By Jane Powell
As the English National Food Strategy stimulates fresh thinking across the UK, Wales is digesting the implications for its own position. Although there have been many food strategies and action plans since devolution, they have all been partial, leaving vital policy areas unconnected. Farming for instance is about meat and dairy, the food industry celebrates high-value items like gin and ready meals, while the health message is to eat more vegetables.
What we do have, though, is a promise by the new Labour government in Wales to develop a Community Food Strategy during its term in office. Although it is not clear how this will work at a national level – how much of our own food should we try to grow, what are our global impacts? – there is a lot to be said for this approach.
Importantly, working locally brings things down to earth, literally. When ideals like sustainability, resilience and social cohesion interact with the history and current reality of actual places, the difficulties show up and a dialogue can begin. Where do we want to be, and how can we get there?
Then we ask questions like is the food bank able to meet demand, which shops are selling locally grown food, what cooking and gardening skills are our young people learning, and how do we coordinate community meals so that we don’t double up? We see the contradictions as our children eat chicken from Thailand in the school canteen while our farmers cannot make a living from producing food, while leisure centres sell unhealthy snacks and supermarket abundance ends up in anaerobic digestion or is offloaded onto food banks.
Another reason to focus on place-based action is the sheer energy of the community food scene. Across the UK, grassroots projects are organising gardening sessions, distributing supermarket surplus food, cooking community meals, linking with farms to buy local produce and much more. As a result, staff and volunteers discover that they have more agency than they realized and develop an appetite for deeper change. This is the shift from consumer to citizen.
In Wales the Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015 provides a channel for this civic enthusiasm. The Act requires local and national government, and other public services, to involve their stakeholders in decision-making and collaborate with them on long-term change. In theory therefore a community food strategy becomes a national food strategy, crowd-sourced in the 22 local authority areas.
In practice, such change is difficult and the old ways of working will be with us for a while. Nevertheless it is an inspiring story, with some good examples. Food Cardiff has been around for a while, and a regional conference in southwest Wales recently brought a wide range of stakeholders together to share their visions for change. These initiatives reach out into the countryside, where there is concern about the proliferation of intensive poultry units in Powys and the sale of whole farms for carbon offsetting in Carmarthenshire.
Talking is of course not enough; we also need infrastructure. This means kitchens, access to land, distribution hubs, cold storage, processing facilities, training and much more, allowing more people to join in the effort. There is a case for food businesses to share some of their facilities and expertise in order to build a food culture that would benefit them as well, encouraging shorter supply chains and regenerating rural areas.
Such a bottom-up approach faces formidable obstacles. Some are psychological. Most of us are so used to our comfortable lifestyles that it is hard to contemplate the realities on which they are built – the low-paid farmworkers, the overworked truck-drivers, the decimated wildlife, the loss of traditional skills and of course the fossil fuel that holds it all together.
Just as unsettling is the fragility of our just-in-time global food chains, something that is becoming increasingly obvious. Our instinct for self-preservation makes us look away, although for many people, even in the UK, hunger is already here.
And it isn’t just about material comforts. We also lack the solidarity that would enable to us to take charge of our futures. Rather than extend ourselves to work with others who see things differently, we prefer to stick with what we know.
Community food projects can be the antidote to social fragmentation. But they have their own difficulties, including conflicts over resources, unequal partnerships, burnt-out volunteers and strict hierarchies. We need new ways of working, from community to government, and more spaces – virtual and real – which are dedicated to the common good.
The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference to be held online on 24-26 November 2021 will be looking at the Community Food Strategy and asking how citizens can shape it. Please come along!