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.

What is the future for upland farming in Wales beyond CAP?

By Pamela Mason

The uplands are a key feature of the cultural landscape of Wales. They produce food, and public goods and services, including water and peat which sequesters carbon, as well as habitats for wildlife. People live and work there. These were among the main messages presented at a conference in Llanrwst, organized by Bangor University, RSPB Cymru, and Cynidr Consulting, with support from the Welsh Government. The conference, which created space for farmers to discuss the future of the uplands after Brexit, attracted an audience of 150 participants including farmers, academics, conservation bodies, and Government officials. There was agreement amongst speakers and participants around the need to create new policy fit for the future.

According to Kevin Austin (Head of Agricultural Strategy and Policy Unit at Welsh Government), the uplands are usually viewed through the prism of the farming economy, which is a problem. Farms in Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) do not make money and are increasingly attuned to diversifying and looking beyond farming for income. Uncertainty surrounds farm income after Brexit as different scenarios are put forward.  The uplands have become dependent on public money but support is decreasing everywhere so farmers cannot expect more money. However, the opportunity for upland farmers to deliver and be paid to deliver public goods is significant, including trees, hunting, walking, provision of energy and clean water, management of water flow, preservation of the Welsh language and management of peat bogs for carbon sequestration. Interventions should be targeted with payment by results.

Professor Peter Midmore (expert in agricultural economics, Aberystwyth University and author of Cherished Heartlands) highlighted the importance of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 for uplands farming. Any outputs delivered through public funding, such as flood management or carbon storage systems, will have to contribute to the well-being goals stated in the WBFGA and there will be statutory targets for reducing carbon emissions and a new duty to reverse decline in biodiversity.

Gwyn Jones (European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism) talked about High Nature Value Farming (HNVF) again pointing to the public good they produce. However, how can we break the link between delivery of public goods and poor farm income, he asked. We should not ask farmers to deliver public goods for less than the minimum wage and there should a clear coherent vision shared by government and farmers.

Representing the uplands farming organization, Fairness for the Uplands, Tony Davies and Hefin Jones highlighted the risks of abandonment if farmers do not get public help. Discussing the opportunities, Tony Davies said woodland is a crop and an opportunity post-CAP if the government is prepared to pay, while Hefin Jones highlighted the need for a minimum wage post-Brexit with appropriate numbers of cattle and sheep grazing to keep the mountains in good condition and an emphasis on less but better meat with promotion of the taste qualities of grass fed meat.

RSPB Cymru Land Use Manager, Arfon Williams, said that farming is essential to the well-being of current and future generations in Wales. Until now, farming policies have largely encouraged more intensive farming practices that have squeezed spaces for nature and limited the environmental benefits that sustainable farming can provide. In Wales one in nine species is threatened with extinction. The challenge for upland farming is to deliver environmental benefits while also producing sustainable amounts of quality food and other commodities. The WBFGA and the Environment Act provide a real opportunity to create a Wales specific policy.

In conclusion, the conference highlighted the challenges of farming in the Welsh uplands and the need for farmers to be paid for providing public goods and services with consideration given to niche marketing of the tastier quality meat from the hills. Tourism brings in £3 billion a year to Wales and appropriate remuneration for uplands farmers will help to ensure that the uplands are enjoyed by all, provide habitat for wildlife, while maintaining the carbon sink, providing clean water to homes and businesses and controlling water flow to reduce flooding. A Wales specific policy with targeted interventions paying for results could offer a way forward.

Cutout hen and wellies

Teaching children where their food comes from

By Jane Powell

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization PLANED, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

The Food Manifesto: a Food Rights Charter for Wales

By Dr Naomi Salmon, Law School, Aberystwyth University

The way we produce, process, distribute, consume and waste our food has obvious and significant implications for the enjoyment of a wide range of interdependent civil and political, and economic, social and cultural human rights. Reliable access to adequate, nutritious and culturally acceptable food is, after all, a pre-requisite for a healthy, productive and contented life. Whether one focuses on the most basic of human entitlements – the right to life – or upon other rights such as health, education, work, private and family life, or freedom of religion, it is easy to see the interconnections between food governance and effective human rights protections.photo montage

Thus, it is perhaps rather unsurprising that from its inception, international human rights law has recognised and explicitly accommodated a fundamental human right to food.  In Article 25 of the highly influential but non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 it was expressed as one of the key elements of a broader umbrella right to an ‘adequate standard of living.’  Almost three decades later,  with the entry into force of the  legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in January 1976, the legal credibility and status of the this most crucial of human rights was confirmed.

