Ashfield Community Enterprise: A horticultural resource for the local community

By Pamela Mason

It’s a pity it’s so hard to generate an income from growing vegetables. Grown organically, they are amongst the healthiest foods on the planet. But you have only got to see the sore hands and, often, painful backs and stiff joints of those who have worked hard in the fields for a long time, to realize just how tough it is to produce these healthiest of foods and get them to market.

This is, in part, what the people who have bought Ashfield Community Enterprise, near Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales, are learning and struggling with. They do much more than grow vegetables, as a group of us on a recent Federation of City Farms and Gardens (FCFCG) Tyfu Fyny study day discovered, and that is partly about creating a diverse enterprise but also about the sheer hard work of making money out of vegetables alone. But with just six months of experience in growing tomatoes and chillis in the one of the centre’s polytunnels, grower nickm – as he is known – is up to the task and has bottled a glorious rainbow of differently coloured chillis in glass jars for the Christmas market in Llandrindod.

Herbs are a winner too, he says, in that people are very willing to pay £2.50 for a pot of hyssop or oregano. He’s grown a variety of parsleys, corianders and basils, including one I hadn’t come across before – cinnamon basil, which I believe is great mixed with garlic and olive oil for pesto.

Fliss, the project co-ordinator, told us that Ashfield is a seven-acre piece of land which locals came together to buy for the whole community. Purchased in 2010 with the Village SOS Big Lottery Fund, it had been used by people with learning difficulties. Ashfield has allotments, one of which is used by a local primary school, five polytunnels, an orchard, greenhouses, training rooms for hire and an office. There is also a 4 star kitchen from which our group enjoyed a lovely lunch of vegetable curry and damson fool in the community long room.

Volunteers come and help to grow for veg boxes and market, learn gardening, cooking, healthy eating, beekeeping and composting. Fliss explained that they have referrals from local organisations for volunteers to benefit from the therapeutic space and the activities. Three micro businesses – including an aquaponics project – have been set up here by young people. There is a Local Roots Forest School for children, and a Men in Sheds group.

A beautiful dry stone walled sensory garden had been recently completed on the day we visited. Sensory gardens are particularly beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, helping to keep them calm and interested. Funding for the garden was obtained from the Tesco Bags of Help initiative which uses revenue raised from its 5p carrier bag charge to help community projects and projects.

Rhian leads on gardening activities. She is employed 12 hours a week and gives 12 hours a week of her time for free. Vegetables are sold on Llandrindod market on a Friday and also to local pubs. A burger bar in Builth Wells buys some of the salad vegetables. Veg boxes are available for collection on site or at a newsagent in Llandrindod.

In March this year, Ashfield was successful in acquiring funding from ARWAIN (the LEADER programme in Powys) to run a three year feasibility project to establish a community facility for people of all ages and abilities to develop skills in growing, cooking, preserving and reducing food waste.

Ashfield runs all these activities with just four and a half staff and a lot of volunteer time. Last year, this equated to 2000 volunteer hours and this year 82 different people have volunteered. Overall income is around £45,000, a third of which comes from renting out two flats on site.

Fliss told us she is in two minds about whether to apply for more funding in 2018 as, understandably, she wants Ashfield to stand on its own feet financially. Without the impressive bunch of people we met, it would be very much harder than it is. And nickm, who had no experience growing tomatoes and chillis before this year, is already planning for next year. He has learned a lot in 6 months and most impressively he told us that he had recorded everything he had learned within the greenhouse in a notebook. Armed with this knowledge, making passata, chilli sauce, pickled cucumbers and sun-dried tomatoes are on his to-do list for 2018. These added value products should hopefully bring in more revenue and reward for this, to my mind at least, the hardest of jobs that produces the healthiest of foods.

