Putting farming in the context of wider society – the work of WRFFC

Republished from the WRFFC website. We’ve now done five of these events and people still worry that we don’t have enough farmers. I wrote this to explain why we have exactly the right number.

People who have been to the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference, which has now been held every November since 2019, tend to speak highly of it. They say how much it inspired them, how much they learned and how good it was to spend time with like-minded people. And then often, as if they might have been taken in by something too good to be true, they will add: “but how many farmers do you actually have?”

The short answer, at least at Lampeter in 2022 for which we did analyse the ticket sales as best we could, is about 13%, together with a similar number of growers, and a further set of consultants and advisers working with them, so that perhaps 30% of the delegates were closely connected to commercial land management. That may not seem a very high percentage for a farming conference, but it makes perfect sense for an event that aims to put farming in a wider context.

First of all though, let’s look at the question. Why are people so keen to see a good turnout of farmers? Certainly, there is concern about intensive farming methods and a desire from some to have that debate head on. And others see that farmers might be missing out on something that would be very helpful to them. Ultimately though, I think the concern is that if farmers are not part of the discussion, then it loses credibility.

This reflects an understanding that farmers (and growers, and fishers) manage a vital connection between human society and the natural world. Farming poses dilemmas that relate to the economy, food security, wildlife, flood management, animal welfare, tourism, the Welsh language and health, to name just a few. The heat and sometimes acrimony associated with these topics – most recently, tractor protests against the Sustainable Farming Scheme – is a measure of how much is at stake, for all of us.

But land management and our food supply are too important to be left to farmers and growers alone. There is some justice in the complaint that farmers are being required to shoulder much of the burden of achieving Net Zero while the rest of us carry on much as before. How many of us, going round the supermarket with our trolleys, check labels to see where our meat, veg and milk came from and how they were grown, and choose to reward good farming practices out of our own wallets? How many of us have created wildlife habitats in our gardens, or reined in our car use, or supported projects that share cooking and gardening skills in the community?

The debate must go wider, and that’s why we have the other 70% of the delegates: community food organizers, nutritionists, environmentalists, food businesses, vets, educators and food traders, to name a few. Farmers are at the sharp end of food production, and we need to build a healthy food system around them. That is ultimately the purpose of our event.

At our fifth conference in the agricultural college at Llysfasi, we had sessions on farming itself, looking for instance at flood management, livestock health, emissions from dairy farming and soil analysis. But we also explored local food trading, community composting, beekeeping, seed saving and a host of other topics, illustrating how food runs through our society and connects us all. Iwan Edwards’ talk following wildlife from gardening to the landscape was a particularly powerful statement of that, and Prof Tim Lang’s call for a civil food resilience framework was the inspiring conclusion.

This isn’t just about showing the network of transactions that links the farm (whether in Wales or elsewhere) with the table. More fundamentally it is about building a culture of respect and a sense of community. This in turn creates the safety that arises from deep commitment and allows difficult questions to be faced. Farmers are facing tough challenges at the moment, but they are going to come to all of us in the end. We need to stick together and work things out.

It helps here to have a vision. A healthy soil is the foundation of healthy crops and livestock and therefore of human society: that was the founding principle of the Soil Association (hence its name) and a similar vein of thought runs through the later arrivals to the progressive farming movement, notably regenerative farming and agroecology. That is a view which has wide intuitive appeal, and it gives farming (and growing) a central and honourable role in a greater whole. It is that whole that the conference exists to serve.

In a session on ‘the way forward for farming and nature in Wales’, which featured three farmers, it was interesting that the conversation moved towards public education and school visits. I think it is in these settings that we can ask the most fundamental questions about what farming is for and where food comes from, and begin to mend the gap between farming and the towns and cities most of us live in. It was heartening to hear in other sessions the work now being done on school meals in Wales, which draws on earlier work by the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme, and by the local food partnerships.

Finally, the conference is about personal stories. In the opening session, Llysfasi principal Elin Roberts drew a line between her grandmother’s resourceful farm diversification a century ago and the creative drive of the students at Llysfasi, while Sarah Dickins, organic farmer and former BBC correspond remembered the miners’ strike that she covered early in her career in calling for a just transition to agroecological farming. We are all in this together.

And so the question is not “how many farmers came to the conference” but “what quality of connection did the conference make between farmers and the rest of the food system?” On that measure, I think we did very well.

