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.

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.

Soup and success: how food gives young people skills for the future

It’s mid-morning at the Llandrindod Pupil Referral Unit. A sleepy-faced teenager shuffles through the main classroom, calling over her shoulder that she’s “off to water the plants”. We follow her outside, where a trough of parsley, basil, coriander and oregano stands against a sunny wall, together with neatly aligned pots of strawberries and some pea plants that are bearing their first pods. She picks one and tastes it.

“Every day they go out there, they water those plants, they care for them,” says Linda Gutierrez, one of the teachers at the Unit. She explains that the produce finds its way into the meals that staff and students share at the centre, but it’s clear that the benefits of gardening and cooking go far beyond producing a few herbs. It is about nurturing young people who are falling through the cracks and drawing them back into shared activity with others.

ladling soup

Food is an important part of life at the PRU, which takes young people who are not able to study in mainstream education because of emotional and behavioural problems. “Some of these children have never sat at a table to eat properly – they don’t have that interaction with their family,” says Linda, who works hard to improve their social skills. “They’re not very good at joining in, so we eat together, we cook together, so they’re getting that social interaction. You learn a lot about a person by having those sitting-down chats over a meal, and they learn a lot about you.”

Linda’s affection for her charges, and her pride in them, shines through as she shares stories of their quirks and breakthroughs. Life at the PRU however is not just about providing a substitute family life for vulnerable young people. Like anybody else, they need an education and preparation for employment. The staff therefore build on the role that food already plays in the Unit and teach a Food Technology GCSE. They also have their learners take part in a Welsh Baccalaureate Enterprise and Employability Challenge, which involves developing and marketing a food product suitable for sale in a farm shop.

Linda explains the process. Working as a team – numbers fluctuate at the PRU, but for this challenge there were just three of them – they visited Penpont farm shop, Llandrindod Market and other places to research ingredients and choose recipes. They came up with Flash Soups – ‘a flash of energy’ – and designed a logo, packaging, a sell-by date, allergen information and an (imaginary) social media campaign. They held taste tests, tweaked the recipes and the shared the final results at a Young Carers’ social evening.

She shows me the videos they made as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate accreditation. One girl reflects on the tasting sessions, explaining with teenage clarity her rejection of all blended soups and weighing up the relationship between appearance and taste. Another has a more commercial eye, and is interested in how the team worked together: “The one thing that stood out doing this project was that if people were absent from a meeting we had to delay making important decisions…The business world is not as easy as I thought”.

As an add-on to the soup challenge, Linda arranged for them to take an online Food Hygiene certificate. This gave them extra confidence – it’s a qualification that not many teenagers have – and it even enabled some of them to find part-time work in local cafes. And of course, they learned a lot about nutrition and how to cook healthy food for themselves, the life skills which Linda and her team instill “by stealth”.

The plan is now to build on the challenge for next year by growing their own vegetables at their other site in Brecon. Through a skype link we talk to her colleague Terry Holmes, who takes us on a virtual tour of the new garden. Raised beds are planted with tomatoes, savoy cabbages, courgettes, snap peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, red onions and chives, and there’s a compost heap waiting for the peelings. The plants are still small and full of promise in the freshness of mid-June.

Here we meet a third student who has been working on a planting plan. He speaks in monosyllables but it’s clear how much he cares about the garden; he’s been googling to find out what’s in season and has his eye on some giant pumpkin seed, which Linda promises to help him find.

courgetteThe PRU’s food activities also give it links with the wider community. Staff and pupils have visited various gardens in the Social Farms and Gardens network, including Ashfield Community Enterprise near Llandrindod, to learn new skills. Linda has also signed the garden up for the RHS school gardening scheme, which provides information sheets, teaching ideas and advice.

As she says, “That’s what’s so nice about working in a PRU. We can be really creative, because school doesn’t work for these children. We still have to educate them, but we can find other ways to get their interest”.

Terry sums it up, referring to the youngster we just met: “We said to him only this morning, ‘How does it feel when you’ve grown something from a seed?’ And he said, ‘it’s a nice feeling, to nurture something and keep watering it every day, to see something grow’ – and you can’t believe how much the courgettes have grown!”. The same could be said for the young people themselves.

Local food: reinventing the village shop

First published on Food Manifesto Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the food industry meets the public

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridging the disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

chefs serving soup

Turning consumers into food citizens

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

Some words are so powerful that we don’t even notice the effect they have, because they frame our thinking so completely. One such word is the term ‘consumer’. We are all so used to hearing about consumer choice and consumer rights, as well as being bombarded with advertising and images of wealth in the media that drive consumerism, that we accept this limited view of ourselves as merely people who buy things. Instead of being active citizens who participate in society at large, we find our value in the status that our lifestyle gives us. Of course, consumers can use their purchasing power positively for change, but it is still a narrow perception of our potential, and one which does more damage than we might think.

A 2012 study called Cuing Consumerism found that encouraging people to think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens, for instance by showing them pictures of luxury goods or merely using the word ‘consumer’, made them less likely to act in a cooperative way and even evoked feelings of depression and anxiety. The implication is that referring to the public as consumers, and filling our public spaces with advertising, may be creating a society that is unhappy and ill-equipped to collaborate on the challenges which it faces.

