“People, not potatoes”

At the end of 2022, I kept my calendar fairly clear for a couple of weeks so I could have some dedicated time to reflect on the past year and look ahead to the new year. I was gently grumpy during this time, because firstly, I hate a blank page and I didn’t know how to start. And secondly, I love people and conversation, so a quiet calendar is not my favourite thing. I won’t write about the whole process, but I wanted to share this piece that I wrote during that time, because it captures something that I hope will resonate with others doing similar work.   

In thinking about what difference food citizenship can nourish in 2023 and beyond, I am struck by many things.  

Like the variety of spaces and places I have presented and debated food citizenship at – with Stir to Action in Oldham, at the Cambridge Food Poverty Conference, with Ulster University’s final year Consumer Management and Food Innovation students, at the Social Farms and Gardens NI Spring Gathering, with the Food for Life My Food Community cohort, and many more besides.  

And the many people I have talked to one-to-one without an agenda or obvious reason for chatting, which has always resulted in something valuable but not immediately tangible – an introduction or connection that leads to a collaboration, a report shared that means we’re not duplicating effort, a piece of regional knowledge you wouldn’t have if you weren’t rooted in a place. Or just a conversation that lifted spirits or made space for sadness, frustration, or anger. 

And then just waiting, knowing that something tangible will happen sooner or later – because my role resources me specifically to find, make note of and share connections and knowledge. It is really hard to articulate the importance of this. It is not direct service delivery. But it has its own value as a different and necessary part of the system. 

Yes, I can count how many people I’ve spoken to, how many workshops I’ve delivered, or how many articles I’ve written. But my work is about mindset shift and narrative change, and the impact of that is not easy to capture let alone measure numerically.

There must be something about the energy that is collectively generated when talking about food, power, and injustice. It is like nothing else I have encountered. Because everyone eats. And food is more than food.   

In 2023 I am going to spend more time thinking about what a role like mine can unlock. This is an articulation of something I have been feeling for a while. I can best make sense of my work if I see it is a vehicle for creating or unlocking potential – by sharing resources and practical tools, asking questions, listening to and creating space for people and organisations to reflect, and writing about what I am noticing and learning.

Although I sit outside of some important spheres of work and influence (i.e. direct grassroots provision), I am embedded within others (i.e. good food movement network). This is a rich environment in which to notice and share the disruptions, transitions, successes and failures across the many organisations and movements working in some way towards a food citizen world.  

So that I can value my own work, and really feel like it is more than a luxury or a ‘nice to have’, I must really understand the value of connection. If a big part of the food citizenship mindset is the belief that things can change, and we can change them, I must be comfortable that a role like mine can make change that is greater than the sum of its parts. Put one way, it’s a kind of social acupuncture – finding, noticing and amplifying the pockets of hope and energy so that people and organisations can imagine a better future and see themselves in it. Put another way, it’s facilitating ‘hope with teeth’. Not passive hope but hope as an action. Hope as a revolutionary act.  

Lastly, rather than rigidly thinking of the food citizenship work as a movement, I have found it most helpful to see it fluidly as a movement and a network, with elements of a campaign. These are different forms of change, and each needs different forms of organising, measuring, resourcing and planning. It is messy. But life is messy. I have struggled to think of neat outcomes, and easily measurable impacts, I think because there aren’t many here. 

I will be working to find richer ways to capture the difference that food citizenship makes, and the difference that the Food Ethics Council and my role specifically make. I’d love to hear from you if any of this has resonated with you or your own work.  


Recently, I had a brilliant, mindset shifting conversation with the very smart and kind Jade Bashford at the Real Farming Trust about some of the tensions I was experiencing. She said ‘yes, it’s because you’re dealing with people, not potatoes.’ This made me laugh so much but it’s absolutely right. I don’t have produce that can be easily weighed at the end of a day or month. Instead, I have a big, rich jumble of insights, quotes, challenges, news and data. And although I love potatoes, I wouldn’t change a thing.