Image: Amber Wheeler

Attending the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is a political act

As the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference fast approaches, on 1-2 November, it’s strange to think that this is our fifth one. Each one has been so different that it’s hard to see them as a series. Following the model of the Eisteddfod (but minus the Pavilion!), we move around Wales and reflect the character of a different locality, combining it with the latest twists in the national policy scene.

This year we’re at Coleg Cambria Llysfasi, the agricultural college near Ruthin, Denbighshire. Northeast Wales may not get much national airtime, but it has a thriving food culture. Pioneering agroecological farmers, community groups, producer groups and food businesses abound, and are populating the programme, just out.

And after two days of intense conference activity – including a dinner with entertainment on the Wednesday night – there will be field trips to local farms and food projects on the Friday, following last year’s popular innovation. Meanwhile, catering by Coleg Cambria’s Yale Restaurant, featuring a mix of local and organic ingredients, will provide an inspiring example of how food culture can stimulate agroecological production.

Local and national

The purpose of the event is to bring Welsh food activity together, so that everyone involved in food – which is all of us, ultimately – can see the bigger picture of which we are all part. There is certainly plenty happening in Wales.

Opening the event will be Sarah Dickins, familiar to many as the BBC’s former economics correspondent, and who is also an organic farmer in Monmouthshire and member of the Wales Carbon Net Zero 2035 group. Closing it will be Tim Lang, with a powerful message about how Wales must adjust to the global challenge of food security.

In between, we will hear from the new local food partnerships that are springing up across north Wales, consider the potential of repurposing county farms, examine what the Sustainable Farming Scheme means for the relationship between food production and nature, looking at the true cost of food production and how it is to be paid for, and asking how we can square healthy affordable food with good livelihoods for producers.

As well as policy, there will be plenty of discussion of the practicalities of food production, including beekeeping, perennial green manures, profitable business models for small-scale growing, hydroponics, sharing growing skills in the community, medicinal plants and homeopathy for livestock health, and heritage apple orchards. There will also be interactive networking sessions, and permission to sit in the cafe or go for a walk if you need some space to think.

Food citizens

Inevitably the conference will involve much technical discussion between public and voluntary sector staff, but at the heart of the conference is the food citizen. That means that whatever hat we wear, whatever tribe we belong to, we show up as people who belong to families and communities, appreciate the place of the human family in the natural world, and are prepared to take responsibility for this.

That is why we are delighted that while we are hosted by Llysfasi, we are also being welcomed by local groups such as Ruthin Friends of the Earth and Denbigh Community Food, who are helping variously with facilitation, stewarding and publicity, and by Denbighshire County Council’s Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Real change must come from the grassroots, so that we take people with us. But citizen action needs to mesh with public services, and so this year we are inviting ‘keynote listeners’ from Welsh Government and the Future Generations Office to attend the event and feed back their impressions in the final session.

As the new Future Generations Commission Derek Walker has chosen food as one of the focus areas for his seven-year term, this gives us a special opportunity. How exactly do ordinary citizens, concerned perhaps about river pollution, animal welfare, the rise of food banks and disappearing farm birds, influence public policy? How do we amplify their voices, while also bringing in the rigour of scientific knowledge and ensuring fairness for competing demands?

A political act

Attending the conference, then, is not just an entertaining couple of days out. It is a political act, where we come to learn, make new connections and above all show our faith in a better way of doing things. It is a positive choice for the future and a step into leadership.

We have had to put our prices up this year (although please note that the booking fee has gone). That’s partly inflation, and partly because last year we had extra sponsorship which meant we could keep prices down. As ever, we are very grateful to this year’s sponsors whose generosity makes the event possible, along with our volunteers, chairs and speakers. We hope that you will support us again and join the movement for good food in Wales.

Book your tickets now

Intensive Poultry Units and the Well-being of Future Generations Act

Article published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs on 4 April 2023

A public demonstration against intensive poultry units (IPUs) outside the Senedd on 15 February was just the latest eruption of public concern over the pollution of the Wye, Severn and their tributaries, which is blamed on the explosion of intensive poultry farming in Powys over recent years.

This demonstration was organised by grassroots community group Sustainable Food Knighton who successfully brought a case against Powys County Council in 2020 after they gave permission for a new poultry unit without proper consideration of the environmental impact. The event brought together a range of concerns. 

River pollution was the primary focus of campaigner Angela Jones with her ‘Death of the Wye’ coffin. Nutrients from livestock manure and fertiliser running into rivers cause algal blooms followed by a serious loss of biodiversity, and it’s not just IPUs. Dairy farming, horticulture and sewage are also implicated. 

