eating together has not been possible recently, but we are still able to swap recipes, exchange seeds and plants, and gather online. When we do these things we animate the ‘food system’ with a shared humanity that is the essential starting point for change.

How effective are national food strategies? The example of the UK

This article was first published by the Sustainable Food Trust

National crises, like COVID-19 and Brexit, help to fix our minds on the fundamentals of existence, and encourage us to ask the big questions, like how a nation feeds itself. Given the way that food connects every element of our society and our economy, as well as linking us with the natural world, it has the power to bring us together into a collective effort that allows us to face other challenges that have been there all along: climate change, for instance, poverty and isolation. It is, however, a fearsome challenge, requiring national and local government, farmers, food businesses and the public all to change their ways in a coordinated fashion.

Policy happens at many levels. Locally, the civic response to lockdown demonstrated the public enthusiasm for being part of a community that looks after its members and has a connection to the geography it inhabits. There was a surge of enthusiasm for growing food at home and in community gardens, buying from farmers and small shops, and creating new short supply chains. From there the next logical step is to build partnerships with local authorities, translating citizen power into political action.

National government, however, is another story. Vested interests, the short-term thinking produced by the electoral cycle and the tendency of policy to fragment into silos, so that health, farming, the food industry and the environment pull in different directions, all mean that the top-down approach is rather limited in what it can achieve. Here it can be helpful to compare the approaches of different nations, and the UK provides an interesting case study in its devolved countries: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although the UK government decides the terms of trade with other countries, and until now the EU has had strong control over farming support payments, many aspects of food production and consumption have for the past two decades been devolved to the respective administrations, leaving England to work separately from them. Each government has, consequently, come up with a different approach.

England’s current National Food Strategy is billed as the ‘first major review of our food system in 75 years’. It was commissioned in 2016 and is led by Henry Dimbleby, restaurateur and author of England’s 2013 School Food Plan, supported by Defra. The new strategy has a very wide remit, covering the actions of all government bodies with respect to the whole food chain, from production to marketing, processing, sale and consumption. This summer, it published Part One of the Strategy, which covers the response to COVID-19, the challenges of Brexit and the growing threat of climate change.

It identified two main themes. One is the importance of responding to child poverty. ‘A Government that is serious about “levelling up” must ensure that all children get the nutrition they need,’ says the report, pointing out the dangers of both obesity and diabetes, which tend to fall on the poorest families. Nevertheless, this high aspiration has not been easy to achieve in practice, as became clear  earlier this year when it took a campaigning footballer, Marcus Rashford, to push the government into a u-turn over free school meals vouchers in the summer holidays. This argument has reappeared for the autumn half term.

The other theme is the ‘freedom to uphold our own values and principles within the global marketplace,’ which Dimbleby holds to be compatible with setting high food standards and protecting the environment. This too came into question when Parliament decided not to require imported food to meet domestic legal standards from 1st  January 2021, much to the disappointment of the farming unions and food campaigners.

England also has a strong civil society movement which parallels government activity, including such initiatives as the People’s Food Policy, which aims to integrate ‘the compartmentalised policy realms of food production, health, labour rights, land use and planning, trade, the environment, democratic participation and community wellbeing’. Led by the Land Workers’ Alliance, the Permaculture Association, Global Justice Now and backed by 100 organizations, it takes a radical approach foregrounding food sovereignty and agroecology and remains an aspiration.

Scotland has achieved a closer integration between civil society and government, expressed by the 2014 Good Food Nation policy, which has a mixture of legislation and non-legislative actions. According to the Government website, the aim is that by 2025 Scotland will be ‘a Good Food Nation, where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day.’ Much of the drive from this has come from the Scottish Food Coalition which has from the outset insisted on a whole-system approach based on food justice, engaging over 800 people in ‘Kitchen Table Talks’, which were held in homes, town halls, community gardens and other public places all over Scotland in 2018.

Based on this public mandate, Nourish Scotland and the Scottish Food Coalition are now campaigning for a Good Food Nation Bill that will embed this joined up approach deeper in government. They want to build the right to food into Scottish law, establish an independent food commission, produce regular food plans, hold public bodies to account and set targets covering areas such as obesity, greenhouse gas emissions and wages in the food industry. The pandemic has delayed its progress but they are confident of success in the 2021/22 session.

Wales has had a number of food strategies, although none with quite the whole-system approach that is developing in Scotland. The 2010 strategy Food for Wales, Food from Wales was broadly based and considered health, social issues and the environment, but the accompanying action plan that followed in 2014, Towards Sustainable Growth, was heavily biased toward the food industry. Focussing on the need to support exports and jobs, it had little to say about food poverty or the environment. Health and child poverty come under separate portfolios.

Like Scotland and England, Wales has a civil society movement which is calling for wider changes in food and farming, but it is less strongly organized. The Welsh Food Manifesto identifies ten principles that would allow different sectors to come together on the basis of shared values, while an alliance of NGOs led by the WWF recently commissioned the report A Welsh Food System Fit for Future Generations, and they are now calling for a Food System Commission. Many other networks use food as a rallying point, and an informal coalition is gradually emerging.

Wales does however have a legislative vehicle for uniting civil society and government actions, in the shape of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. This visionary legislation, passed in 2015, requires government bodies, including local authorities, to collaborate with all its stakeholders – community groups, businesses and individuals – in order to plan for the long-term future. It is ambitious, requiring a set of ‘new ways of working’ that challenge long-established habits. There are some hopeful signs, such as the recent collaboration between food service firm Castell Howell and Ceredigion County Council, as well as a public procurement initiative in Carmarthenshire.

Northern Ireland has similarities with Wales, in that Government policy separates its Growing for Growth agri-food policy from its Fitter Future for All health strategy and its plans for farming support, while its civil society has more ambitious ideas. The suspension of Government for the three years to January 2020, leaving the civil service to engage with the public, has of course presented an additional problem. However, as Belfast academic Dr Viviane Gravey notes, a fresh view of the way forward comes from the RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) Northern Ireland report, which offers a visionary plan based on building trust across sectors.