Pamela Mason is a nutritionist and author, see sustainablediets.co.uk

 

 

 

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Rethinking food in Wales: linking food production and public health

Submission to the Assembly’s Rethinking food in Wales consultation, from Amber Wheeler,  University of South Wales and Peas Please Steering Committee

There is much good food work being done across Wales in terms of production, manufacturing, processing, brands, food poverty alleviation, community growing, food sustainability and more with many enthusiastic and successful stakeholders. However, there is more that can be done to enhance the food and drink sector, and particularly the food we eat, by adopting a more collaborative approach and adding to that work.

For many years I have been conducting doctoral research around a vision for a sustainable food system in Wales that is linked to fulfilling the health requirements of the nation. The particular focus of my research has been fruit and vegetables but I have learnt a lot, through extensive consultation and engagement, that can be applied across the food sector. I have found there is a lack of overall vision, lack of a plan and lack of an organisation and network to deliver a food secure and sustainable food system in Wales. Some key points : –

  1. It is clear from my research and the research of others, see particularly http://foodfoundation.org.uk/publication/force-fed/, that the food system, as it stands, is not enabling the population to eat as healthily as it should.
  2. Historically the approach has been to try and drive food system change through focussing mainly on the consumer, but this narrow focus has not been enough to drive change : –AW graphic 1
  3. What might be needed is a new systemic approach where food sustainability and public health issues are worked on by every aspect of the food system : –AW graphic 2
  4. This model needs exploring further in Wales. Through participatory doctoral research I became involved with the Food Foundation, Nourish Scotland, WWF-UK and Food Cardiff in organising national initiative called Peas Please to increase vegetable availability and increase consumption through supply chain collaboration. As a result of Peas Please, major stakeholders in the supply chain will be pledging to increase the availability of veg in the UK at summits held in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff on October 24th 2017. This initiative represents a test bed of a systemic approach to public health and sustainable food and yet it is being delivered in Wales by myself as a volunteer, and by Food Cardiff who are coming up against the limits of their capacity to deliver Wales wide work. Wales is missing a national food organisation.

To achieve a sustainable and secure food system in Wales it is clear that we need the following : –

  1. A Food Needs Assessment

We need to model the secure and sustainable food needs of the Welsh population. In relation to fruit and vegetables my research remains the only research to date, showing that there is a large deficit in terms of production and availability compared to public health requirements of the population. Fish and wholegrain needs would be an easy next step to analyse. Once secure and sustainable food needs have been established national aims can be set and actions generated.

  1. A Plan

We need a new ‘Sustainable Food For and From Wales Action Plan’ based on a Food Needs Assessment and the current Food and Drink Action Plan.

  1. An Organisation

Progress does not happen without a driving force. Scotland has Nourish Scotland http://www.nourishscotland.org/ and England has the Food Foundation http://foodfoundation.org.uk/ who are pushing forward these agendas with small, flexible teams. Wales does not have a national organisation, though Food Cardiff has been increasingly helping in this capacity. We need a national organisation, funded from central resources, as Nourish Scotland, which drives this agenda in tandem to the other nations.

  1. A Network

A national organisation will need to be backed up by a Wales Food Network where good practice can be shared and spread across the nation in an efficient way.

Without these steps progress is likely to be slow and disjointed. With these steps Wales has a really good chance of becoming a leading light in sustainable food and helping to ensure Wales has a thriving food sector as well as a healthy eating nation.

Amber Wheeler is working on a PhD at the University of South Wales and is on the steering committee of Peas Please. She is based in Pembrokeshire.

 

Rethinking food: a response from Paramaethu Cymru

Paramaethu Cymru, the Welsh arm of the Permaculture Association (Britain), has responded to the Assembly consultation on rethinking food in Wales. Here is the introduction and a link to the full article.

paramaethu logo1.1   Paramaethu Cymru is in contact with more than 500 individuals, families, groups and small businesses across Wales with interest in permaculture practices. They especially include growing food in healthy, sustainable ways. It also teaches design principles to people on courses, short or long, and easily understood, so that they are empowered to make earth-friendly, people-friendly choices in their lives.