For the rest of this article, which discusses the role of the Welsh government and the Future Generations Office and calls for stronger citizen involvement in the food system, see the IWA website.

Image: Sustainable Food Knighton

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.


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.


chefs serving soup

Bringing Aberystwyth around the table

This article originally appeared in Aberystwyth’s Ego magazine

A large glass jar is crabottles of sauerkrautmmed with chopped white cabbage, carrots and apple, mixed with some salt. As each layer goes in, it’s bashed with a wooden pestle. Finally the jar is full and the vegetables are pushed down under the brine that’s naturally formed, and set aside to pickle over the next few weeks.

We’re here to learn the art of making sauerkraut, from fermentation expert and food writer Annie Levy, who’s come over from Llanidloes for the evening. The demonstration over, we sit down to dinner. There are about 25 of us gathered in St Paul’s Methodist Centre enjoying a selection of curries and we’re part of a Pay As You Feel pop-up community café, making new friends over food and developing plans to change the food culture of Aberystwyth.

For the Aberystwyth Food Forum, food isn’t about fine dining so much as bringing a community together through food. Some of the vegetables in the meal have been supplied by AberFoodSurplus who collect waste food from local supermarkets. So far, they have set up links between Morrisons and local charities including the Wallich, the Salvation Army, and the Care Society. They have also provided food for educational events that have aimed to raise awareness about food waste, including one at the university.

The group has plans to do much more, so that all the food that supermarkets reject – perfectly good to eat, but needing to be used promptly – goes to a good home. They want to engage with more retailers and charities and have had interest from several other businesses in town. To do this, they are seeking premises to cope with the large volumes of food available, and maintain health and safety standards.

The Forum also wants to involve more people in growing food, whether in community gardens, on allotments or at home, and to work with schools, the university, local farms, cafes and others to bring people together over healthy food that invigorates the local economy and builds social links.

You can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/aberfoodforum and on Twitter.

It’s our food system which is in poverty, not individuals

According to research at Bangor University, the number of food banks in Wales increased from 16 in 1998 to 157 in July 2015, apparently as a result of welfare reform and austerity policies. For a generation accustomed to the notion that starvation is something that happens in places like Africa, it is hard to believe that people in this country are going to bed hungry, so perhaps it is not surprising that food poverty generates an emotional response and a refusal to believe it even exists.

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

At an event I attended a while back, one woman spoke out forcefully. “People who go on about food poverty these days don’t know what they’re talking about! Real poverty was back in the 1930s, when people were really destitute. They never threw anything away then and they really knew how to cook with leftovers. Nowadays we just waste food. I’ve delivered food parcels to so-called poor people and I’ve seen their houses – they’ve got televisions and they eat takeaways. They just need to learn to cook from basics and there wouldn’t be a problem.”

There was an uneasy silence around the room. Her dismissive attitude was painful to those of us who have heard some of the stories of poverty in modern Britain, as the all-party report Feeding Britain made clear. We didn’t want to leave her assertion unchallenged, but how to respond respectfully? We didn’t find a way at the time, and we moved rather swiftly on, but I think her point deserves proper consideration.

I think she was speaking up for values and skills which have been lost. In the 1930s – or perhaps in her idealized version of it, it doesn’t matter – Britain was still a relatively traditional society with a much closer link to food production than we have today. Food took up a high proportion of people’s income, and so you didn’t waste it. You kept the bones from your chicken (which you hardly ever bought anyway, because it was so expensive) and made soup. You bought actual potatoes and boiled them, and fried them the next day.

I think she was speaking up for thrift and resourcefulness, for a world in which food is valued and shared, keeping families and communities together, and she was regretting the rise of consumerism and the fragmentation of our society that has accompanied it: the TV dinner, the ready meal, the over-packaged buy-one-get-one-free baubles that we are sold instead of nourishment.

Who could disagree with that? There is of course something wrong when people choose consumer goods over nourishing food, in the obvious sense that good nutrition will make you happier for longer than a flatscreen TV will.  And basic cookery skills could help many to improve their diets. The trouble with her remark I think was not that she was wrong in her starting point, but that she didn’t take her argument nearly far enough. She was content to pass the blame on to the nearest convenient suspect and leave it there.

Instead of shouting her down, maybe we could have honoured the values that she was speaking up for and explored them further. We could have agreed that we waste too much food nowadays, with an estimated 30-50% of all the food that is grown being thrown away – whether left in the fields, or discarded by the supermarket, or left in the backs of our fridges to go off. We could have agreed that growing your food and cooking from scratch is a great way to eat healthily and lamented that so many people have not had these experiences and have only ever known processed food.