The FFCC, which produced reports covering the whole of the UK, is now an independent organisation and offers hope of a new approach, although the fundamental challenge remains the same. Changing our food system is a huge task that requires everyone to work together. There is no one way of doing things. The examples above suggest the importance of a national strategy, one that is based on good food for all, or the right to food; strong government support at both national and local levels; and an organised civil society movement, one that has genuine grassroots support. There is no one way of achieving this, but much to learn from seeing how the devolved nations of the UK (as well as nations beyond the UK) can respond differently to a common challenge.

Trafodwn: a new way to talk about food and farming

One evening in late June, two months into lockdown, 156 people logged on to Zoom to talk about food and farming in Ceredigion. It was no ordinary discussion. After hearing from a range of farmers, community organizers and environmentalists, they had spent time in small groups sharing their personal responses to the crisis that is Covid, Brexit, climate change, globalization and much else. Guided by a facilitator, they listened carefully to each other, looking for common ground and tentatively suggesting solutions.

Ben Lake MP addresses the Ceredigion People’s Assembly on Food and Farming

At the end of the two-hour meeting, when the note-takers had reported back, it was clear that the event had achieved a remarkable level of shared inspiration. There was a strong call for the relocalizing of food, self-determination for communities and support for young people to enter the food and farming sector, among other things. It had demonstrated the hunger that there is for change in the county, and the richness of knowledge and expertise present.

As one retired farmer put it: “It was quite amazing to have such a breadth of participation…to have a platform where parties involved in farming, land management, horticulture, nature reserves all on large and small scales being represented was so very worthwhile.” Another commented that he had no idea so many people cared about farming. For many, it was an emotional experience to find such warmth and compassion between hitherto opposing sectors.

The event itself came out of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between the Cardigan branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local Member of Senedd and former agriculture minister Elin Jones, with support from the farming unions and environmental groups. Ben Lake MP also spoke. As Vicky Moller, one of the organizers, said: “Elin Jones’ decision to co-host with the local Extinction Rebellion branch was in the spirit of the event. Everyone feared hostility or ding dong argument. It didn’t happen.”

People’s Assemblies

This was many people’s first experience of a People’s Assembly, one of a series of five that have so far been organized in west and mid Wales since Covid. The first was held in Pembrokeshire in late April, and it came about from work that organizers Vicky Moller and Anna Monro had been doing to support community groups during lockdown. “At our meetings people discussed the future, and it was clear that they did not want to return to the old normal,” says Vicky. “The leading area where they wanted to see change was food and farming, and so we decided to look at that in detail.”

The format of the People’s Assembly is widely used in XR, which is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests in London, Cardiff and other cities last year. “They are a taster of a growing global alternative to our adversarial model of democracy – where rival parties slug it out and we choose between them every few years, often motivated by fear of those we oppose,” says Vicky. “It’s officially known as deliberative democracy, and in Wales we are calling it ‘trafodwn’, which means ‘let’s discuss’.”

Central to all Assemblies is the work of the facilitators, who are trained in the three pillars of the method: radical inclusion (hearing all voices), active listening (dropping your own agenda to give your full attention to the speaker); and trusting the process (allowing the wisdom of the hive to generate new thinking).

“Thankfully, there is a growing number of trained facilitators available,” says Angie Polkey, one of the organizers of the Ceredigion event and herself a trainer. “We are all helping to satisfy people’s thirst to have they say, be heard and, most vitally, be part of the change that many of us know is needed for a more sustainable and just world.”

Angie explains how important it is that the Assemblies have an impact. One of the five events stimulated local action groups to form, but as she says, “the significance of the others lies as much in the inspiration they created, which will shape future relationships, as well as the feedback that has been shared with elected representatives and local Council.” It is a fundamental tenet that the participants know why the Assembly has been called and what will happen to the findings, because otherwise “people will feel disillusioned and that their time has been for nothing”.

Deliberative democracy for Wales

The People’s Assemblies described here were citizen-led and unfunded, but the principle is also used when Citizens’ Assemblies are commissioned by governments who want to make difficult ethical decisions with public buy-in, such as the abortion laws in Ireland. They use an approach similar to the recruitment of jurors to ensure that the groups are representative, and they typically run over several days or weeks with professional facilitation. A recent OECD study reviewed about 300 government-commissioned events on five continents, and a good practice guide is also available.

Wales held its first Citizens’ Assembly at Newtown in July 2019, to discuss how citizens could engage with the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd), and since then there have been calls for Wales to make more use of them in the recovery from Covid. The ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act already sets out a process whereby public bodies are required to collaborate with the public in creating an ecologically sustainable Wales, but it is not enough on its own, as David Thorpe explains in a recent blog for the One Planet Centre.

He calls for Citizens’ Assemblies to work with the Public Services Boards of every local authority, and for the Boards to be held accountable to them. That would raise awareness of the Act and tap into the energy and expertise of community groups, which has been so much in evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre made a similar point in the Western Mail recently:

“We have a chance to reverse normal political relationships, for the public to be in the driving seat via something like a more expansive citizens’ assembly…If a consensus was reached, we could then hand over our blueprint to the parties and test their genuine appetite for change.”

“Trafodwn is a good term for this newer version of deliberative democracy,” says Vicky. “It is organised from the ground up, with both sides of the divide wanting to meet and sort things out. Something is stirring.”

For a full account of the five Assemblies, including the main conclusions from the Ceredigion event, click here.

This article was first published on the Food Manifesto Wales website.





The impact of Covid on the Welsh food industry: a view from Castell Howell

Castell Howell has come a long way since its beginnings on a Carmarthenshire farm in the 1970s, and is now one of Wales’ biggest independent wholesalers, with depots in Merthyr, Blaenau, Chirk and Avonmouth as well as its headquarters in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire. But when Covid struck, the foodservice business lost 60% of its business almost overnight. Their main customers are catering outlets such as universities, sports stadia, venues and school kitchens, and is not clear when many of these will start serving food again. The company has had to put 400 staff on furlough and doesn’t see sales returning to normal until 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s been challenging, disastrous,” says Ed Morgan, their Corporate Social Responsibility and Training Manager, “but that is shared by our customers, who are in a precarious position, and our suppliers. We’re not alone.”

