The impact of Covid on the Welsh food industry: a view from Castell Howell

By Jane Powell

Castell Howell has come a long way since its beginnings on a Carmarthenshire farm in the 1970s, and is now one of Wales’ biggest independent wholesalers, with depots in Merthyr, Blaenau, Chirk and Avonmouth as well as its headquarters in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire. But when Covid struck, the foodservice business lost 60% of its business almost overnight. Their main customers are catering outlets such as universities, sports stadia, venues and school kitchens, and is not clear when many of these will start serving food again. The company has had to put 400 staff on furlough and doesn’t see sales returning to normal until 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s been challenging, disastrous,” says Ed Morgan, their Corporate Social Responsibility and Training Manager, “but that is shared by our customers, who are in a precarious position, and our suppliers. We’re not alone.”

The company has had to adapt fast and find new markets.  One step has been to open its wholesale business to the public, using ‘click and collect’ to maintain social distancing, and changing its purchasing to source food in smaller quantities for the retail market. They have also been supplying food banks and free school meals schemes.

A significant boost to their business has come from local authorities looking for ingredients for their emergency food boxes. At first the Welsh Government was supplying these directly, but Ceredigion County Council negotiated a cash payment instead and chose to give their business to Castell Howell as a local supplier. Other councils followed suit.

Ed sees this political decision as a significant step forward. “I’d like to think there’s more of an awareness across local authorities about where food comes from,” he says, referring to the way that staff have been taken away from their regular duties in order to meet the councils’ obligation to feed vulnerable members of society, by packing and distributing the food boxes. “Instead of being involved in transport or town planning, they’ve been hands on with food”. He hopes that food procurement will now receive a cross-departmental focus, reflecting its significance for the local economy and communities.

Public procurement – buying food for care homes, the NHS, school meals and so on – is one of the constants that Castell Howell sees as crucial to its future. “We have a team of three dedicated to this market, but recently they’ve been introduced to different suppliers and different ways of doing things and we’d like to maintain the momentum. And push it upstream of the Welsh supply chain,” he adds, citing the government’s support for the foundational economy, including a public procurement project in Carmarthenshire.

Castell Howell depends of course on a strong supply base. As Ed Morgan lists some of the products they source from Welsh companies – roast chicken, bottled water, desserts – it’s clear we aren’t talking farm to fork, although Daioni’s UHT milk is a recent success story. Even the iconic Welsh cake is made from global ingredients. This may disappoint those who would like to see Wales growing more of its own food, and particularly vegetables, but nevertheless, there are important benefits from having a strong food industry. “There are opportunities to add value here in Wales and that in itself brings economic and social benefits,” he explains. “If big factories close that can rip the heart out of a community.”

He points to the crucial role of Welsh food policy in creating the conditions for food businesses to benefit the people of Wales. Having taken part in the government’s consultation on sustainable brand values, he thinks that companies should be encouraged to do better. “I do feel environmental impacts need to be pretty much at the top of the list,” he says, suggesting that businesses might be incentivized to measure their carbon footprints and say how they intend to reduce them, and be audited on their green credentials. Good employee care and social benefits to local communities are also important, he thinks.

The government can do much to help food businesses by supporting public procurement, and this is one way that environmental criteria can be imposed. But there is a balance to be struck. “If it’s too stringent, it frightens companies off. They’ll say they’re better off supplying the pub down the road, or Tesco’s or Morrisons.” This is especially true as long as the margins on public sector food are tight, compared with the tourist trade. Understanding the environmental impacts of food can also be complicated and controversial, which is another reason for a pragmatic approach.

Another cause of hope that he sees is the Well-being of Future Generations Act, although it “probably needs to accelerate slightly”. Linking as it does economic prosperity with environmental sustainability and community cohesion, as well as promoting collaboration between government, business and communities, the Act is a foundation for a better Wales. Food is an obvious way of joining up all the dots and drawing people into its vision – an opportunity, therefore, for food businesses to build on recent public concern about food supplies.

“When Covid started, food and health care shot to prominence. Now we want to harness this. Where can we take this economic benefit of dealing with Welsh manufacturers and Welsh suppliers?”

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant, writer and volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto. Her website is www.foodsociety.wales

Food hubs: bringing people together and revaluing food

By Heather McClure, Aber Food Surplus

The idea of creating food hubs appeared in numerous different contexts at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Aberystwyth last year. I hope to share a few thoughts on why I find food hubs an exciting way of working towards a more sustainable food system.

The word ‘hub’ implies bringing people together, and a ‘food hub’ suggests that people come together because of food. Driven by progressive organisations working towards more social and environmentally minded enterprises, food hubs have been gaining popularity in the UK over the last 10 years. This shows that people are inspired to work together, and that there is a desire for change towards a more sustainable food system.

Bringing people together is a central principle of a food hub

But what is a food hub, and what can it do? At the Conference,  people suggested many roles. All were presented as part of a solution and part of an opportunity for different aspects of our food system to flourish and become more sustainable.

