Reflections – Food & Our Future discussion event

A quick few personal reflections after our Food and Our Future event last night. These are more a response than an account, so if you weren’t there then apologies as you’re getting much less than half the conversation.
Firstly thanks to all the people who came – really brilliant turnout – and even more to our excellent speakers, Chris Mould, Liz Dowler and Adrian Phillips, and Kate for firm chairing.
I was glad Adrian Phillips took the macro-economic line he did – talking about the profit motives that lead to our unhealthy, unjust and wasteful consumption and shopping habits. Lots of points well made. I’d add a caveat though – I think the profit motive is pretty integral to being human, and something we can live with or even make into something positive occasionally – but it becomes dangerous when a lot of power ends up in a few hands, and the corporate power over our food supply demonstrates that danger nicely in those poor health, injustice and waste impacts.
Amidst strong statements on the need for greater justice in access to food,  Liz Dowler mentioned that despite recent rises and food poverty, we don’t actually pay that much (say, the full production costs) for our food, and that this is another source of injustice. I’ve often reflected on this: we used to pay far more for food and far less for housing. The reversal of that has impacted horrendously on a poorly paid (local and global) farming sector and as Liz pointed out on those working for supermarkets on zero hour contracts, as part of forcing down prices for food many of us then waste.
Funnily enough, I seem to find myself making a point about community economic resilience and strengthening the local food economy – across rural and urban areas, to better redistribute responsibility, power and profit and shorten the chains. Hopefully it’s understood that this isn’t about thinking you can feed Birmingham from a few fields of hinterland, but about catalysing the structural/economic changes that are essential for sustainable development.
Lastly this was another forum in which there was some discussion of the comparative merits of “just getting on and doing it for yourself” (directly helping a foodbank to feed hungry people) and the duty of the state to do something (abandon some of the more inhumane benefit changes). I find this debate a little frustrating – also often heard about environment action –  because it’s so obvious that the one needs the other, and that if you do the one you need to do or at least support the other. I doubt anyone really thinks you shouldn’t help out at the foodbank because it only encourages the government to penalise the poor. As well as the direct impacts, by doing the brilliant work they do to help real people, Chris Mould can (and did, to us) put the case more powerfully to those who need persuading than can those of us who just observe.
Alongside helping food banks we have a duty to adopt responsible diets ourselves: in reducing meat and dairy, paying as fair prices as we can, eating seasonally and wasting much less. We need a good diet as fuel for speaking out against injustice and working towards structural change.
There will be plenty more to report- watch this space for more.
Karen Leach

Food for Thought for Food & Our Future on 14th May

Our discussion event on food poverty, food access and health – Food & Our Future in the West Midlands – is exactly two weeks away now and getting booked up already, so do book now.

We want this event to highlight some of the basic facts around food poverty, food access and health issues, and explore root causes of these problems and what can be done about them. Perhaps ambitious for a single meeting, as the root causes are complex and encompass global food systems, UK retail and consumption patterns, and the increase in general levels of poverty in the UK. We will only have time to scratch the surface, but it’s a surface more of us need to scratch.

Some thoughts on the issues our speakers might bring and LWM’s take on them.

Chris-MouldChris Mould heads The Trussell Trust, whose food banks fed 913,138 people across the UK last year of whom 330,205 were children. The Trust were recently inundated with donations in response to a rather nasty Mail on Sunday article.  Benefit payment cuts and delays were a major cause of the 51% increase in food bank visits over the last year – causing over 500 UK clergy to write in protest to the Government. This cause of food poverty is, quite simply, a general one of financial hardship, with food or heating being the choice people were often forced to make over winter.

Adrian Phillips will also be speaking, as Birmingham’s Director of Public Health. The main food-related public health issues that occur to me, are food access and obesity:

Food access is a very relevant issue in the conurbation. Many people on low incomes live in ‘food deserts’, as mapped and tackled an excellent piece of research in Sandwell some years ago that has gone on to shape Sandwell’s food policy. Food deserts are where fresh or everyday food cannot be found within easy walking distance. They have increased as our diverse and distributed range of local independent shops have been replaced by large drive-to supermarkets. Areas like Sparkhill show how healthy, diverse local competition amongst independent grocers can create an excellent affordable food offer in low income neighbourhoods, but it would take much effort for this culture to be replicated in areas where it’s not the norm. Until then, the supermarkets that cause the systemic damage in the first place often become its most likely solution at local level. A sound business model.

Another massive food access factor locally is Birmingham wholesale markets, which are being moved to the city’s edge to make room for more prestige development. The wholesale markets support a massive amount of food access across and beyond the city, including many independent food outlets catering for the entire breadth of the conurbation’s diversity. The retail markets – closely connected to the wholesale – are the single most crucial place in the conurbation for a great number of people of all income levels and cultures to buy fresh food at affordable prices. These markets deserve far more recognition than they gain, and formed a case study in LWM’s recent MCED research.

Obesity is a problem partly related to poor food access in that often people in low income areas can only access unhealthy food: Birmingham City Council recently introduced restrictions on new fast food outlets  in an effort to reduce this. Then of course there are the food-health factors that don’t relate to poverty: the food industry’s emphasis on  prepared foods full of sugar, fat and salt, for example; parents having little time to cook properly as they work overtime to pay over-inflated housing costs; or education and understanding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe third speaker will be Elizabeth Dowler, Professor of Food and Social Policy at the University of Warwick, and a member of the food ethics council, which tells me “rer recent research includes: rights based approaches to food poverty; food security; nutrition and public health; evaluating food/nutrition policy and local initiatives; ‘alternative’ food systems and networks, especially consumers’ perspectives and benefits and exploring ‘reconnection”. All highly relevant. She was recently involved in headline-creating research into food aid and food poverty for Defra.