We might also have agreed that as a society we have become ensnared in consumerism. We are likely to find our sense of belonging not in sitting round the table sharing a meal, but in having a smartphone like our friends, or the right trainers, or the right car. We have let the advertisers tell us that we need a steady supply of shiny new gadgets to make us happy, and to sell us food in the basis of its attractiveness, convenience and addictiveness, not its nutritional quality.

We could have agreed that food is in fact essential to life, and that it deserves a higher priority. We might have found more examples of this: the rushed lunch hour in schools and offices, the children who don’t know that milk comes from a cow, the scandals of horsemeat and BSE, the pesticide scares, childhood obesity, the high levels of sugar and salt in processed food, the bankrupting of dairy farmers and the fate of the battery chicken.

There wasn’t time to explore all this in the meeting but I think if we had, we would have seen that our whole society is out of alignment. We have put economic growth, status and immediate gratification ahead of feeding ourselves properly, and it is inevitably the poorest who are going to be affected most, simply because they always are. Maybe they don’t have cooking facilities at home, maybe they can’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the local shops, maybe they’re disabled or very old, or maybe they have such pressures on them that healthy eating, however important, falls down the list.

And then we would have got to the nub of the matter: singling out the poorest in our society for criticism of their eating habits not only misses the point but unfairly adds insult to injury, blaming the weakest and letting ourselves off the hook. Ensuring that everyone has enough to eat is one of the most basic civic duties there is, and it falls to each of us to ask ourselves what we can do to create a healthier society, where everyone has a place at the table, and food is grown in a way that doesn’t deplete our soils and warm up our climate.

I think now my answer would be: “You have raised a very important point, although I see it differently from you. There is indeed something wrong when people rely on emergency food aid. It shouldn’t happen in a rich country such as ours. And I also think that in many ways we had a better attitude to food in the 1930s, and that we have lost a lot of skills and values, and that has caused problems.

“But I don’t think people who use food banks are any different from the rest of us – most of us could do with better housekeeping and eating more healthily. Rather than blaming individuals, let’s look at the wider context and get to the roots of the problem.”

Food poverty means the poverty of our food system and we are all part of that. Are we ready to see ourselves as citizens and step up to our responsibilities?

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?

Food, values and the power to transform

In September, I was invited to speak in a debate about food and land at the Small is Beautiful festival. This annual event, which commemorates the work of economist and visionary thinker Fritz Schumacher, was held at the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth and brought together activists, artists, scientists and others to help shape a new future based on development that serves human needs.

The Food and Land Debate had four speakers on the theme of the commons and the corporate sector, and I spoke last, on the promise of a cheery ending. First was Patrick Mulvany of Practical Action (the new name of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, based directly on the work of Schumacher) who talked about seeds and the trend for excessive corporate control of our genetic resources through breeders’ rights and patenting. Quoting Jose Luis Vivero Pol he said:

“Let’s make ‘food as a commons’ a subversive meme (an element of the counter-hegemonic culture that replicates, mutates and spreads from one civic food action to another) to substantiate the transformational narrative to confront the dominant mainstream discourse of ‘food as a commodity’.

Let’s make commons food common.

Let’s commonify the commodity…”

Next, Humphrey Lloyd of the Land Workers Alliance, himself a small-scale grower, gave a potted history of land ownership in the UK, covering the Enclosures, mechanization and the Common Agricultural Policy, ending with the fascinating suggestion that if everyone in the UK chipped in with £460, we could put the entire land area into public ownership and create the food system we want.

Neils Corfield from the Permaculture Association brought home the perils of corporate neglect of the commons with a beautifully illustrated talk on the impacts of industrial farming on soil, air, water and biodiversity, concluding that ‘food is not a production problem’, and that the big business is engaged in the wrong sort of intensification.

Visual minutes

Visual minutes from the event, courtesy of creativeconnection.co.uk

Then it was me. I had left myself just a few days to work out how our food values work fitted with the distinction between the commons and corporate control, but I was sure there was the germ of a good idea in there. Sure enough, when I thought about the values associated with the two approaches to food, something extra popped out beyond the obvious comment that the commons is about community, benevolence and universalism, while the corporate sector is about power, status and security.