Here is a summary of the different type of food hubs I heard being discussed:

  • ‘Producer Hubs’ – Supporting local smaller scale food producers to reach a market.
  • ‘Procurement Hubs’ – A focus on bringing in food to sell in quantity to institutions, offices, schools or hospitals.
  • ‘Redistribution / Food Surplus Hubs’ – there are lots of these popping up around the UK to deal with the environmental issue of supermarket and business food waste
  • ‘Waste Recovery / Value Hubs’ – A similar idea to a food surplus hub, but perhaps more focused on innovation and large-scale waste, to be used for creating a more ‘closed loop’ and circular food system. This could involve a focus on secondary products or by-products.
  • ‘Seed Hubs/ libraries’ – Challenging the ownership of seeds, building a more genetically diverse and resilient local seed base.
  • ‘Skill sharing hubs’ – small scale caterers or producers of manufactured foods can share the infrastructure and kitchen resources to operate self-employed businesses. These spaces can also be used for upskilling people in cooking.

This wide range of issues highlights what people want from our food system. Food hubs can enable more local decision-making powers surrounding food trade, and where our food comes from – an integral aspect of a healthy food system, where citizens have affordable access to food produced in balance with nature.

Furthermore, using these hubs, food does not go through the same valuing / de-valuing processes that it goes through in retail chains or institutional processes. Its worth is informed by people closer to where it is grown and eaten. Perhaps the food hub model of a food system could reflect the truer value of food? Where bringing people together within a transparent food system could showcase the enormous unaccounted value and power of food and food production, and produce a more circular and participatory food system.

The ECO Food Sharing Hub, Aberystwyth

In Aberystwyth, we have had an ECO Food Sharing Hub since March 2019. It is based in a former greengrocer’s shop on a busy shopping street, and was developed jointly by the community and the Aber Food Surplus project. Aber Food Surplus is a food waste redistribution project that started from conversations involving supermarkets, churches, community gardens, bakers, farmers, food banks, students, and charities who could see the community value that sharing food could foster. It was an idea designed in a ‘best fit approach’ to make food ‘waste’ available to the community – where it was ultimately intended to be all along – not in landfill bins!  

A shop window for doing things differently, on a busy street

Aber Food Surplus was founded in 2016, and the project continually highlights a strong desire for change in both our food system and our local area. There is a core team of three staff members and 35 volunteers that collect and redistribute the surplus food. This means the hub is always bustling. There is a kitchen where surplus food can be cooked up for community events, and a community fridge where food surplus is shared. The hub space aims to support knowledge sharing, entrepreneurialism, sustainability, and conversations about our food system. It also hosts the Aber Food Coop, which provides a weekly box of fresh produce to its members.

The ECO Food Sharing Hub is stimulating conversations about what else can be achieved by working together, and how else we can become closer to our food and food producers – a fundamental part of the community here in rural Wales. Through the conversations at our food hub we are evolving every day to become a town that has more knowledge and control over its food supply.

Food hubs have the potential to make change! If you want to be part of this conversation please get in touch. And if you are a grower or producer local to Aberystwyth looking to shorten your food supply chain please get in touch– our Aber Food Coop would be keen to meet you, visit your farm, advertise you, and sell your produce on a weekly basis!

Heather McClure is a director of Aber Food Surplus. She is passionate about the role of food in connecting us to nature, and hopes to see Aberystwyth growing more food and become a wonderful example of a zero food waste town in the near future. This year she is particularly excited to see how aubergines grow.

Working co-operatively for sustainable and just food systems

By Poppy Nicol and Alice Taherzadeh

Getting a veg box can be great way to get fresh, locally produced organic food. There’s also a high chance that you will be supporting a co-operative business or co-operative ways of working. Many local and sustainable food businesses are based on principles of co-operation rather than the culture of competition that we see in much of the food system.

Take Cae Tan for example. They are a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project which distribute a weekly bag of vegetables every week to their members around Gower, Swansea via their veg hub. Being a member of the scheme, though, doesn’t just mean you get a weekly supply of fresh food. It is also about meeting people. There are opportunities to volunteer and an annual Harvest Supper where members can get to know each other and celebrate the harvest. As the head gardener of another CSA, Banc Organics in the Gwendraeth Valley explains, CSAs are all about cooperative principles, that is:

“owning our means of production and the workers having a stake in things, having democratic control over things and basing them on things other than the market.”

Co-operative ways of working in the food system

In our new report Working Co-operatively for Sustainable and Just Food Systems in Wales we investigate the scope for co-ops in Wales to help us move to food systems which are based on both sustainability and food justice. The work was commissioned by the Wales Co-operative Party and members of the Co-operative Group in the National Assembly for Wales because they believe that sustainability and food justice should, and can, go hand in hand.

We spoke to twelve people from projects all over Wales, including the Wales Co-operative Centre, fruit and veg CSAs, a bakers’ co-operative, dairy co-operatives and a red meat co-operative. We were inspired by their commitment to co-operative principles, particularly within the sustainable food movement, and their desire to promote social change and food justice through their projects.

We also found out that there used to be far more co-operatives across Wales which enabled small producers and business to work together to share resources and bring local food to people’s plates.