The event chair will be Kate Cooper, who is chair of the new Birmingham Food Council . Similar city-wide food policy initiatives have happened in Bristol and Manchester. We can look to them to avoid re-inventing wheels.

Both Manchester’s and Bristol’s food initiatives cover the essential connected issues of sustainability, strengthening the local food economy, and food justice – aiming for a healthy, sustainable and resilient food system. They take peak oil and climate change seriously, and consider how we can maximise our sustainable food production capacity to gain resilience. They also both pay keen attention to resolving food poverty.

As a lightning tour of Bristol’s food policy initiative, it started with the Who Feeds Bristol report,  which emphasises the hugely important role of their wholesale markets in feeding the city and the threat to it from other parts of the food industry. It recognises the need to build diversity and balanced competition back into our food system in retail, processing and distribution, and to strengthen the market position of farmers. (I learned at the excellent WDM meeting last week that the price share farmers get across the world has gone down from 50% to 10% over the last few decades: problems faced by farmers locally and globally). It then advocates an approach known as ‘Food Systems Planning’ in order to build afood culture for the city that has the health of people and planet at its heart.bristol food pic

There followed a Bristol Food Charter, the food policy council itself and a Food Poverty report, which concluded that

Lack of access to the necessary finance, coupled with inadequate physical resources (e.g. cooking facilities, local food shops, access to transport) and inadequate skills and social networks are central to creating food poverty”.

I hope that our event helps set the agenda for Birmingham’s Food Council around the same principles of food justice and of food system efficiency within environmental limits that Bristol and Manchester demonstrate.

So – we’ve not even touched on food waste, international food sovereignty and security or the great health and educational value of local growing schemes, but at too long already for a blog post you can see there’s plenty of food for thought there for us to get our teeth into over a couple of hours, and I hope this has whetted your appetite. But seriously – and very seriously – there are some striking issues of injustice and system fail here that I hope will fuel the sort of anger that leads to action and change.

I hope we’ll see lots of you at the event (click here to book). There will be light refreshments and drinks provided at the event, and any donations we receive for this above the costs of providing it will fund food bank activity – so please contribute (and count yourself lucky)  if you can afford it.

Karen Leach

PS – The event is a partnership between the Lunar Society, Localise West Midlands, Birmingham Leadership Foundation, Midland Heart and Nishkam Centre. We’re very grateful to Midland Heart and Nishkam for providing refreshments and venue respectively.

Time to change: Professor Lang’s challenge: embrace local sourcing

tim langSusan Press in the Co-operative News reports a challenge issued by Professor Tim Lang, Head of City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, to the Co-operative Group. It is time to radically change the way food is delivered and distributed to the Group’s 4,800 retail outlets:

“At a time of growing interest in locally sourced food, he thinks there should be far more support for producers supplying direct to local stores. He says: “I think the co-op has lost its way a bit. Back in the 19th century, the first co-operators led the movement against the adulteration of our food and sourced local food which everyone could afford.

Unfortunately, the Co-operative Group has gone down the road of emulating the supply chain model of its major competitors with regional distribution centres and centralised supplies . . .

“But our food supply is being more and more standardised by very big and powerful companies. There are more local artisan and special interest foods, so we have come a long way, but small producers are held back by lack of access to land, ownership of which is dominated by large landowners.”

One of Professor Lang’s current concerns is the growing concern around food security – the availability of food and access to it

He points out that worldwide, figures show around two billion people are going hungry and for the first time in decades the number of food banks in the UK has tripled in the last 12 months.

Lang says: “For the first time since 1945 we are living at a time of rapidly rising inequality, with around five million people living in poverty according to the recent report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission”. He looked at the history of the co-operative movement:

“In 1994, the Group set up the Responsible Retailing Code, building fair and sustainable relationships with suppliers across its whole supply chain across the world, also leading the way on Fairtrade. It was pioneering stuff, but we need to be building upon that knowledge and working for more sustainable food thinking concerned with the future of biodiversity and our eco-systems . . .

“Like the other major retailers, the Co-operative Group goes for cheap meat reared on cereals. Around 40 to 50 per cent of our cereals are fed to animals. We need more grass-fed meat and dairy and we all need to eat less meat and double consumption of fruit and vegetables because we are storing up huge problems for the future  . . .

“We don’t need supermarkets offering 35,000 lines or people working hard to earn enough money to buy a car so they can drive to the local hypermarket. We need to look at what things will be like in 2050; the effects of climate change and the billions more people there will be on the planet. We need to establish a good food culture which is also good for the environment.

“Stores have to have better access to local food with a shorter supply chain and we have got to re-design the whole food system because frankly it is environmentally crazy.”

Read the whole article here:


Professor Lang was the first to coin the term ‘food miles’ – in the 1990s – to describe the distance groceries have to travel to reach us. He was invited to set up the London Food Commission in the 1980s with the Greater London Council, which did some of the earliest work on the effect of food poverty. He pointed out the damage done to school and hospital meal services by government policy, making a major contribution to the Food Safety Act (1990) and the creation of the Food Standards Agency (2000). He has been a consultant to the World Health Organisation, a special advisor to four House of Commons select committee inquiries on food standards globalisation and obesity and was on the Council of Food Policy Advisors to DEFRA.