The company has had to adapt fast and find new markets.  One step has been to open its wholesale business to the public, using ‘click and collect’ to maintain social distancing, and changing its purchasing to source food in smaller quantities for the retail market. They have also been supplying food banks and free school meals schemes.

A significant boost to their business has come from local authorities looking for ingredients for their emergency food boxes. At first the Welsh Government was supplying these directly, but Ceredigion County Council negotiated a cash payment instead and chose to give their business to Castell Howell as a local supplier. Other councils followed suit.

Ed sees this political decision as a significant step forward. “I’d like to think there’s more of an awareness across local authorities about where food comes from,” he says, referring to the way that staff have been taken away from their regular duties in order to meet the councils’ obligation to feed vulnerable members of society, by packing and distributing the food boxes. “Instead of being involved in transport or town planning, they’ve been hands on with food”. He hopes that food procurement will now receive a cross-departmental focus, reflecting its significance for the local economy and communities.

Public procurement – buying food for care homes, the NHS, school meals and so on – is one of the constants that Castell Howell sees as crucial to its future. “We have a team of three dedicated to this market, but recently they’ve been introduced to different suppliers and different ways of doing things and we’d like to maintain the momentum. And push it upstream of the Welsh supply chain,” he adds, citing the government’s support for the foundational economy, including a public procurement project in Carmarthenshire.

Castell Howell depends of course on a strong supply base. As Ed Morgan lists some of the products they source from Welsh companies – roast chicken, bottled water, desserts – it’s clear we aren’t talking farm to fork, although Daioni’s UHT milk is a recent success story. Even the iconic Welsh cake is made from global ingredients. This may disappoint those who would like to see Wales growing more of its own food, and particularly vegetables, but nevertheless, there are important benefits from having a strong food industry. “There are opportunities to add value here in Wales and that in itself brings economic and social benefits,” he explains. “If big factories close that can rip the heart out of a community.”

He points to the crucial role of Welsh food policy in creating the conditions for food businesses to benefit the people of Wales. Having taken part in the government’s consultation on sustainable brand values, he thinks that companies should be encouraged to do better. “I do feel environmental impacts need to be pretty much at the top of the list,” he says, suggesting that businesses might be incentivized to measure their carbon footprints and say how they intend to reduce them, and be audited on their green credentials. Good employee care and social benefits to local communities are also important, he thinks.

The government can do much to help food businesses by supporting public procurement, and this is one way that environmental criteria can be imposed. But there is a balance to be struck. “If it’s too stringent, it frightens companies off. They’ll say they’re better off supplying the pub down the road, or Tesco’s or Morrisons.” This is especially true as long as the margins on public sector food are tight, compared with the tourist trade. Understanding the environmental impacts of food can also be complicated and controversial, which is another reason for a pragmatic approach.

Another cause of hope that he sees is the Well-being of Future Generations Act, although it “probably needs to accelerate slightly”. Linking as it does economic prosperity with environmental sustainability and community cohesion, as well as promoting collaboration between government, business and communities, the Act is a foundation for a better Wales. Food is an obvious way of joining up all the dots and drawing people into its vision – an opportunity, therefore, for food businesses to build on recent public concern about food supplies.

“When Covid started, food and health care shot to prominence. Now we want to harness this. Where can we take this economic benefit of dealing with Welsh manufacturers and Welsh suppliers?”

This article was first published on the Wales Food Manifesto website.

farmers market stall

The vital role local authorities could have in shaping food systems

First published by the Sustainable Food Trust, 4 May 2020

In a world where most of us buy our food from big food retailers with global supply chains, and governments set the policy framework, it might not seem that local authorities have much of a role to play in our food system. However, they still have control of the ‘old infrastructure’ of markets, food safety inspections and roads, and they have much responsibility for food and food production, including school meals, meals on wheels and the provision of allotments. They are also the voice of local food, reporting back to national government, and they have a role in maintaining public trust.

Local government is therefore well placed to take a lead on local food security. That was the argument put forward by Tim Lang and others in a paper on why local authorities should prepare food plans for Brexit, recommending the creation of Food Resilience Teams that would conduct audits and make risk assessments, consulting with appropriate food-related professional bodies as well as local interests. Written in 2018, when concern was growing about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on food supply chains, it now reads as a dress rehearsal for the actual calamity that is COVID-19.

The rush on seeds, compost and local veg box delivery schemes that followed lockdown was a sign of public anxiety about the reliability of their food supply. For some, the threat was more psychological than real, as supermarket supplies are now returning to normal, but it does raise real questions about our dependency on imports. Meanwhile, for others, the loss of paid work and the requirement for some to self-isolate has meant problems with shopping or paying for food.

farmers market stall
Building food culture: Ceredigion County Council’s annual Sea to Shore event in Aberystwyth

Local authorities are at the forefront of responding to these concerns. In rural mid-Wales for instance, staff at Ceredigion County Council are making 1700 telephone calls every week to people judged to be at special risk and redeploying staff to cover essential functions. They are also working with the county’s food banks to monitor hardship and find long-term solutions to poverty – demand for emergency food parcels in Aberystwyth, the biggest town in the county, has gone up by 50% since the lockdown began – and the Council are in negotiations to provide more community spaces in which to grow food. The twice-monthly farmers’ market in Aberystwyth has been reinvented with Council support as an online hub, with collection at fixed time slots and with social distancing ensured. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic response by local volunteers means that most people not already monitored by the Council’s Social Services Department are being supported by neighbours and community groups.

In some cities, more formal partnerships are proving their worth. The Sustainable Food Places project (formerly Sustainable Food Cities) has been supporting food partnerships between local authorities, other public bodies and community groups since 2013. Building on the pioneering work of earlier food councils the project takes a ‘holistic, place-based and systems approach’ to local food, and their how-to guides emphasize the need for painstaking work to build trust and identify policy areas where community groups can make a real contribution.