Opportunities for working co-operatively

Currently there are very few co-operatives in the Welsh food sector. However, there is great potential to encourage many more with the right support and infrastructure. We found that when businesses and individuals act together through co-operative ways of working, they have more collective bargaining power, better access to resources and potentially more resilience in the face of change. The co-operative values of equity, equality, solidarity, self-help, self-responsibility and democracy are also more likely to promote food justice as they place people at the centre of the food system.

The challenges facing co-operative ways of working

But we also discovered that cooperative projects face a lot of difficulties.

  • Education, training and advice: Currently, there isn’t enough support for co-operatives working within the Welsh food system. The opportunities for training in sustainable food production are also lacking or more difficult to access because of short-term funding. There is further identified need for improving public information on the co-operative economy.
  • Infrastructure for local food economies: In all sectors producers often have to transport food costly distances (often to England) to get it processed or to get it to retailers as there isn’t the infrastructure to support local food networks here in Wales.
  • The real cost of food: The challenge of competing in a food system dominated by industrial production of cheap food. In this system the real cost of food is not recognised and food is produced at the expense of future generations being able to feed themselves and fair livelihoods for those working in the food system.

What can we do?

There is a lot of potential for Wales to make the big policy changes needed to achieve a food system which is both sustainable and just. Based on what we found in the research we think there are four key areas to strengthen the role of co-operation in our food system:

  1. More co-ops! Support community-led food co-operatives to get set up at all levels and scales to increase the number of food co-operatives and size of the co-operative economy in Wales.
  2. Co-operative processing and distributing Promote co-operative approaches to food processing and distribution such as food hubs which would help smaller producers share resources and reduce the environmental impact of transportation by keeping things local.
  3. Networks of training and education Connect up the training landscape in Wales so that there are strong networks for training in sustainable food production as well as linking food and farming into schools and universities.
  4. More veg! Increase small-scale horticultural and arable production by providing better access to land and training for new entrants and business advice for producers in the meat and dairy sectors who want to diversify.

Bringing everyone together: Co-operative Roundtable

After the report was published in December 2019, we were invited to participate in an expert-led roundtable event on January 14th 2020 at the National Assembly hosted by the Wales Co-operative Party and the Assembly Members who funded the project. The event brought together growers, politicians, charities, community organisations, and researchers all working at different levels of the Welsh food system. This included the CSA Wales Network, Food Manifesto Wales, Food Sense Wales, Land Workers Alliance Cymru, Open Food Network, RSPB Cymru, Social Farms and Gardens Wales, Sustain, Trussell Trust, WWF Cymru.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for a more connected and co-operative food system in Wales that makes better links between food production, environmental sustainability, public health and the education system. After we presented our report, Tom O’Kane, grower at Cae Tan one of the largest CSAs in Wales spoke to everyone about the opportunities and challenges CSAs face – including training opportunities, planning constraints and access to land.  Nick Weir from Open Food Network also explained the potential for community food distribution online via platform co-operatives.

The Cardiff round table

Several attendees argued passionately for the importance of wildlife-friendly, regenerative and ecological farming and local food economies in achieving a more sustainable and just food future. They also highlighted the need to scale out (increasing in number as distributed networks) rather than scale up (increase in size). There were many people who emphasised the multiple barriers that are faced by those wanting to create a sustainable and just food system within the current unjust and unsustainable food system and they called for more ambitious and transformative change from government policy to challenge this. It was also pointed out that future meetings need to include the main farming unions as well as educational institutions and conservation groups, bringing the various sectors working within the food system into conversation with one another so that we can develop food policy which is good for people and the land at every level.

Conclusion:

The roundtable was a really valuable opportunity to bring together a range of people working across the food system and a much needed first step to create wider co-operation on the issue. However, there was also a strong sense that we need to move towards concrete action rather than just continued conversations. The roundtable presents the potential to launch a sustainable and just food network or another platform for co-operation across the food system to better inform policy. We are now in the next stages of this and exploring how we can bring together this network to achieve transformative policy action. We’ll keep you posted!

If you want further information or to get involved, then please get in touch.

Poppy Nicol: I am a research associate at the Sustainable Places Research Institute and a gardener. My research interests are in the connections between people and place. I am particularly interested in the relationships between biological and cultural diversity that come alive through agriculture. NicolP@cardiff.ac.uk

Alice Taherzadeh: I am a PhD researcher at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, an activist and a community organiser. My research interests lie in exploring how people learn in order to transform our food system. I am particularly interested in farmer to farmer models of learning and social movements. TaherzadehA@cardiff.ac.uk

Our Food: rebuilding the local food economy

By Duncan Fisher

Our Food is a new initiative in Wales to rebuild the local food economy. The project has just launched in the Brecon Beacons around Crickhowell and is the beginning of a long process in the local area.our food blackboard - web

The need to rebuild local food economies – which have been decimated by the global food system that drives the export of most of what is produced in a region and the import of most of what is consumed in the same place – is driven by three imperatives: climate change, a feeling of lost local mandate and depopulation.

