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

 

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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.