2017-6-18 marquee with dog.jpg

Trafod dyfodol bwyd a ffermio – discussing the future of food and farming at a recent gathering

1.2   A permaculture approach requires careful design commencing with Survey and Analysis, so we welcome this survey and especially the fact that it requests referenced evidence rather than simply opinion. However, the short time scale given to it may not lead to thorough and inclusive bilingual responses, especially in these months when food producers are particularly busy.

1.3   Permaculture is guided by three ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Earth Care is implied in the issues you selected. A Permaculture approach is also guided by 12 principles, one of which is to integrate, rather than segregate. It results in a planning design which takes a holistic view, exploring interrelated outcomes, seeing our relationship with food as a web of connection to other factors (eg soil health, human health, biodiversity, social justice, employment, education, history and culture), as indicated by the 2015  Aberystwyth University Food Values project, and the 2009 IAASTD Agriculture at a Crossroads Global Report. Our response tries to explore some of those interconnections.

To download the full response, see Rethinking food – Paramaethu Cymru

A new economic framework

By Dr John Clements

The contemporary economic system has broken the vital relationship between Land, Food and People. There is a crucial need to renew the system that has produced this breakdown. Brexit represents a propitious historical moment to respond decisively to a range of critical issues relating to the disproportionate empowerment of corporations, landowners and shareholders—an empowerment that has come at the cost of our national health, the democratic concerns of systemic stakeholders and the legitimate expectations of land-workers, in particular.

The figure below models and critiques the current economic system, using three overlapping circles, representing Land, Food, People and the crucial overlaps between them, of production, consumption and participation.

land-food-people

Land

The vast majority of UK land is owned by a tiny minority of the UK population. Wealthy landowners include: aristocratic families, the Anglican Church, the military, the government, utility companies and financial institutions. As a result, most agricultural land forms part of large estates, inevitably effecting how it is managed. Just 2% is built upon. Put simply, land ownership is undemocratic because the general population, even rural dwellers (and particularly land workers) have practically zero influence over how UK land is utilised—such as how to appropriately respond to the housing crisis.

People

The UK population is increasingly urbanised, so that even those who live outside of towns are increasingly resourced by urban services (surgeries, hospitals, supermarkets, shops etc). It is also increasingly diseased: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer etc. Our national health system is pharmaceutical-centric, yet drugs are generally unsuited to curing chronic disease, root causes of which lie in diet, lifestyle and environmental factors, leading to lifelong prescriptions: good for pharmaceutical corporations, bad for patients.

Food

The basic problem with the food we eat is nutritional. Many people, including (actually, particularly) obese people, are undernourished. Consuming a surplus of calories, yet lacking an adequate intake of healthy nutrients. Furthermore, there is endemic, damaging confusion about the pros and cons of carbohydrate and fat. “Time-poverty” has led to a perceived need for convenience, leading to the availability, promotion and use of processed foods and subsequent deterioration in the social value of food and food preparation as an integral element of family life.

Consumption

The relationship between food and people is dominated by supermarkets. Supermarkets, like all corporations, are driven by the need to create shareholder profits. When corporations calculate their profits, they typically ignore large, un-costed ecological consequences. Despite ubiquitous TV programming, fresh food preparation is an increasingly lost art in many homes, as well as hospitals, care-homes and schools.

Production

Currently, food production is based largely on an intensive, industrialised model, which relies upon exploiting ecological resources, in unsustainable ways, such as those that lead to soil nutrient erosion, widespread use of chemical pesticides, livestock welfare issues, flora, fauna diversity loss, ecological destruction, erosion, flooding etc. These economic patterns have also contributed to a general loss of social, economic, cultural diversity in rural regions.

Participation

The link between land and people is essentially broken: a whole generation of young people lack understanding about food origins, whilst urbanised populations associate “countryside” primarily with recreational activities and believe that countryside issues should be left to farmers to resolve. As allotments have disappeared, the growing of vegetables—once a national pastime—is now considered “quaint” and irrelevant, despite our nationally importing about 40% of our food, raising important issues of “food sovereignty”.