Building local food economies is a core part of the response to the climate crisis. The global food system, according to this year’s IPCC report, Climate Change and Land, accounts for between 21% and 37% of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity. This is driven by the massive global industrialisation of food. The report calls for “enhancing local and community collective action”.

Meanwhile, enhancing local economic activity is a vital response to the deep sense of loss of  control felt in Wales and across the UK over the things that shape our daily lives. This is driving an unprecedented political crisis.

And finally, building local economies in rural areas is a means of challenging depopulation, creating meaningful jobs at the local level.

Where to start rebuilding a local food economy?

Work starts from a very low base – low demand for local food (nearly everyone goes to supermarkets), low supply (so many small producers have been put out of business by global food chains) and low skills (young people leave to find work elsewhere). Where to start to reverse this long spiral downwards? We believe the first step is driving up demand, through marketing of what local food there is and through raising consumer awareness about the true consequences of buying food in supermarkets that could be produced locally. Demand must exceed supply for businesses to start producing more – customers clamouring for more are better than businesses without markets!

We also believe the process must be driven by businesses. Local government and consumers have a vital role as the purchasers of products, but businesses have the skills and incentive to market products and drive up demand, and only they have the means of responding to increasing demand.

Our inspiration: Schwäbisch Hall, Germany

The inspiration for the Our Food approach is the food project in Schwäbisch Hall in Germany, one of the most successful initiatives to rebuild a local food economy in the world.

This project started with a handful of farmers in 1988 and has grown enormously, with over 1500 businesses participating. The farmers tackled the problem of supermarkets by building their own chain, attached to really nice food halls. The association now owns and runs a large meat processing factory producing a wide range of processed meats from pork raised by local farmers. The farmers set up a charitable foundation that bought the region’s castle, now run as a hotel and conference centre. The organisation heavily emphasises organic production, works to get a fair price for all products, builds marketing capacity, works to improve farm incomes and promotes regional development.

The founder of this project, Rudolf Bühler, is coming to Wales for the Real Food and Farming Conference, and will present the work there in plenary session. The day after, 13 November, we are continuing the discussion with Rudolf in Crickhowell. You are warmly invited!

Our Food across Wales?

As the Our Food approach starts to drive up demand for local produce, we want it to spread. So we have structured the website to be able to be used by other places. The Crickhowell site is our-food.org/crickhowell, so another place could be our-food.org/anotherplace. We will start by inviting other towns around the Brecon Beacons and working to raise funds with them.

Please join in signing a joint letter to Welsh Government!

We are also lobbying Welsh Government to provide more support for rebuilding food economies. We have drafted a letter recommending strong attention to locality and to climate change in the new Welsh Food & Drink Strategy. We are collecting signatures for this: please do sign!

Duncan Fisher is a campaigner on children’s issues and on climate change. With global food systems producing 21-37% of greenhouse emissions, local food systems are something big that Wales can do. www.linkedin.com/in/duncanfisher

Images: Tim Jones, As You See It Media.

 

We must empower rural communities to integrate food production and the environment

By Richard Kipling

This summer, drought severely affected Welsh farming. When the grass doesn’t grow, farmers are forced to buy in expensive feed, and to use up supplies put aside for the winter months. Animals need more water just as it is least available and wildfires are a constant risk. The full impacts of the drought are described in a recent report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Our reliance on the environment for our food could not be more starkly highlighted.

Evidence is growing that global warming is, and will continue to, increase the severity and frequency of events such as droughts and flooding. Recent research suggests change might be more rapid than expected, as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions push us towards environmental tipping points. Up to now, for livestock farmers, climate change has been something that they can help tackle by cutting emissions from farms. Extreme events like those of this summer demonstrate that it is also a growing threat to their livelihoods. Reducing GHG emissions and ensuring farming systems are resilient to climatic extremes becomes a focus for urgent change.

With growing climatic volatility and threats to ecosystem services and natural resources,  change is needed. Through the Environment Act Wales, The Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Cymru Wales Brand, Welsh Government have demonstrated commitment to reducing GHG emissions, and to developing policies based on sustainability and resilience, specifically associating food production with the unique Welsh landscape and culture. In this context, the current ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation document  incorporates many positive elements. But it could go further.

Firstly, it must be recognised that the old opposition between maximising production and protecting the environment is false. Increasing production at the expense of resilience does not sacrifice fluffy idylls of nature to meet the practical need for food and the economic needs of farmers. Instead, taking more today comes at the expense of our ability to feed ourselves and make profits in the longer term.

Support for farm economic resilience and for the delivery of public goods needs to be integrated, because in the long-term the first is not possible without the second.

Agricultural production is dependent on healthy soils, good water and nutrient management, and biodiversity. Practices like improving soil management, adding hedgerows and trees to agricultural landscapes and nurturing mixed-species grasslands rather than turning to monocultures reduce the impact of extreme conditions on production, increase the long-term resilience of agricultural systems, reduce GHG emissions, and sequester more carbon. Farmer-led projects like Pontbren show that such approaches can work in Wales. So why isn’t everyone adopting these practices?