From my perspective, as an academic lawyer with an interest in human rights, it is clear that what the text of the draft Food Manifesto for Wales provides is, to all intents and purposes, a description of a human rights compliant food system. The Manifesto’s vision of an equitable and sustainable ‘food future’ for Wales is informed by a concern for the very same shared human values that led to the emergence of international human rights law. As I see it, the text of this ‘food charter’ effectively translates the broad fundamental values of ‘universalism’ and ‘benevolence’ – the  values that are the foundation of the International Bill of Rights  –  into ten key benchmarks of a legitimate and socially just food system.

Moreover, the detail of the Manifesto’s goals resonates very closely with the detail of legal substance of the human right to ‘adequate food’ as it has been interpreted over time.   Thus, both international human rights law and the Manifesto are concerned with achieving something rather more holistic than basic population-wide nutritional adequacy.  The vision set out in the Manifesto, and the legal right entrenched in international law, both envision a ‘food future’ underpinned by justice and respect. This is a food future where all people, at all times, are able to enjoy equal access to nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable, affordable food that has been produced, processed and distributed in a manner that respects and protects the environment, the  dignity and rights of all people,  and the welfare of livestock and wildlife.

I believe that the Manifesto, with its emphasis on sustainability and social justice, will speak to the full range of stakeholders across the whole of the supply chain – consumers, farmers, industry and government. After all, whatever else we might be, we are all human beings whose lives and beliefs are shaped and informed by shared core human values and whose wellbeing and survival is dependent upon the preservation of a genuinely sustainable and socially just food system.

On a practical level, by highlighting and reinforcing these shared values, and by inviting stakeholders to publicly sign up to its ten key goals, the Manifesto may help to soften tensions and bridge differences between the various stakeholder groups who inhabit the food landscape. Moreover, if a high enough public profile can be achieved, and if the language of ‘values’ and ‘human rights’ is effectively and tactfully exploited, the Manifesto may also provide leverage to encourage the compliance of key actors (governments and industry) with their existing obligations under international human rights law – and in particular, in relation to the human right to adequate food.

Find out more:

An overview of the International Bill of Rights can be found at https://www.escr-net.org/resources/international-bill-human-rights.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has published an accessible and informative booklet on the human right to adequate food – Fact Sheet No.34: The Human Right to Food. This booklet can be accessed at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet34en.pdf See also, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN FAO) website at http://www.fao.org/righttofood/right-to-food-home/en/ , and the webpages of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to Food at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Food/Pages/FoodIndex.aspx.

Dr Naomi Salmon is an academic lawyer, micro-baker and food activist with a passion for social justice, community, sustainability and human rights.

What farmers really care about

By the Food Values team

Farmers occupy a very special place in the food system. As the people who grow crops and raise animals, generating most of the raw materials for our food supply chains, they are at the point where different interests come together and so often find themselves the focus of controversy. Should we eat less meat to save the climate, or are sheep and cows the best way to use the grass that grows in Wales? Should we do more to preserve biodiversity or have we gone too far in that direction? How far should we support food production with public money? These important debates can all too often become polarized and focus on what divides us, rather than what brings us together. So we made a video…

We wanted to see how an exploration of shared values could create connection across some of the apparent divides in the food system, and so the Food Values project headed to the Royal Welsh Show this summer to talk to farmers and land managers and start a conversation. It’s easy for discussions about farming to get side-tracked into complaints about the system – the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, the powerlessness of the producer in the face of market forces, public indifference to where their food comes from – but we wanted to get beyond those concerns.

We wanted to explore instead the core values that farmers bring to their work, so we engaged them in conversation about their lives and let them speak for themselves. The half-dozen people that we spoke to on a sweltering afternoon amid the crowds of the Royal Welsh were hardly a big enough sample to draw firm conclusions but they did represent a cross-section of farming – young and old, Welsh and incomer, full time and part time, male and female – and a few themes emerged which resonated with wider research we have conducted.

Perhaps the main message was how they saw themselves as producers of food. They spoke of the contribution that they are able to make to rural communities, with whom they are in a “symbiotic relationship”, not just by supplying food but also supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and generally maintaining the fabric of the countryside. They took a pride in their skills and mentioned the satisfaction that came from managing resources well, reducing external inputs and employing local people. There are fewer people working the countryside than there were, and there has been a cultural impoverishment as a result, but farmers know that food production will always be important and so they are ready to look to the future and adapt.