There are pitfalls on both sides. Community groups can be quick to notice when they are being used to plug the gaps that austerity has left in the statutory services of government, while local authority staff may be nervous about political bias or fail to appreciate the many benefits that food can have in joining up policy areas.

This work is paying off in the present emergency. Food Cardiff, for instance, which has over 30 members including public bodies, businesses and charities, was able to set up a COVID-19 Food Response Group very early on. So far, the focus has been on emergency food distribution, although they have also worked with the Council to keep the allotments open. They plan soon to support growing food at home, working, for instance, with Edible Cardiff to distribute starter kits for growing salads and herbs with the food parcels.

Food Cardiff coordinator Pearl Costello describes how this group has weekly meetings to keep everyone up to date and avoid duplication. She also explains how important the Food Cardiff partnership was in brokering relationships between the Council and local volunteers. ‘It’s not just going to the Council and saying “can you do this?”, it’s saying “we’re here as a resource”…one of the things I didn’t want it to be is quite top-down, and thankfully it’s not that. It’s about collaborating and channelling resources to where they are needed.’ Food Cardiff have issued a briefing paper for other local authorities which also recommends support for growing fresh fruit and vegetables.

It’s a similar story In London, where the Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency is working in partnership with the Royal Borough of Greenwich and Charlton Athletic Community Trust to produce 200 food boxes every week. These meet the Eatwell nutritional guidelines and include fresh produce, catering variously for vegetarians, meat eaters and those without cooking facilities. Their approach is laid out in a briefing on food for vulnerable people in lockdown produced jointly with Sustain, and again, it builds on existing relationships. A recent briefing from the FAO also points out the crucial role of local government in responding to COVID-19.

How far, though, can these partnerships go? It is significant that the list of partners in Food Cardiff includes housing associations, universities, the health board, a food bank and a community market – but no supermarkets. The big retailers do contribute to their local communities, especially in supplying surplus food and with cash sponsorship, but it is an unequal relationship which is governed as much by expediency and conditions set by Head Office than a real care for the needs of a community. Their supply chain logistics do not favour local food production, either.

Another area that is perhaps not properly included in local authority food plans is farming. Some councils do see the potential of sourcing school meal ingredients from local farms and food businesses, and the Preston model of community wealth building is well known. But when Pembrokeshire County Council put 14th century Trecadwgan Farm on the market last year, it disregarded the offer from a local group to buy it as a community farm and sold it to the highest bidder instead, on the grounds of ‘severe financial pressures’.

How could local authorities raise their game and start to shift the balance towards more local food resilience? There are a few pointers towards a more radical approach. One is the way that many have declared climate emergencies and begun to work with citizen groups to find new ways forward. Another is a Welsh initiative, the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to work in a new collaborative way with community groups and businesses. This sets the scene for a social, economic, environmental and cultural transformation towards low-carbon prosperity and local resilience. Jane Davidson, one of the architects of the Act and author of a forthcoming history of it, thinks that food resilience could be a fundamental area for change.

‘COVID-19 has demanded new ways of getting food to consumers,’ she says. ‘One of the benefits has been the way in which local growers and producers have imaginatively responded to community food needs. When the immediate crisis finishes, local authorities should look to see if they could use the Well-being of Future Generations Act to require supermarkets to use more locally sourced products and thus build resilience for COVID, Brexit and climate change.’

Perhaps the disruption caused by the pandemic will allow government and citizens together to make a step change in our food?

Homegrown food makes a comeback as the pandemic changes everything

As supermarket shelves empty and local communities rediscover the value of self-reliance, the coronovirus pandemic has brought with it a surge in demand for homegrown food. The food chains we had taken for granted for so long now look less reliable under strain, and as we rush to grow our own and stocks of seeds and compost dwindle, we are having to think our food supply afresh.

Everyone is affected. West Wales-based market gardeners Alicia Miller and Nathan Richards knew something had changed when their phone “began to ring and ring and ring with people wanting to join our box scheme”, leading to a doubling of their numbers in one week, while national box schemes Riverfood and Abel & Cole are closed to new orders. “We need to invest in edible horticulture and grow far, far more than we do,” says Alicia, pointing out that only 56% of UK vegetables are grown here.

In Machynlleth meanwhile, the overlap of a new coronavirus support group with an existing food growing project, Mach Maethlon (Edible Mach), has led to an explosion of community activity. Organizer Katie Hastings describes how she was inundated with offers and requests – “people of Machynlleth were incredibly concerned about their food supply” – and within days, thanks to Zoom videoconferencing, they had a plan. Individuals and groups are now tackling the challenge on all fronts: finding land, providing online support to farmers who want to grow field scale crops, setting up a volunteer Land Army, making up seed and information packs for home growers, and coordinating cropping plans, distribution and resources.

This activity hasn’t come out of nowhere. Mach Maethlon has been growing vegetables in the area for eight years, with a box scheme, edible food beds around the town and a training programme for new growers, Pathways to Farming (shared with Cultivate in Newtown). They have built up knowledge, credibility and a strong network. As Katie says of the current push, “It’s all the things that we always thought needed to happen, but there wasn’t the energy to do them – and then suddenly in response to the crisis, all these people were like, ‘well I’m not working any more, I’ll do that right now!’ ” Their new website, Planna Fwyd/Plant Food, went live this week.

Machynlleth was one of the first towns to declare a climate emergency last year, and they are used to pulling together. Another high-powered town at the other end of Powys that is accelerating its food production plans is Crickhowell, home of the Our Food project. Coordinator Duncan Fisher explains how they are now planning to fund a new agroecological farming project in the area. “We are calling for Welsh Government and other big funders to create a fund to support new agroecological production,” says Duncan. “We are backing this up with action by creating a £30k fund with our own money. The first project is a polytunnel for Langtons farm.”

