On food businesses, innovation and values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding future generations: the need for collaboration

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

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

Collaboration works best over a meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using surplus food to power community growth

This was originally published on the Food Manifesto Wales site

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

three women in a cafe

Serving customers at the Fishguard Transition Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

woman weighing carrots

Behind the scenes: weighing produce

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

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

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

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

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

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.