Is systemic renewal possible?

There are reasons to be hopeful. Fresh, innovative perspectives are being informed by emerging research, highlighting formerly-overlooked issues. Useful examples include: Common Wealth, by Martin Large1, Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken2 and Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth. 3

The figure below models some primary elements that need to be addressed if the current economic system is to be renewed in favour of creating one more appropriately weighted towards the holistic needs of the general population, systemic stakeholders (everyone holding a stake in any particular system) and land-workers, in particular.

land-food-people-2

Production

By focussing economic rewards on marginal, small and family farms, it becomes possible to move steadily towards environmentally-sustainable means of production, such as organic, biodynamic and permaculture. Local food production and distribution can go hand-in-hand with allowing more people to live on the land—as envisaged by Wales’ innovative—but currently under-utilised—One Planet Policy.

Consumption

A renaissance in freshly prepared, local, organic food, based around authentic nutritional knowledge and use of local food produce, will allow the relationship between food and people to be restored. Nutritious, (chemical) pesticide-free and organic food will contribute to better health amongst populations that partake—of special relevance to schools, care-homes and hospitals.

Participation

As people become increasingly ecologically aware, the possibility exists to integrate rural and urban living more holistically than before. Innovative expression such as Food Assemblies—now over 900 existing around Europe—such as the one I am involved in pioneering in Llanelli, and Community Supported Agriculture schemes, such as Banc Organics, established in the marginal land of the Gwendraeth Valley, herald unique opportunities for participation, including volunteering, education and potentially significantly higher employment rates per hectare, compared to intensive farming.

Summary

In comparing two economic models, I’ve highlighted a series of critical issues relating to the contemporary system in relation to land, food and people.

  • The first model illustrates how the current system “distributes” wealth to shareholders and landowners. It is my contention that the current state of the UK economy and health of the population-at-large confirms that in this scenario, there are few winners and many losers.
  • The second model illustrates the potential for reimagining and “redistributing” economic empowerment to stakeholders and land-workers. A scenario, I would contend, with the potential to create many winners, few losers. Getting there will require not only innovative thinking—thankfully, there is much of it about—but more importantly, a great deal of determined, pioneering action, coupled with political liberation from the shackles of the contemporary system—if there is to be any hope of significant change.
  1. Common Wealth—For a free, equal, mutual and sustainable society, 2010, Hawthorn Press, Stroud.
  2. Blessed Unrest—How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, 2007, Penguin Group, New York.
  3. Doughnut Economics—Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, 2017, Random House, London.

John Clements is based in Llanelli and writes at https://jbclements.wordpress.com

 

Food Network Wales – working for a better food system

school kitchen counter

By Pamela Mason

Working for a better food system in Wales is something that few would argue with. We know the issues linked with food, from obesity to climate change, from poor remuneration for farmers to the demand for food banks. Many people and organisations across Wales including civil society groups, the private and public sectors and Welsh government are working on these things. Yet, despite Wales being a small country where people make good connections with one another, many people whose work is linked to food work don’t always know what others are doing. When that happens, we miss the opportunity to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience, and progress towards the better food system we all want to see is very slow.

With this in mind, during the past 12 months or so, a small group of us who live in Wales and are strongly engaged with food in academia, business, civil society, the public sector or as health professionals, have come together to discuss how we can help to make the food connections across Wales work better. To that end, we have developed the concept for a new network, Food Network Wales, in which we hope to work together with as many people and organisations as possible. We have produced a consultation document which summarises our thinking to date and how we, by joining together with what we hope will be a wide variety of civil society groups, farming and food businesses, academics, health professionals and public sector bodies, hope we can create a space for networking, thinking, knowledge exchange and research towards this better food system we want.