Many barriers hinder the implementation of climate-friendly or ‘public good’ farming.  Recent work in the Climate Smart Agriculture Wales project asked stakeholders about the challenges to change. Some are practical: many climate-friendly approaches bring long-term rewards but require short-term investment of money and time. These issues exist alongside knowledge limitations – how much farmers know about available options, how to implement them and what the risks and benefits are. Sometimes, the impacts of change are not fully understood or quantified by researchers.

Farmers also have their own interests to consider – like supporting family, surviving short-term economic challenges, reducing the burden of the business as they get older, and maintaining traditional practices. They manage complex systems, deal with multiple targets and regulations, and process and evaluate information and advice that might not always be independently given. This can be hugely challenging. It can make it hard to follow their own interests effectively, and reduce their ability to consider long-term strategies and problems amid the deluge of immediate challenges.

Considering solutions to these challenges, brings us to the second point that Welsh agricultural policy needs to incorporate. Top-down regulations are often appropriate tools for change, and payments are vital in providing the economic security farmers need to safeguard long-term productivity and ecosystem services. But we need to understand when they are effective and when they are not.

Truly sustainable change can only occur when rural communities, farmers, policymakers and other stakeholders are empowered to act together at the local level to develop shared goals and shared solutions to the challenges we face. This means bottom-up solutions giving ownership of change to all groups involved in the countryside. This type of power can be framed by top-down rules and incentives at some level; it’s not a case of ‘either-or’.

Outcome-driven payment schemes are a good example of this kind of rebalancing. Take the Burren Programme in Ireland, through which farmers agree to the goals they’ll deliver to secure funding. It’s up to them how to achieve those goals, and they receive local support to help them find the best strategies. Positively, this type of approach is included in ‘Brexit and our Land’. We need to go further, empowering farmers – working with other stakeholders – to both determine and drive change. But will farmers be interested in thinking about anything other than profit?

Recently, I heard a farm advisor speak about his experiences implementing climate-friendly practices in agriculture in Uruguay. Using videos and in workshops with different stakeholders, he shows farmers the impacts of climate change and poor agricultural practice on other groups in society. He finds they respond positively and make changes. Farmers need to make money, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to change, once they realise their own role in the problems facing others, and in the solutions to them. When we add the growing impact of climate change on farm businesses, demonstrated by this summer’s drought, we find there are strong motivations to work differently, beyond the basic need to make a profit.

Richard Kipling is an inter-disciplinary researcher at Aberystwyth University, with experience in a range of fields including ecology, livestock agriculture, conservation, politics and economics. For the last five years, his research has focussed on issues relating to climate change and farming in Welsh and European contexts.

Image: Richard Kipling

Soup and success: how food gives young people skills for the future

By Jane Powell

It’s mid-morning at the Llandrindod Pupil Referral Unit. A sleepy-faced teenager shuffles through the main classroom, calling over her shoulder that she’s “off to water the plants”. We follow her outside, where a trough of parsley, basil, coriander and oregano stands against a sunny wall, together with neatly aligned pots of strawberries and some pea plants that are bearing their first pods. She picks one and tastes it.

“Every day they go out there, they water those plants, they care for them,” says Linda Gutierrez, one of the teachers at the Unit. She explains that the produce finds its way into the meals that staff and students share at the centre, but it’s clear that the benefits of gardening and cooking go far beyond producing a few herbs. It is about nurturing young people who are falling through the cracks and drawing them back into shared activity with others.

ladling soup

Food is an important part of life at the PRU, which takes young people who are not able to study in mainstream education because of emotional and behavioural problems. “Some of these children have never sat at a table to eat properly – they don’t have that interaction with their family,” says Linda, who works hard to improve their social skills. “They’re not very good at joining in, so we eat together, we cook together, so they’re getting that social interaction. You learn a lot about a person by having those sitting-down chats over a meal, and they learn a lot about you.”

Linda’s affection for her charges, and her pride in them, shines through as she shares stories of their quirks and breakthroughs. Life at the PRU however is not just about providing a substitute family life for vulnerable young people. Like anybody else, they need an education and preparation for employment. The staff therefore build on the role that food already plays in the Unit and teach a Food Technology GCSE. They also have their learners take part in a Welsh Baccalaureate Enterprise and Employability Challenge from LEAF Education, which involves developing and marketing a food product suitable for sale in a farm shop.

Linda explains the process. Working as a team – numbers fluctuate at the PRU, but for this challenge there were just three of them – they visited Penpont farm shop, Llandrindod Market and other places to research ingredients and choose recipes. They came up with Flash Soups – ‘a flash of energy’ – and designed a logo, packaging, a sell-by date, allergen information and an (imaginary) social media campaign. They held taste tests, tweaked the recipes and the shared the final results at a Young Carers’ social evening.

She shows me the videos they made as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate accreditation. One girl reflects on the tasting sessions, explaining with teenage clarity her rejection of all blended soups and weighing up the relationship between appearance and taste. Another has a more commercial eye, and is interested in how the team worked together: “The one thing that stood out doing this project was that if people were absent from a meeting we had to delay making important decisions…The business world is not as easy as I thought”.

