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.

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?

Filling the streets with food

Outside the library in Machynlleth is a set of raised beds with herbs and salads growing in them, plus hazel arches which in summer bear beans and squashes. In the carpark of the nearby Coop supermarket, there are redcurrant bushes, rhubarb and more herbs. Round the back of the Plas, there are picnic tables with apple trees growing up through holes in the middle and troughs planted up with thyme and rosemary.

woman with herb planter

Katie Hastings of Edible Mach, with the herb bed outside the Coop

This is all thanks to a project called Edible Mach, which engages teams of volunteers to maintain eleven plots around the town, growing food for the public to pick and adding an unexpected twist to public spaces – flowerbeds with a difference. It’s inspired by the original Incredible Edible project in Todmorden, the Yorkshire town celebrated for its dedication to public vegetable growing, where the police station is famous for the sweetcorn in its front yard and the concept of ‘vegetable tourism’ was born.

We were there for a course on how to ‘Fill the streets with food’, which included a guided tour of the Machynlleth project and tips on how to get started. Growing vegetables in public spaces is sometimes known as ‘guerrilla gardening’ but it’s better done with the full consent of the local authorities, who see much to gain from the unlikely vegetable beds: less litter, more neighbourliness, local colour. Councils are often willing to make land available, and local businesses to sponsor materials and plants. Volunteers are of course vital to the enterprise, and in turn gain from the social interaction and sense of contribution, while paid staff are invaluable in holding a project together and looking for new opportunities.

People had come from all over mid Wales to find out more, and there were enthusiastic discussions about what we could do in our home towns: a raised bed here, an apple tree there. The big question though seemed to be: where do the volunteers come from and what keeps them going? Who are these people who are happy to give up their free time to grow food that for the most part they won’t even get to eat? Will the initial enthusiasm last?

This led on to a discussion about selfish and compassionate values, and tied in nicely with research from the Common Cause Foundation which says in essence that people are more altruistic than they are given credit for. Most of us have a strong allegiance to values such as kindness and justice, and really want other people to be happy, even if we are fickle and easily panicked into looking after Number One. However, we tend to think that it’s just us that wants to contribute to a better world, and that everyone else is driven by the profit motive. We always put money into honesty boxes, but we are pretty sure most other people don’t. And so we go along with the general assumption that other people are selfish and have to be bribed and coerced into doing the right thing, and because that is a soul-destroying way to relate to each other, we give up.

edible mach libraryInterestingly that gap between holding compassionate values ourselves, but thinking that other people don’t, is particularly marked in Wales and leads to a general pessimism about our neighbours which holds us back from positive action. If we only realized how much other people care, we might not feel so much embarrassment about asking them to contribute to community projects, and we might create a positive spiral of good actions, building higher and higher levels of trust and cohesion.

Growing vegetables in public spaces is powerful because it makes altruism visible, in exactly the same way that giant advertising hoardings promote the profit motive. Visitors to the library at Machynlleth see that their fellow citizens have gone to the trouble of creating a pleasant experience for them, providing both beauty and food, and that challenges their assumptions about selfishness. It creates trust and shows that people are valued as humans and citizens for once, not for their spending power and their achievements. It reminds us that we are all equal in our need to eat, and that providing food for each other is one of the most basic human obligations. And that is maybe why people want to help keep the vegetable beds attractive and productive.

Putting the glue back into society

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.
soup event

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.