Published on the Organic Centre Wales website in May 2015
Writing in the introduction to Feeding Britain, the all-party report on food poverty published in 2014, the Bishop of Truro made a plea for a discussion about values. As he put it, “We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state.” He went on to describe how we have lost the glue that holds society together, that is, the informal networks of families, neighbours, community groups and so on that people can turn to in a crisis, and how we need to put it back.
Food poverty is often framed as the problem of certain unfortunate individuals, an attitude betrayed by suggestions that if only they knew how to cook from basics, they could afford to eat on a tiny budget. The Feeding Britain report suggests however that food poverty is inevitable in an economy where the minimum wage does not allow people to live with dignity and it calls for radical moves to put the situation right.
At a recent conference on food poverty in Cardiff, the lesson that emerged for me is that our entire society suffers a disconnect from food, buying much of it in prepared form, processed with sugar and salt, and never having set foot on a farm or grown so much as mustard and cress. No wonder that obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and all the rest are affecting our quality of life, while our farmers are at the mercy of the commodity markets and public subsidy.
Our Food Values project, which has been running for six months now, has been looking at some of the underlying values that determine people’s attitudes to food. We’ve supported food events with local partners in Cardiff, Newtown, rural Gwynedd and Aberystwyth (twice) and talked to people about food. What does it mean to them? How important is local food? What’s their favourite recipe? Do they grow food themselves? How do they decide what to buy? And what is organic food all about?
As we expected, food is very close to people’s hearts, and everyone has a view on it or a story to tell. It connects us to each other and to the local area, it is associated with cooking and growing skills passed down through the generations, it is precious and should not be wasted, we want the people who produce it to be fairly rewarded. These conversations brought out, through food, some of the fundamental values that we live by: those of meeting our own basic needs for security and health, looking after ourselves, caring for others, creating pleasure, finding our own way in life, caring for nature, and creating a just and peaceful world.
Which brings us back to the Bishop’s plea that we look to our values, and begin a much larger and deeper conversation about how we live together. The organic movement has a vital contribution to make here. Based as it is on principles of health, ecology, fairness and care, it has always been aware of the social context of food, and promoted a vision of a healthy soil supporting a healthy human population. In this view of things, food is not so much a commodity as a human right.
Happily, although the values by which we live have clearly resulted in an unjust society where some people are going hungry, food is also an important part of the solution. At a soup event organized by a church in Cardiff in February, a young man living in a hostel and getting by on a mixture of low pay and benefits came in off the street and accepted a bowl of (organic) soup and bread, which he wolfed down before eyeing up the fruit and vegetable display nearby. It was a sobering reminder that there are people for whom a food event is just that. We talked about why we were doing it, and he said “Yes, food is like music, isn’t it? It brings people together.”
Our project has shown some of the power of food to connect people and to start a conversation about the food system and the society we want. We will present the results at our closing conference on 3 June in Cardiff, where we will explore how a shift in values might improve food security and sustainability for the people of Wales, and also how food itself might be the means of building a more just and sustainable food system in balance with nature. We have also produced a set of publications which are available here.