As an add-on to the soup challenge, Linda arranged for them to take an online Food Hygiene certificate. This gave them extra confidence – it’s a qualification that not many teenagers have – and it even enabled some of them to find part-time work in local cafes. And of course, they learned a lot about nutrition and how to cook healthy food for themselves, the life skills which Linda and her team instill “by stealth”.

The plan is now to build on the challenge for next year by growing their own vegetables at their other site in Brecon. Through a skype link we talk to her colleague Terry Holmes, who takes us on a virtual tour of the new garden. Raised beds are planted with tomatoes, savoy cabbages, courgettes, snap peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, red onions and chives, and there’s a compost heap waiting for the peelings. The plants are still small and full of promise in the freshness of mid-June.

Here we meet a third student who has been working on a planting plan. He speaks in monosyllables but it’s clear how much he cares about the garden; he’s been googling to find out what’s in season and has his eye on some giant pumpkin seed, which Linda promises to help him find.

courgetteThe PRU’s food activities also give it links with the wider community. Staff and pupils have visited various gardens in the Social Farms and Gardens network, including Ashfield Community Enterprise near Llandrindod, to learn new skills. Linda has also signed the garden up for the RHS school gardening scheme, which provides information sheets, teaching ideas and advice.

As she says, “That’s what’s so nice about working in a PRU. We can be really creative, because school doesn’t work for these children. We still have to educate them, but we can find other ways to get their interest”.

Terry sums it up, referring to the youngster we just met: “We said to him only this morning, ‘How does it feel when you’ve grown something from a seed?’ And he said, ‘it’s a nice feeling, to nurture something and keep watering it every day, to see something grow’ – and you can’t believe how much the courgettes have grown!”. The same could be said for the young people themselves.

Jane Powell is a freelance writer and education consultant based near Aberystwyth. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

 

 

 

Local food: reinventing the village shop

By Jane Powell

At the chill cabinet of a small shop in mid Wales, a customer reaches for a bottle of wine then does a double take. “Wine from Wales?” she exclaims, reading the label that announces it is from a vineyard near Aberaeron. “Is it OK to take to a party?” She puts it back.

cletwr cafe staffShe might have picked up many other items of locally produced food at the Cletwr Shop, which is a social enterprise on the busy A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth. They sell vegetables from local smallholdings, seasonal surpluses from people’s gardens and their own jams and chutneys made on the premises, besides the usual branded products. There’s even a choice of Welsh gins: Da Mhile from the Teifi Valley, or one from the Dyfi Distillery near Corris.

But Cletwr is not just a delicatessen for the tourist trail. Here you will also find baked beans, white sliced bread and ready meals, because for many people this is their local shop, and that’s what they expect to find. The vegan cheese substitutes in the fridge rub shoulders with their dairy counterparts, and if you’re looking for a toothbrush you can choose between the wooden eco version or the usual plastic.

“We want this to be a shop for everybody, so we cater for all tastes,” explains Nigel Callaghan, Chair of Cwmni Cymunedol Cletwr, the community business which opened its doors in 2013, a couple of years after the original family-owned garage and village shop closed. “At the same time, we’re working as part of a wide group of retailers, producers and suppliers in the Dyfi Biosphere (and beyond) to promote local produce, and through that to develop and strengthen the local economy.”

The shop, which recently moved to purpose-built new premises thanks to grants from the Big Lottery, Welsh Government, the EU and others, does much more than sell food. There’s a busy café and a programme of events, from Welsh classes and ‘knit and natter’ to talks from the RSPB and sessions on local history. They host a fuel syndicate and they organize volunteer litter-picking sessions.

It’s run by a mixture of 18 paid staff (mostly part-time) and around 50 volunteers, and it’s constantly responding to new opportunities. A charging point for electric cars is to be installed soon, they’re planting a garden in the grounds, they’re about to join a toilet-twinning scheme – sponsoring a toilet in a developing country – and they’re looking into further services that they could deliver to the local community.

What Nigel is perhaps proudest of, though, is the opportunities the business provides for young people. “We invite school pupils to volunteer here for a while, and then we employ them. We put about £15k a year into the local economy that way. And we teach them the soft skills of employability, things like turning up to work on time and taking responsibility.”

Cletwr is introducing a new generation of youngsters to volunteering. “We have a lively group of volunteers here, young and old working together,” says Nigel. “Our board has renewed itself completely over the last three or four years as new people have been attracted to it, so we think we have got a good model that will last.”

It’s one of a number of community projects that have sprung up in Wales in recent years. Others are Siop y Parc, a community-owned shop in Blaenplwyf, Ceredigion and Llety Arall, a social enterprise that is building holiday accommodation in Caernarfon.

“We’ve seen the benefits that this shop has brought to the local community,” says Nigel. “We’d encourage others to do the same. All you need is a few keen people and you can bring a community back to life. There’s help and advice available – we talked to the Plunkett Foundation, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and others – and the rewards are huge.”