The problems linked with food are well known. In Wales almost a quarter of adults are obese and less than a third are eating their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Climate change, associated with a greater risk of flooding, is already having an impact on food production. Poverty has increased in Wales during recent years making it difficult for people on low incomes to access a good healthy diet. Food bank use has increased. Small family farms, which make such a vital contribution to Welsh culture and Welsh language, as well as being producers of some of Wales’ best food, continue to decrease in number. Brexit could have a devastating effect on family farms and severely affect food resilience and food poverty.

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act creates a huge opportunity to focus on the improvement of the food system from increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food for all the people of Wales, reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss to supporting farmers in the strengthening of shorter supply chains and improving social cohesion around community food initiatives. The Act offers a particular opportunity to help children and young people learn more about food, how to grow it and how to cook it.

Food Network Wales wants to get people together who are concerned about the food system and want to work to improve things. We see Food Network Wales as being a dynamic, progressive organisation acting a hub for engagement and debate across a broad range of stakeholders in food and farming. We think that strengthening short supply chains and getting more local food on to the public plate will be key interests for many who join this network. We also think this new organisation will play an active role in raising awareness around food, sharing information with a wide range of people and collaborating on research. We are also developing a Food Manifesto for Wales, which we hope will be recognised by the general public and adopted by Welsh governmental and non-governmental organisations, businesses and health professionals.

We aim to provide an ‘umbrella’ under which everyone with an interest in the food system in Wales – farmers, growers, processors, retailers and consumers, as well as academics and healthcare professionals – can gather for the benefit of all. We hope you will share our vision, not to mention excitement, for the potential that Food Network Wales offers to make for a better food system in Wales today, tomorrow and for future generations of Wales. Let’s do this together.

You can download a short introduction here in Welsh and English. We’d love to hear your views and you can do this by responding to our on-line survey:

Cwblhewch yr arolwn yn y Gymraeg

Complete the survey in English

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire. 

A living room at the heart of a Valleys community

By Pamela Mason

All our living rooms say something about us and what’s important to us. And a new living room, Yr Ystafell Fyw in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales, very much reflects the values of the community that established it. When you walk through the front door into this very comfortable cafe, you cannot help but notice the ease of access (no steps), the bowl of water for dogs, the open kitchen and serving area, how light it is, the soft chairs and sofas, and the pictures on the wall, many locally commissioned.

An initiative of the Church in Wales Parish of Bedwellty and New Tredegar, Yr Ystafell Fyw is a living room created to improve health and well-being in its communities. As a café, food is at the heart of its work. All of this in a place where community is still very much alive but, with its industry now largely gone, one that thrives less than it once did. It’s a community that runs a food bank but knows that’s an inadequate response to the problems of poverty that cause the fridge to become bare. In running the food bank, the community became more aware of what it already knew, that people needed more than a food parcel. Having worked in this food bank on one busy morning, I still remember how as the range of breakfast cereals began to reduce, I was the one who decided what people would take home to eat. It was uncomfortable. No one should have control of what another household gets to eat.

Leah at Ystafell Fyw

Revd Leah Philbrick serves tea at Yr Ystafell Fyw

Food has a very different place in the Living Room, although many of the people who visit have the same problems as those visiting the food bank. Revd Leah Philbrick, who with Revd Dr Rosie Dymond is a Director of The Living Room, emphasises that food here is about giving hospitality and raising the ‘feel good’ factor of the visitors. “We aspire to serve the best coffee in the Rhymney Valley,” she adds. Not for its own sake but to help people feel good about themselves. This is no small aim in area where unemployment remains high. Some of the crockery, like a 1930s dinner plate from New Tredegar, speaks of the valley’s history and the coffee is served in china cups and saucers. The cake is home-made, as much of the food as possible is locally sourced, and it’s all presented in the form of a lovely treat, yet in responsibly small portions so that no one need overeat the delicious cake.