Another theme was the sense they had of obligation towards the land that had come into their care.  “We try not to mess it up for the next generation,” as one of them put it, a way of thinking that naturally encompasses an ethos of conservation and care for wildlife, and comes with a sense of history and a familiarity with the pendulum swings of agricultural policy. There was pride too in educating urban people about food production and the countryside, through schemes such as Open Farm Sunday.

What happens next? We made this video not to be the final word on what farmers care about, but to start a discussion which might lead to deeper understanding of what it is to work the land. We hope it will encourage other farmers to reflect on what really matters to them, and that this might start a wider conversation which will lead to constructive change. Brexit brings with it an opportunity to re-think our food system from the bottom up, and it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.

You can find out more  about Food Values on foodvaluesblog.wordpress.com.

Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse?

Below, I’ve posted an article written by Stephen Devlin for NEF on 29 March 2016. The article is somewhat divisive and inflammatory, and that’s why I’ve posted it – to prompt comment.  Is this a helpful way to address serious issues in the food system or do polarised debates like this close down conversations? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what Stephen has written, about how we can have difficult conversations on emotive issues with dignity and respect for each other, and about what coverage of issues like this means for our campaign in Wales for a fairer food system.

Tweet: @rosa_r

You can read the original post at http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/putting-the-fox-in-charge-of-the-henhouse.

Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse

Photo credit:   David Spencer


The whole point of government regulation is to intervene in the conflict of interest that companies and individuals have between their own financial benefit and the public interest.

Most people seem to get that, but not here. We’ve documented a long process of the UK government prioritising business interests in policy-making and creating new processes that give businesses more say in what gets regulated and how.

The latest capitulation to business is over animal welfare standards. From next month the Government plans to let the poultry industry itself write the guidance on what counts as compliance with animal welfare regulations. For example, poultry farmers will typically trim the beaks of their chickens to prevent them injuring one another – current guidance advises that this should be limited to beak blunting performed by trained professionals to very high standards. The industry will now decide on this guidance itself.  As this is the current guidance, as commentators have rightly pointed out, when it comes to self-regulation of standards the only way is down.

The fact this move was slipped out quietly indicates an awareness of just how out of sync it is with public attitudes, which view environmental and social protections very favourably. When they tried to crowd source online suggestions from the public for regulations that should be scrapped they mostly ended up with suggestions for more regulation, not less.

The consequences are very real. The Volkswagen scandal, in which the car company deliberately flouted rules about what fumes its vehicles could emit, showed that weak regulation and enforcement can lead to corporate abuseand, ultimately, deaths. Last week it emerged that the UK governmentstopped spot-checking cars to check compliance with pollution regulations five years ago.

The only way our government can convince us that all of this is good for us is by misconstruing social and environmental protections as pesky ‘red tape’. Decisions taken by and for businesses are shrouded in language of entrepreneurialism and freedom from bureaucracy.

But is lessening the pain for battery farmed chickens really a case of red tape? Or trying to protect children from air pollution created by cars? Not in my books.

This handover of welfare guidance starts with the poultry and will be extended to other meat industries. But the wider story is about more than just our food. This is one more step in a long road of deregulation that threatens the democratic principle of government itself – the state should make decisions in the interest of society overall, not just businesses.

Fruit & veg: Simple symbols of human rights

By Rosa Robinson, March 2016

We know that changing an entire food system calls for big thinking. We talk about systems, actors, populations and places, but that means it’s easy to forget the impact on individuals. But if people can’t easily buy good food, for whatever reason, there is a cost in human misery, never mind the impact on national finances.

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the long-term health outcomes faced by people living in the poorest communities. The papers make grim reading. Low socioeconomic status exposes people to higher levels of stress – people have less control over their lives, less security and less resilience to cope with change and adversity. And this constant stress makes people more susceptible to a range of illnesses and in, particular anxiety and depression.

Depression is a serious and pervasive problem in Wales. The overall cost of poor mental health in Wales is an estimated 7.2 billion pounds a year, and it’s a long established fact that people living in the most deprived areas have higher levels of depression and anxiety than the rest of the population – where rates of physical ill-health are also higher and health protecting behaviours are lower.

Over the last decade and beyond, studies have examined the link between fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of depression. In 2015, a team of researchers synthesised the findings of several previous studies. Their findings indicate that fruit and vegetable intake are associated with reduced risk of depression.

We all have a right to live well but, right now, not everybody can. Access to fresh, healthy food is a fundamental requirement for good physical and mental health (numerous studies and meta-analyses indicate the importance of fruit and vegetable intake in reducing a range of chronic illnesses, like heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers).