View the second draft of the Wales Food Manifesto and send us your comments: Food Manifesto Wales Second Draft Apr 2018. And sign up to our newsletter.

Jane Powell is an independent education consultant who is working as a volunteer with the Food Manifesto Wales. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales

Photos by Ant Jarrett

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

by Jane Powell (also published on Food Grads

When a production worker at savoury snack factory Calbee UK in Deeside, north Wales, heard that a café serving supermarket surplus food was opening in nearby Buckley, she was keen to get involved. But she didn’t just sign up as a volunteer. She told her employer about it, and now they are one of the café’s regular supporters, donating their own products and releasing staff to volunteer at the café in the company’s time. It’s just one example of their commitment to “make a positive and lasting difference to local people”.

“When we get involved with a local project we don’t just give money and walk away,” explains Mags Kerns, Human Resources Manager and Community Champion at Calbee. “We want to offer personal support, to get under the skin of a project. The café is great because they are making such a contribution to the community, bringing people together and relieving loneliness, as well as serving meals on a Pay As You Feel basis so everyone can afford to eat there. We’re glad to be part of that.”

Values are very important to Calbee UK, which was set up two years ago as a subsidiary of a Japanese company. Calbee Inc was founded in 1949 with the aim of tackling the malnutrition that was afflicting post-war Hiroshima. It was a particular emphasis on calcium and Vitamin B which gave the company its name. The Deeside factory supplies vegetable-based snacks under the brand name Yushoi to most of the main supermarkets, as well as Marks and Spencer’s Eatwell range. The bulk of its ingredients, especially peas, are sourced from the UK, although some such as rice are imported.

“Deeside was a perfect location for us,” says Managing Director Richard Robinson, “and we’re really excited about our growth plans here. The Japanese and Chinese are really investing in food businesses in the UK and Calbee is a great sign of how global the food industry now is.” He also acknowledges generous support from the Welsh Government, who helped them to source their premises and set up an apprenticeship scheme, besides investing in the facility which began production in 2015. Calbee, which now employs 50 people and is still only at about 25% of its capacity, is on course to turn over £65m by the end of 2020, and wants to become “one of the UK’s best savoury snack suppliers”.

Clearly, performance and success are important to the company, but their vision is much broader than that; they also want to have “a leading role in supporting the industry voice on health and well-being” and it’s clear that they see money as being in service to people, rather than the other way around. “Values run through all we do,” says Mags. “We’re proud of our low-fat, high-protein products that are not just tasty but healthy too. And it’s really important to us to be a responsible employer, as well as contributing to the community.”

Sometimes this attitude shows up in small ways that make a big difference. All staff are known as ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘employees’, which reflects the company’s flat structure and helps to create a sense of collaboration in the workplace. When a colleague is rewarded for exceptional performance they are given a day off – that is, time to spend with their families and friends – rather than a cash bonus, neatly demonstrating the company’s priorities. They are also encouraged to volunteer for the local community in company time. “Our colleagues and their families are partners in our business,” as their values statement has it. And they pay well too, as an accredited Living Wage Employer, another reason they have no problems recruiting staff and absenteeism is minimal.

“People knock on our door with their CV,” says Mags. “Of course, they don’t always have the skills we need, but working with Coleg Cambria we are able to offer apprenticeships that lead to a qualification in Food Manufacturing Excellence. In fact, all our staff take it, right up to management level, because it’s important we have a shared understanding of what the factory is about. And we’re glad to be supporting the development of food skills in Wales generally.”

Calbee could have some encouraging lessons for the food industry in Wales. As it takes a stand for shared values centring on human dignity while also achieving healthy growth and profitability, it shows how business can be a force for good. “Together we laugh, learn and love what we do,” they say on their website. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a workplace like that?

Jane Powell writes at www.foodsociety.wales

 

A food hub on the Heart of Wales railway line

By Pamela Mason

Drive into Llandeilo Station and you could be mistaken for thinking you’d spotted a goods wagon: the sort of wagon that used to transport some of our food around Britain before the loss of much of our railway infrastructure more than half a century ago. Given that this wooden building stays put, its link with food and transportation of food might not cross your mind. Unless you happened to know it is the home of the Black Mountain Food Hub.

The Black Mountain Food Hub was the first to book space in the building when it opened in 2016 for local social enterprises and businesses. Set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Black Mountain Food Hub has four directors: Joanna Dornan, James Scrivens, Ella Gibbs and Sara Tommerup. Joanna has lots of experience with the Dean Forest Food Hub which has been established for four years and the Black Mountain Food Hub is run along the same lines, that is, as an online farmers market using the Open Food Network platform. “We know this works,” says Joanna.

The idea is that customers can order online anytime from Wednesday to Tuesday midnight and then collect their order from the Station Hub on the following Friday. Alternatively, the hub offers delivery between Llandeilo and Llandovery every Friday afternoon. The hub currently has 17 local producers and the number of weekly customers is about the same. Next year the aim is to grow the regular customer base to 30. People are also encouraged to support the food hub by becoming seed group members, which involves committing to spending £20 a month for a year. The aim with this is to help the food hub get better established and grow. It’s a struggle as it’s hard to change mindsets and habits around food shopping.black mountain logo

Whilst much of the work depends on volunteers, the hub also employs a part-time co-ordinator, Candace Browne, who has extensive experience in supporting and advising farmers so is well placed to work with the hub’s producers. Candace explains that to help maintain customer support the hub also makes available wholefood grocery items such as flour, rice, beans and pulses.