It also follows that if we could be freed from this narrow conception of who we are, and become ‘people’ or ‘citizens’ instead, we might reform how we see ourselves and unlock fresh energy and vision. The New Citizenship Project is a social innovation company set up in 2014 to catalyse this process and build a more participatory world. It recently partnered with the Food Ethics Council and other organizations including the RSPB, the Coop and the Food Standards Agency to explore how the story of the self-interested, passive consumer shows up in the UK food system, and what a shift into active citizenship might mean.

The Food Citizenship report documents many encouraging examples of this approach in the food system. While the power of the consumer is limited to making choices about what to buy, a citizen will feel more responsibility for how food is produced, not merely reading the label but enquiring more deeply into the food chain. Open Farm Sunday, for instance, allows the public to meet and engage with farmers face to face, going a step beyond merely exhorting them to blindly back British farming, while food hubs such as the Food Assembly allow people to shape their local food system in partnership with producers. The People’s Food Policy, for England, takes this approach to its logical conclusion, giving the public a role normally reserved for government.

As we switch our mindset from consumer to citizen, we unlock big changes. The report describes how the language of serving, policing, informing and competing gives way to a new vocabulary: facilitating, enabling, engaging and collaborating. Customers become partners and NGOs don’t lobby so much as build movements. Vexing questions are reframed: instead of asking how food can be made affordable for all – pushing prices down and devaluing it – we ask why so many people are hungry and demoralised, making it difficult for them to be proactive citizens who help shape the food system. Recognizing that basic inequality, we can tackle it at its root.

The shift into food citizenship is well illustrated by the public response to food waste. From the point of view of the consumer, there is hardly a problem at all, although government programmes may encourage us to change our habits. Meanwhile, for business and government, it’s an unintended consequence of an otherwise very effective food supply chain, a loose end that needs to be tied up, most contentiously by using it to solve another modern scandal, food poverty.

But the citizen in us feels outrage, strong enough to wake us up from the trance of consumerism. Food waste, we realize as we contemplate mountains of rotting produce, is not just profits thrown away. It is an insult to the workers who grew it, the people who could have eaten it, the animals that died to produce it and the wildlife that its cultivation displaced. It is a symbol of the way that we have put profits before people, and a negation of our humanity. In response, community groups have sprung up with their own solutions, making a stand for values of care and justice.

One such project is the Brixton Community Fridge, which allows businesses and households alike to pass surplus food to a good home. Others, such as the Transition Bro Gwaun food surplus café in FishguardAber Food Surplus in Aberystwyth and a global network of Real Junk Food cafes, make creative use of surplus food – mostly perishable items that need to be eaten promptly – to power community development, not merely passing it on to local charities but also using it for community meals and cafes that draw people together for discussion and friendship.

They may measure their results in terms of tonnes of food saved from landfill, or carbon dioxide emissions averted, but their real significance is arguably the way that that they transform our relationship to food. The vegetables, fruit and bread that they collect are no longer consumer items, with all the associations of choice and profit that implies, but nor are they waste, and so we come to them with fresh eyes. For a moment, as a crate of carrots is handed over from the supermarket or as bowls of soup are ladled out at the community meal, we see food as the gift that it always was, and ourselves as human beings, equal in our dignity and vulnerability. Then a new conversation starts.

Sat around the table, breaking bread with our neighbours in traditional fashion, we ask the questions that are the business of the citizen. Does everyone have enough to eat? Are we producing healthy food? Are we caring for the soil and our wildlife, and are we rewarding our farmers, processors and cooks fairly? Are we bringing up the next generation with the skills and awareness they will need to feed themselves properly? We consider what sort of food system we want to see in our town, and ask ourselves how we might help that to happen. People volunteer for the community garden, organise seed swaps and discover a new interest in local politics.

Because the shift from consumer to citizen, although it starts with a stirring in our deeper selves that is about values and feelings, can in the right circumstances lead on to action. Through taking part in surplus food projects we discover our own agency. Something that had been a very general concept – a better world for all, a stronger local community – becomes grounded in the particular: I peeled those carrots for these people, you delivered those grapes to that hostel, she enjoyed the fruit crumble we made, we raised this much money for a homelessness charity. Such things are good and we can do them.

In this way, community food projects radicalize their participants. It isn’t easy; the people who lead them are well aware of the ambiguities of their work, as they patch up the holes in a leaky food system and bump up against the failures of social care, often for little or no pay and with a precarious hold on their premises, supply chains and staff. But there is a determination that arises from the vision of a better future.

As Heather McClure, a recent graduate of Aberystwyth University and a director of Aber Food Surplus says, “We’re not here to help supermarkets with their public image, or to solve the problem of food poverty. Our work might seem to fit that story, but to me, food waste distribution is a lens through which to look at our food system. It’s our entry point, and we want to make big changes.” The food citizen has their work cut out.

The power of food businesses to do good

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

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

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

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

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

THE SHIFT FROM CONSUMER TO CITIZEN

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

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

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

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