David Langton, who with his partner Katherine Robinson set up a project last year to supply microgreens to local restaurants, is starting a year-round box scheme at their new 3.5 acre farm. Construction begins soon on up to 200 vegetable beds, each 15 m long and run using the no-dig system. “We are applying for organic certification,” says David, “but more than that, we are committed to regenerative farming, which builds topsoil at the same time as producing food. Later we plan to introduce poultry which will help this along, as well as giving us eggs and meat.”

Our Food has support from Monmouthshire County Council, who are mapping local food production as part of the Monmouthshire Food Resilience project. Individual gardeners are a part of this, too. “The hobby grower is a vital part of the local food supply,” says Garden Organic trustee and local resident Adam Alexander, “so we are engaging gardeners and allotmenters through plant and seed exchanges, as well as providing guidance to those with no experience of growing their own veg.”  

Meanwhile community gardens across Wales are facing the challenge of keeping communities gardening while maintaining social distance. Some are reinventing themselves as hubs that can organize seed swaps and provide planting material for new gardeners. Others are planning to make video tutorials. From Porthmadog to Pembroke Dock to Edible Cardiff, new ways of tapping into public demand for support with gardening are springing up.

It isn’t just that more homegrown food is likely to become a practical necessity as  supply chains are weakened by Covid-19. Connecting with other people, and with the natural world, is as vital to our health in the long term as avoiding the virus is in the short term. Growing vegetables at home, at school and in the community brings people together. Buying from local farms helps regenerate rural economies and connects town and countryside. As we reel from the impacts of a global pandemic, we are finding new significance in the places where we live.

We can all do something to boost homegrown food. Find your local community garden, sign the Landworkers Alliance petition to protect local food supplies, write to your Assembly Member and MP and ask what they are doing about food security, set up a virtual farmers market in your area with the Open Farm Network, watch how-to videos at Huw’s Nursery, and put some seeds in the soil. It’s time to start preparing the ground for a new harvest.

Jane Powell is a volunteer coordinator of the Food Manifesto and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. She is an independent education consultant and writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

Featured image: tomato seedlings, by Jane Powell.

Local food: it’s not just about the numbers

A while ago, introducing a food event, I was advised to chuck a few numbers about to illustrate the difficulties the Welsh food system is in. Things like: the number of curlews has dropped by 80% since 1990; there were 157 food banks in 2018; over 28% of children are overweight or obese in some areas; and of course, food accounts for 9% of Wales’ carbon footprint. It was supposed to give the audience something solid to anchor the discussion and also to give them a slight shock. It’s that bad?

Numbers have that effect. They give us authority and clinch arguments, and people don’t often query a well delivered statistic. But they are also easily twisted to suit our purposes, and they can distract us from a proper consideration of important topics.

Local food is a case in point. It’s not surprising that advocates of farmers’ markets and allotments are so fond of talking about food miles. You can count them, you can calculate the carbon emissions you have saved, and then you can rest your case. Of course we don’t often literally do the sums, but we know that we could, or somebody could, and meanwhile the happy cry of ‘food miles!’ says it all.

What’s wrong with food miles?

The trouble is, it’s not quite true. A study published in Science and cited recently in an article from Oxford University puts the contribution of transport at 6% of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food. This is way behind food production itself at 72%, the rest being due to processing, packaging and retail. 

If you want to cut carbon, the authors say, forget about local food. You should be eating less meat, dairy and eggs, and cutting down on waste. You might also want to seek out foods that were grown with less artificial fertilizer and good environmental management, although it’s not so easy to find out which those are. It’s also contested: using fewer inputs means taking up more land, and so is actually worse, according to one study of organic food

This is a problem of course for the local food enthusiast like me. I feel a strong emotional pull towards eating locally, and organically, but is that all it is — a sentimental and irrational obstacle to progress? Maybe, but I don’t want to give up yet. The alternative is to drop the food miles rhetoric and be more honest about what it is we are really doing when we choose ‘the Welsh one’. 

Tomorrow I will be harvesting two bags of rainbow chard and three bags of salad from our community garden in Aberystwyth, and delivering them to a food co-op for sale. It’s a two minute walk from one to the other, as it happens, and we grow our veg in ground which used to be a lawn, without any fertilizers or pesticides. We make lots of compost and we have a wildflower area. So that’s pretty good — but it’s a drop in the ocean beside the huge volume of supermarket sales.

Food with a story

What is really important about this little transaction though is that it gives people a connection with their food, different from the one they get in the supermarket. This is food with a story. It inspires people to know that they are eating food that was grown down the road, by people they may have met, and so they value it more. They talk about it and spread the word. This is likely to translate into more volunteers for us and eventually to more people growing food in sites around the town, maybe supplying restaurants and shops. This creates food culture.

Community growing is also an opportunity to learn new skills and make friends. Ours may soon be hosting patients from a local doctors’ surgery that is experimenting with green prescribing, because gardening is good exercise and being out in nature makes us happier. We work closely with a supermarket surplus group who organize regular pay-as-you-feel community meals. Once, we supplied the leeks for a St David’s Day dinner in town.

We are excited about supplying the co-op (also run by volunteers) because it makes us feel part of something bigger. The co-op recently started to buy eggs from a local farmer, and a few of us went to visit him last week. He is planning to diversify into vegetables and would like to host visits for the public. He hopes to rent out some land to a microdairy, so then there will be milk and cheese too. He might even sell some meat. We will all have been part of making that happen.

Bringing people together

This small example shows the power of local food to bring people together. There are thousands of similar projects all around the UK, many much bigger than ours. They are probably not making much of a dent, if any, in greehouse gas emissions. But they are changing hearts and minds, and that might be just as important. The coronavirus pandemic, by reminding us of the vulnerability that comes with our globalized food supply chains, is driving the message home.

US anthropologist David Beriss has written about how we use local food as a response to the forces of globalization, making food distribution more human and giving us a sense that we are doing something. As he said in a recent interview:

I think what people are really interested in is the local community they create around food. They’re also trying to do something good for a local business when they go to a local food purveyor or shop at a locally owned grocery store instead of shopping at a chain. And they feel like they are helping do something environmentally positive. […] You go to the farmers market and you meet people and you create this kind of third space — neither family nor business. 