When the hub started there was no vegetable producer in the locality. Organic vegetables were delivered by train to Llandeilo from a grower on Gower. This year, Joanna tells me, they have developed a Fferm Glytwaith or Patchwork Farm which involves the co-ordination of a number of local experienced growers committed to growing good quality fruit and vegetables organically. Each grower takes on two or three varieties each season. In winter, the hub buys in organic vegetables, again to help retain customers throughout the year.

Another aim of the food hub is to reach out more to households on low incomes. Work is beginning with schools to promote the hub and thinking is taking place about the possibility of using the Healthy Start scheme to facilitate access to fresh, local food for people on low incomes.

The need for systemic change in the food system is well recognised by the food hub and an application for LEADER funding, which has successfully got through to the second round, has been made to develop a sustainable food network in the Towy Valley with the aim of shortening supply chains, getting more money to producers and building a thriving local system within the area. The project intends to use an approach called Adaptive Co-Management, which is designed to facilitate leadership, sense of ownership and knowledge sharing with the adaptive capacity to withstand uncertainties. Joanna says it’s an agile approach, which has been shown to be effective in complex environments in that it enables decisions to made quickly and effectively.

If the bid for funding is successful, the group will be looking for local people with the drive to make a difference to the local food economy in the Towy Valley. They will need to be open to learning new ways of working, gaining new skills and thinking in a new paradigm. It sounds very exciting. Local people in the Towy Valley with an interest in food – watch this space.

Pamela Mason is a nutritionist and author based in Monmouthshire. See sustainablediets.co.uk

Rethinking food in Wales: reconnecting through values

The National Assembly for Wales (that is, our politicians, as distinct from the civil servants in Welsh Government) has recently announced a new consultation called ‘rethinking food in Wales’. Its scope is very broad: they want to know what we can do to ‘enhance the food and drink sector and our relationship with the food we eat’. What is our vision, and how can we get there? They suggest that we might like to see a healthy local food culture, a thriving food industry, food produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards and an international destination for food lovers, but they invite other ideas too.

Our Food Manifesto and proposed Food Network Wales have exactly this aim of rethinking food in Wales, so this is a great opportunity to work with the Assembly and get everyone’s voices heard. We invite all our readers not only to respond to the consultation but to reference the Food Manifesto and send us a summary of their key points so that we can publish them here and share our thinking. To start us off, here is the response from the Food Values team.

Background

The Food Values project ran a series of events and seminars in 2015 and 2016 to explore how an approach based on values, as put forward by Common Cause, could help people understand and shape the food system. This starts from the premise that people are not rational actors and we need to consider the role of people’s beliefs, identity and emotions if we are truly going to change our food system. As part of the project we launched a Food Manifesto for Wales which is an ongoing project from which a new Food Network Wales is emerging. We are no longer funded, but we continue to work together informally to develop the approach.

Our vision for the food system in Wales

Our work, summarized in our 2015 report Food Values, showed how people respond to food as an important means through which to connect to each other in our families and communities. Our project worked with diverse groups, including refugees seeking asylum and isolated older people in rural areas. Food was seen to offer a focal point to come together and look beyond difference. We all eat and thus food has enormous potential as a social equaliser. Linked to this, there was an overwhelming concern was that everyone should have enough to eat, and that food should be of high quality; premium produce should not be a niche commodity for the more affluent.

Exploring people’s motivation to tackle food waste and poverty reaffirmed the benefits of reconnecting with values to communicate and consolidate progressive action. People also wanted to know where food comes from, and valued traditional food skills such as gardening and cooking. Whilst there are clear challenges to enhancing this in our current social and food system, there was an appetite to re-connect. These findings have been confirmed in wider studies by the Food Standards Agency.

Through our project we saw a contrast between a ‘community’ approach to food, which sought to address the issues raised above, and corporate framings of food as a commodity and a source of income and jobs. We found that there was a tendency to alternate between these two approaches to food in government policy (see our analysis here). The current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth for instance has a strong business focus, while the earlier Food for Wales, food from Wales placed more emphasis on community. At the same time, there is general agreement that both viewpoints are valid and that what is needed is to bring them together more closely so that each serves the other. There are of course many other points of disconnection in the food system; this is just one example.

How to get there

Joining up the dots of the Welsh food system will mean working across sectors, which is as challenging as it is potentially productive. We offer the values approach as a means to dig deep beneath cultural differences and find common ground. There are many ways in which it could be used, including video communications, events and especially shared meals that bring different groups together in an enquiry, as well as case studies of good practice. We are interested in exploring these further.

Jane Powell, independent consultant; Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, Bangor University; Sam Packer, independent commentator; Rosa Robinson,Work With Meaning.