Food and drink is not the only or even main  aim of the Living Room. It’s about providing a space where people can share those problems that the food bank cannot alleviate and it’s a space for prayer and meditation. There is a kitchen table around which people gather to enjoy food and listen to each another. A large wooden clock in one corner strikes every quarter of an hour as a reminder of the importance of a time to be silent, while a small red desk in another corner reminds of the importance of meeting face to face rather than just on social media.

Like the community pharmacy which was once located in the space occupied by the Living Room, Yr Ystafell Fyw is about health and well-being in the community. But unlike the pharmacy, now sited a few hundred yards away adjacent to a doctor’s surgery, The Living Room is not a about providing a public service, but rather a space for the community run by the community. And as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Living Room is a social enterprise that will use its profits and assets for the public good. What is interesting, though, is that both the pharmacy and the surgery are beginning to refer people to the Living Room for that essential prescription of “Time to Listen and Space to Share”.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

Sustainable diets: the big question

By Pamela Mason

How can huge populations be fed sustainably – healthily, equitably and affordably – while maintaining the ecosystems on which humanity depends? In a new book I have co-authored with Professor Tim Lang from City University, we explore this very big question. The evidence of diet’s impact on public health and the environment has grown in recent decades, yet changing food supply and consumer habits proves hard with policy makers hesitant to reshape public eating habits.Pam book cover (2)

Although it has traditionally been assumed that food production and consumption can look after themselves or be left to the open market, human activity across the food system is driving a mismatch between humans and the planet. While this mismatch is recognised, there is wide debate as to what to do about it. Much focus to date has been on food production and how that can be made more sustainable. Such effort needs to continue, but in this book, we focus on the demand side and what sustainable diets would look like.

Sustainable diets are often considered to be those that are good for the environment and hence low in carbon. However, we propose a multi-criteria approach to sustainable diets, giving equal weight to the environment, nutrition and public health, socio-cultural issues, food quality, economics and governance. This six-pronged approach to sustainable diets brings order and rationality to what either is seen as too complex to handle or is addressed simplistically and ineffectually.

In practical terms a sustainable diet means food that is culturally accessible, affordable and nutritionally adequate, and also respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems. Quite simply it’s a good diet. Globally, this will mean a diet with a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruit and grains. For people in wealthy countries who enjoy meat, it will mean eating less but better, and for people in poorer countries whose diets may be based on staple carbohydrates with little or no meat, it may mean eating more.

Our rationale in the book for reducing meat consumption globally is that meat is increasingly produced on an industrial scale which relies heavily on feeding grain, often imported grain, to livestock. Globally, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet as meat and other animal products. With growing numbers of people to feed, this is not a good use of land.

That said, and of relevance in Wales with its significant concentration on livestock farming, it is true that well-managed animal grazing, especially on the uplands, can be compatible with carbon sequestration in soils. But whether or not livestock production is environmentally viable depends on the extent to which it is integrated into ecosystems, landscapes, farming systems and livelihood activities. This is a challenge for farming, but appropriate support and the will to change where necessary could help to shift livestock production in a more sustainable direction.

However, more regenerative livestock farming should not deflect us from the dietary changes that are needed, in particular for more vegetables and legumes, which will require more horticulture and support for production and indeed consumption. In this context, the Food Foundation’s Peas Please initiative aims to bring together farmers, retailers, fast food and restaurant chains, caterers, processors and government departments with a common goal of making it easier for everyone to eat vegetables.

What we argue for in this book is the need for sustainable dietary guidelines at a national and local level to provide a framework for a transition in food systems. While the UK Eatwell Guide, revised in 2016, is a good step forward in providing guidance on healthy, sustainable diets, only Sweden, Germany, Brazil and Qatar have so far been clear about helping their citizens to change their diets in significant ways. In Wales, policy could help to shift the food system to deliver better quality food, accessible to everyone, delivering health for people and the environment, fairness for producers and all who work in the food system, with rounded economics and trusted governance. Sustainable dietary guidelines would help everyone in the food system to do what needs to be done for the benefit of future generations of people across Wales.

You can order Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System, by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang, from this link.