Of course, the numbers matter. We do need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from food production, and that will mean eating differently. But we don’t know exactly how we are going to get there, and there are many other changes to make to our lifestyles, to do with transport and housing for example. We are looking at deep social change, and an important part of that will be building the trust and cooperation that will enable us to let go of what’s familiar. 

If that’s the case, then local food has an important part to play because it is such a good way of building community. Perhaps we should trust our experience more, and not be so impressed by statistics.

Food is a gift of nature and human hands, not just a commodity

You can look at food in two ways. On the one hand, it is a substance, a product, stuff that we buy and eat. What matters is what nutrients it contains, what it costs, how it tastes, and maybe other things that can easily be measured, such as its carbon footprint. But food is also a process, a tangible point in an infinite web of relationships. It is what connects us to the soil, the natural world, our fellows, ancestors and future generations. It is a gift made by many hands and it contains our history and culture in every bite.

Both views are true, of course, but food-as-story is being squeezed out by a narrative that is all about the numbers. This is the basis for industrialization and extreme processing which finds its logical conclusion in synthetic foods such as lab-grown meat. The latest arrival on the scene is ‘farm-free foods‘, produced in a vat of bacteria and claimed to be more efficient than photosynthesis. It’s hard to argue with anything that reduces the human footprint on the planet and frees up land for nature, but let us look first at what we would be giving up if our three meals a day came from a factory.

One of my favourite jobs last year was writing the introduction for a book on artisan food, Gather & Nourish, from new imprint Canopy Press. It contains portraits of 13 businesses, including cheese, chocolate, vegetables, bread, gin and ale, each one explaining in their own words and photographs how they have come up with their particular responses to the challenge of feeding people. Their stories make a powerful case for seeing food as a central part of what it is to be human, as the source not just of nutrition but of mental satisfaction and spiritual meaning too.

Processing apples. © Willy’s Ltd

Take for instance William Chase of Willy’s ACV, who makes apple cider vinegar in Herefordshire. Originally a potato farmer, he moved into crisps and then set up a distillery before taking over an old orchard and stumbling upon a new project. In his words:

“While the distillery sales continued to grow nicely, an awareness that people were searching for an altogether more mindful approach to life…meant that I started seeing the apple crop around the farm in a new light. Here in the orchards was the means to make one of nature’s most potent, natural remedies: apple cider vinegar… I leave the cider vinegar raw and unfiltered, so the amazing ‘mother culture’ – a colony of probiotic bacteria that forms at the final fermentation stage – is alive and full of goodness…”

A small team of people handles the whole process from production to sales, and they even design their own packaging. Waste apple pulp goes to their own anaerobic digester and is returned to the land; packaging is glass, paper, cardboard and recyclable aluminium. Thus they produce an authentic product with minimal environmental impact and have built up a loyal customer following. What really comes through though is the satisfaction of what Chase calls ‘integrating tradition with innovation’, through a deep knowledge of his trees and methods.

The joy of making things

This is a theme that runs through the book: the joy of making things with our hands, of learning and inventing, and thus of making a bridge between the products of nature and human society. It’s the same with The Ethical Dairy’s cheese, fermented with bacteria unique to the farm, or the Bermondsey Street Bees foraging in the gardens of London, or Welsh business Chuckling Goat who make kefir products to benefit gut and skin health, and who rejected automation in favour of creating ‘a lot of high-quality local jobs’.

Kefir. Photo by Caitlin Tyler © Chuckling Goat

It takes great dedication to produce food this way, of course. High environmental standards have to be balanced with modern requirements such as hygienic packaging and maybe transportation to distant markets for sale. The weather can make things difficult and technological challenges abound. But you get the impression that facing these difficulties is central to the process of craft food and the inevitable compromises are conscious and creative decisions, rather than mere fudges. As Alan Davies of the Authentic Bread Company puts it:

“You will have to make great sacrifices, and take great risks, but the ultimate reward can be a flourishing business that represents your dedication to your beliefs and processes.”

It’s easy to dismiss artisan food as a middle class fad. But that is to miss the point. The real question is why good food should be the preserve of the well off and why many people are on incomes so low that they cannot choose how they eat. It’s true that artisan food is likely to be a minority interest for quite some time, but the principles that are illustrated in this book – environmental responsibility, rewarding work, authenticity – should be part of any food system. It’s also important to note that growing and making food by hand lends itself to community groups, schools and of course the home, and can be a catalyst for social change.

How artisan food is a force for change

An example at the end of the book illustrates the power of food business to change the world. Toast Ale is a social enterprise that turns waste bread into beer, using one-third less grain than conventional beer. Founder Tristram Stuart, who wrote a book on food waste in 2009, believes in tackling big problems with an upbeat approach: “Think of how many friends we could make with the 1.3 billion tonnes of food we waste every year if, instead of wasting it, we share it and build companionship with it.” Companionship, that is, in the original sense of the word, meaning the sharing of bread.

Toast Ale is also a certified B Corporation, which means that it has signed up to high standards of social and environmental performance, and belongs to a growing community of businesses that are setting out to change things in the UK, including vegetable distributor Abel & Cole, Divine chocolate and Danone yogurt. Business has a vital role to play in shaping the food system and by engaging constructively with it, not just as customers but also as enquiring food citizens, we can all be part of that.

Gather & Nourish is a beautiful gift book, but it is also a political document. This is how food can be, and one of the reasons that it isn’t affordable for all is that highly processed food grown with high inputs is artificially cheap. Who pays for the environmental damage it causes, the human health problems, the discontent of a low-paid and deskilled workforce and the cultural degradation that comes with rural depopulation? We all do, at the till and in our taxes.

Most of us are not going to start our own food businesses. But we can turn our hands to many of the activities in this book, such as growing vegetables, baking bread and even making cheese and kefir, and we can make more conscious decisions about the food we buy and eat. If we do, we will experience for ourselves the power of food to change lives and society, grounding us in nature and community.