The key to finding the positive message is I think in the observation, well documented in the social psychology literature, that our values shift according to the conversation we are having, or the setting we are in. So if we are gardening with friends at the allotment, or we visit a farmers market and talk to the producers, or we share a meal with a community group, we will engage values of sharing, compassion, generosity and benevolence. If on the other hand – maybe even on the same day – we visit a supermarket, with its array of tempting goods, canned music and fluorescent lights, we are likely to focus on price and appearance, and the main values engaged will be those to do with personal gain, security, status and hedonism.

This works both ways of course, but it does mean that even the most hardened corporate consumer, once placed in a setting where the ethos of the commons prevails, is likely to start seeing things differently. Picking strawberries, say, on a sunny day with a bunch of schoolchildren makes it that little bit harder to worry about money and whether we are have the latest smartphone. Shopping at a farmers market puts us in mind of quality and provenance, and we don’t look so closely at the price label.

So those of us who work in the food commons are actually holding a lot of power: the power to give other people a transformative experience, even a life-changing one. That is important, because it’s easy to despair when we see the size of the corporate food sector. It has shaped the thinking of a generation and seemingly carried all before it. But we need to remember that the corporations only have as much power as the public gives them, and when we demonize them we give away even more of our power, leading to the burnout and despair that can so easily overtake the enthusiastic activist. Maybe we could instead remember that the corporate sector, like the commons, is run by people, and people can always change.

It’s up to us, I think, to align with our deepest values and find our power again. This is the power of authenticity and integrity and it is surely worth trying. As Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Talking to the politicians

This article appeared in the Daily Post on 1 October 2015

Next year, Wales gets the chance to have a new government. What would you like the politicians to campaign for in the run-up to May’s elections?

A group of food researchers are working on a manifesto that will tell them what sort of food system the people of Wales want to see in future, and we would like to hear what you care about.

Food touches every area of our lives. Take food waste, for instance. UK supermarkets run on a system where in order to keep the shelves fully stocked with fresh food, a high proportion of perfectly good food is routinely thrown away.

Action is being taken by the likes of FareShare Cymru to distribute the surplus food, but maybe it’s time for more drastic action.

In France, supermarkets are obliged to give their unsold food to charities or for animal feed, and are banned from throwing it away. Should we try that here?

Most of us waste at least some food at home, too. Maybe we bought too much. The government cannot do much about that, but how about more cookery lessons in schools and in the community to encourage people to prepare healthy meals, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating together?

There is increasing interest in growing our own food, too. But in Wales there are very few skilled horticulturists, and we end up importing most of our fruit and vegetables, even those which could easily be grown here. This is a complex problem, one worth tackling by government.

Welsh agriculture is central to the food system of course, and it’s important to sort out our policy on land use. Do we farm for export markets, or for home consumption, or a bit of both?

What do we want our farmland to do? Grow food, encourage wildlife, prevent flooding, look beautiful and attract tourists? Government policy has a major role to play here, through subsidies and other forms of support.

Government can also affect markets, for instance by requiring local authorities and other public sector organisations to make it easier for Welsh food businesses to supply schools, hospitals, prisons and so on.

More local food in school meals?

It might cost a bit more than imported food, but then it also gives farming a boost. Which do we want to see?

And then there’s the question of food banks. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Inquiry report, Feeding Britain, found that more and more people are turning to emergency food aid: wages are low, social networks are weak and the food system is no longer resilient enough. What are we going to do about that?

Partly it’s a problem of poverty, and partly it’s about the food system itself, which delivers high quality fresh food to some, while others live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh produce, and shops stock highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden products.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value our food, and that comes down to how we see our society and the environment.

In a recent research study led by Aberystwyth University, we shared meals with refugees in Cardiff and pensioners in Gwynedd, as well as schoolchildren, students, organic farmers and many others.

They all discussed how food connects them with family and friends, and how they wanted to see the best quality food available to everyone.

They wanted to see food skills being passed down the generations. They thought it mattered where food comes from – that it shouldn’t be an anonymous commodity, and that the person who grew it got a fair price.

Our food system doesn’t quite work like that at the moment, but it could.

It’s time to ask for change from our government, and it’s time to make changes ourselves. Start growing in your back garden. Join a community garden. Seek out food in the shops that fits with your values – animal welfare, local, organic, as it may be – and be prepared to pay a little more for it.

Find another way altogether of buying it, perhaps through a veg co-op or farmers market. Try out a new recipe and visit a food festival this autumn. Organize a community meal at your church, mosque, school or workplace. Donate some high quality food to your nearest food bank.

And write in to the Food Manifesto. It’s at http://foodmanifesto.wales and http://maniffestobwyd.cymru.