Gather & Nourish: Artisan food – the search for well-being and sustainability in the modern world can be ordered online here at £19.99

Lessons from the past, in a loaf of bread

First published in English and Welsh on the Food Manifesto website

If you’re lucky this winter, you can buy a very special loaf at Machynlleth’s Wednesday market. Baked in a limited edition of six a week by Penegoes bakery Rye and Roses, it’s made from wheat grown a few miles down the road at Glandyfi, and milled the traditional stoneground, water-powered way at Felin Ganol, Llanrhystud. It’s many years since wheat was last grown at any scale to make bread in this part of Wales, and it’s the result of an experiment by a group of enthusiasts called the Dyfi Grain Growers. The group is also growing oats.

One of them is Katie Hastings, who also works for Mach Maethlon and has been growing vegetables for many years. “I have a real interest in feeding the local community, and I started thinking, would it be possible to grow our own bread and our own porridge here in the Dyfi Valley? And I found out that grains used to be grown all over the valley 50, 60, 70 years ago. People used to grow cereals on areas of land which people now say are unsuitable for food production, but really weren’t in the past when these native Welsh varieties were grown”.

Growing wheat in the Dyfi Valley, 2019. Image courtesy of Katie Hastings.

Katie and her colleagues embarked on a long experiment, learning how to plough, sow, harvest and thresh the grain. They harvested it by hand, and rather than use a combine harvester they borrowed a threshing machine from Meirionnydd Vintage Club. “When we were cutting the grain and making stooks in the field, people were coming down from the hills to see what we were doing, and keen to help,” she says. “Using the old threshing machine really allowed me to connect with the older farmers, because they had this machine that we needed, and they wanted to see us using it again. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without these older farmers showing us how.”

One of these is Alun Lewis of Penegoes, who remembers his father growing wheat, barley, oats and potatoes on the family farm, and eating home-produced bread, cheese, meat and vegetables, in an era when the Dyfi Valley grew a much higher proportion of its own food than it does now. Later he spent 27 years as a contractor, taking his threshing machines from farm to farm. Unlike a modern combine harvester, a threshing machine is static, and requires people to feed sheaves of wheat or oats into it, in order to separate the grain from the straw and chaff.

A threshing machine, courtesy of Ceredigion Museum.

“After the War every farm had to grow wheat and potatoes to feed people,” he says, referring to the local War Agriculture Executive Committees, or War Ags, set up in 1939 with powers to requisition land from farmers who did not comply. “Our records show that we were threshing on nearly every farm here in Penegoes then, and everywhere else, Tal-y-bont, all down that way, one farm after another.” As Alun and his father only had three threshing machines and they covered an area as far south as Llanon, there was a lot of pressure to get the work done. Fortunately, they were able to borrow an extra machine from the War Ag, and there was help from prisoners of war and the Land Girls.  

Alun has been sharing his memories with a project called ‘Mixed farming – histories and futures’, which is researching farming practices over the past two centuries. Together with oral histories from older residents organized by the lead partner ecodyfi, the project is looking at tithe maps from the 1840s, RAF aerial photographs from the 1940s, archive footage from the BBC and other documents. A Geographic Information System is being used to draw all this data together and provide a field-by-field overview of how land was used.

Among the historic data is a set of maps from the 1930s which were compiled on field trips by schoolchildren and their teachers. Hailed as the first investigation into land use in the UK since the Domesday Book, it identifies seven categories, including woodland, water and built-up areas, and shows how much more arable farming there was in the Machynlleth area in those days. The survey was organized by London geographer Sir Dudley Stamp, who saw it partly as an exercise in citizenship for young people, but the maps went on to make a real contribution to food security in the War.

Land use in the Machynlleth area in the 1930s. Dark brown = arable and market gardens, purple = gardens, orchards and allotments. This work is based on data provided through www.VisionofBritain.org.uk and uses historical Land Utilisation Survey map material which is copyright of The Land Utilisation Survey of Great Britain, 1933-49, copyright Audrey N. Clark.

Echoing this, one of the aims of the Mixed Farming project, whose partners include the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth University and Environment Systems Ltd, is to contribute to a public discussion about the future of farming in the area.

“These are turbulent times for farmers, and it helps to take a long view. Farming has changed enormously over the past century in response to economic and social changes, and it can change again. We want to make information and resources available to farmers and help inform the public debate,” says Chris Higgins, project manager.

Hen Gymro wheat, courtesy of IBERS, Aberystwyth

 It’s not just maps and memories that link us with the past. At Aberystwyth University, Dr Fiona Corke explains how they are maintaining a traditional wheat called Hen Gymro. “It was collected from Welsh farms in 1919 by Sir George Stapledon, first director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, and it’s known as a landrace not a variety, because it was a mixture of types adapted to the locality where it was grown,” she says. “The old wheats all have long straw, which was used for thatching, and they are low yielding compared to modern wheats. However, they were reliable, and now there is interest in them again, particularly from organic growers because they don’t need a lot of fertiliser”.

Backing the revival of traditional cereals is the Welsh Grain Forum, which is a network of millers, bakers, thatchers, maltsters, distillers and brewers committed to restoring a national grain economy. Key to this is creating a food culture that embraces regional variation, as grains evolve to suit different conditions. As Katie puts it, “We want people to taste the flavour you get from a mixed population of wheat, which is very different from flour you buy off the shelf. This loaf has the flavour of the Dyfi Valley, reflecting the soil and climate where it was grown.”

The Mixed Farming project is funded partly by the Ashley Family Foundation and partly by the European Union through Welsh Ministers. The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development has been made available through the Welsh Government, Powys County Council and the three Local Action Groups operating in the Dyfi Biosphere area: Arwain, Cynnal y Cardi and Arloesi Gwynedd.

The project runs until autumn 2020 and welcomes involvement from people interested in the history of agriculture in the area and sustainable food production diversification options. Please contact Ecodyfi to find out more.

two men sorting potatoes

Food from the ground up: the potential of citizen food initiatives

Ask people what they would like to change about food, and very often they say they like to be able to buy it locally, and to know where it comes from. Relocalizing the food system is important as a contribution to food security and a vital part of building a healthy food culture. Key to this is bringing together government policy with citizen food initiatives, which is why Renew Wales organized an event in Machynlleth in October to see what community food projects have to offer.

The Welsh Government put out two food policy documents for consultation in the summer, with October closing dates, and both have a bearing on this. One was about how to support farmers after Brexit puts an end to EU farming subsidies, and the other was about the future of the food and drink industry. Both are relevant to local food.

Farming and food businesses

First, farming. Sustainable Farming and our Land proposes a single support scheme with two main aims. One is to reward farmers for delivering environmental benefits such as biodiversity, clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration. The other is to support them to produce and market their products – including food – more effectively.

This raises questions about the relationship between farming and food production. Is growing food merely an income-generating activity for farmers, one that they might replace with glamping or forestry if the conditions are right, or is it a public service to the nation? Farmers lean towards the second aspect, as the NFU’s #proudtoproduce posters proclaim, but as they know better than anyone, they need to make money too.

Then, the consultation on the future of the food and drink sector, which was drawn up jointly by the Welsh Government and the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board. It had three aims. The first was to develop Welsh food businesses, the third was to promote Wales as a food nation, and sandwiched between those two came this one: ‘benefiting our people and society’. The idea here is that businesses who receive government support will ‘provide wider benefits through fair work, developing skills and using resources sustainably’.

Economy or people?

It was good to see this a nod to the social aspect of food, as thegovernment’s current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on jobs and exports. This had been a disappointment, given that the underlying strategy document Food from Wales, Food for Wales 2010-2020 took a much broader view, as its title suggests. It attempted to integrate food business development with health, education, community development and food security.

In fact neither policy document has much to say about the value of a thriving local food economy. Instead, they bow to the political imperatives of keeping farmers in business and boosting food industry jobs and exports. Given that farming relies heavily on producing red meat for export while the biggest part of the food sector by value is drinks – notably bottled water and gin – it’s not easy to join the two up.

Nevertheless, where there is an opportunity we must take it, and so at a meeting of community food initatives organized by Renew Wales at Machynlleth, both consultations were given an airing. What could these projects contribute to food policy? Eight speakers shared insights from their projects, and a further 25 or so participants from all over Wales took part in discussions.

two men sorting potatoes
Sorting potatoes at Clynfyw Care Farm

Some of the projects that were represented are working directly on local food supply chains, such as Riverside Community Market Association, Aber Food Surplus and Mach Maethlon’s Pathways to Farming project. Others, such as Borth Family Centre, have a primary focus on people, but use food as an activity to bring them in, and also do their bit to support healthy eating and reduce food waste. Clynfyw Care Farm artfully combines food production with social care, Incredible Edible Porthmadog has a focus on public education, and the Denbigh Plum is all about our food heritage. The Machynlleth Climate Emergency Food Group is researching a food plan for the area.

What was clear is how creative such initiatives are, and how little heed they pay to the boundaries between government policy areas. They draw people together, they prototype new food products and supply chains, they perserve food skills, they enrich our lives through the arts, and they generally change the communities of which they are part. They unlock enthusiasm and dedication from both staff and volunteers, and they care for people who are left behind by austerity and a competitive, materialistic culture.

Significantly, a few farmers attended the event too. As Brexit threatens big changes to their livelihoods, they spoke about their need for closer connection with their local communities and for their work to be appreciated. For them, the opportunity to sell food locally at a good price was a much better option than dependency on subsidies.

So what is the message to the Welsh Government?

Joining up policy

First, there is a strong case for using both areas of policy to support local food systems, and the community food sector with its adaptability and drive is well placed to support that.

The farming consultation already proposes improvements to local infrastructure in some cases, but this must be stepped up as it is central to rebuilding local food economies. Cold storage, distribution hubs, food processing and packing facilities – all of which could be made available to community food initiatives as well as larger food producers – would make local trade much easier.

This could be combined with a drive on public procurement, using the purchasing power of schools and hospitals to prime the pump of local production. The case for this has been made repeatedly, and the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales project recently produced a document with some clear calls for action, available here. Just this month, the Welsh Government has allocated £100,000 to Carmarthenshire Public Services Board to improve local food procurement as part of the £4.5 million Foundational Economy Challenge Fund.

Meanwhile, food businesses also have a key role to play, one which goes beyond job creation and export earnings. It is in everyone’s interests to have a vibrant food culture, with a mix of businesses from the artisan to the large-scale, and a strong story about food and place. The food industry also needs to attract young people, who care not just about pay and conditions, but also about the environmental and social performance of businesses. They want to work for companies that do good, and the food industry has great capacity for that.

Again, community projects are crucial here, connecting people and telling the story of food. Businesses could be doing more to support them, by making their facilities and expertise available, in exchange for a genuine connection with the public. The support they already give to their communities – from snacks for schools sports days, up to grants for capital improvements – could be better coordinated, too. At present it’s haphazard and sets groups up to compete when they could collaborate.

Local food strategies

A clear local food strategy which businesses, community groups, local health boards and others decided together, would be a start. Cardiff just published theirs and it includes community food growing spaces, limiting fast food outlets near schools and a revamp of Cardiff Market. Other areas of Wales could take a lead from them. Government could play a role in bringing people together, as part of its delivery of the Future Generations Act (and incidentally, the Future Generations office is collecting ideas from the public here).

Citizen food initiatives are numerically small, but they are powerful. As Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food argues in this video, they draw people together, building trust and creating spaces for new ideas to emerge. By creating alliances with politicians, local businesses and the public, they can amplify their effects, creating real force for change.

We need more of that in Wales. Community initiatives can do what government and business can’t, and they deserve to have more influence. Meanwhile, please sign the petition for more local food in Wales here: www.localfoodpetition.cymru.