It’s important to note that it is in the poorest communities that availability of fresh, affordable, healthy food is least available.  I’ve heard it argued many times that there’s no point making fruit and vegetables more available because poorer communities won’t buy it anyway.  This is stigmatisation.

The link between fruit and vegetable intake and depression is important, but we mustn’t neglect the likelihood that the correlation is bidirectional. People battling stress and depression may not eat fruit and vegetables because self-care isn’t a priority when there’s a ‘black dog’ nipping at your ankles. The truth is that stress creates adversity and diminishes people’s ability to cope and that has a significant affect on health behaviour.

I’ll sum  it up: Living in poverty is stressful; stress causes illness; poorer communities suffer more physical and mental ill-health than the rest of the population; fruit and vegetables play a significant role in keeping people healthy; fresh, healthy food isn’t a convenient or affordable option for many poor communities. And so the cycle of ill-health and poverty perpetuates.

It is unconscionable to ignore this inequality.

Fruit and vegetables are simple symbols of a human right to live well. They should be pinned to our masts and raised high because fairness in the food system is a fundamental part of achieving wellbeing for future generations, at every level of society.

Rosa is researching health behaviour and poverty at Bristol University and is Director of Work With Meaning, a community interest company that does research and social change projects in vulnerable communities across Wales and the wider UK. 

Say hello by tweeting @rosa_r or visiting www.workwithmeaning.org.uk (email rosa@)




Using surplus food to power community growth

Jane Powell paid a visit to a café in Pembrokeshire which serves food with a difference

Next to the offer of plum crumble on the blackboard at the Fishguard Transition Café  in north Pembrokeshire is a helpful note: ‘may contain stones’. That remark sets the tone for our visit to this pioneering enterprise, where meticulous attention to detail and a warm human touch combine to form a community project with an imaginative contribution to a town’s food system.

three women in a cafe

Serving customers at the Fishguard Transition Café

Most of the food served at the Cafe, which offers a choice of home-cooked dishes in bright and tasteful surroundings, is supplied by local food businesses. It is surplus produce, mainly fruit, vegetables, bread and dairy, but also some meat and other items, from the no-man’s land between the much misunderstood ‘best before’ date, which marks the point at which the manufacturer estimates that it might start to lose its premium quality, and the ‘use by’ date, after which there are real dangers to health and it cannot legally be served.


Perishable food in this zone is perfectly fit to eat – certainly the plums were at the peak of perfection, aromatic and sharp – but it needs to be used fairly quickly, and what is a liability for a supermarket becomes an opportunity for the enterprising bargain-hunter or in this case the community project with the facilities to handle it. Tinned and packaged foods, meanwhile, can be kept for months and even years. The Fishguard Transition Cafe turns surplus food – around 850 kg a month of it – into nutritious meals while also providing a space for volunteers and community groups to come together, forming a lively hub for discussions.

It’s a simple concept but a complex operation. Food arrives daily and menus are planned around what’s available – the main dish when we visited was mushroom stroganoff, with roast beetroot – while some of it is frozen, preserved or pickled. Like the supermarkets which supply it, the cafe has its own waste stream, with excess food given away in the cafe, sent for composting or biodigestion, or diverted to animal feed. Record-keeping for the Cafe, as for any food business, is demanding. Besides weighing the daily food deliveries, a note is made of allergens, food that has been cooked but cannot be used immediately is labelled and frozen, and cleaning routines are checked off. It’s clear that managing the surplus food for a small town and its hinterland is no small task, but the very intricacy of it also allows for a scale of human involvement that brings opportunities.

The cafe obviously makes an important contribution to improving the diets of local people who cannot afford to cook such meals themselves, although as volunteer director Chris Samra says, the stigma of ‘food poverty’ sometimes deters people who might benefit most. However, it was actually set up to reduce carbon emissions by diverting food from landfill, to the tune of an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon savings per year. It gets its name from the Fishguard Transition Group who formed in 2008 from a group of citizens who identified with a wider movement to make the ‘transition’ to a low-carbon society.

They began by setting up allotments and running gardening courses, with the aim of helping more people to grow their own, together with other activities to engage the local community. In 2012 they hit upon the idea of a cafe running on surplus food, acquiring premises rent-free from the next door Coop supermarket. A plaque on the wall acknowledges donations of furnishings, equipment, labour and cash to the project, from a wide range of donors including several national chain stores, a youth club, a farm, a solicitor, a hotel and a range of voluntary and government agencies.

Behind the scenes: weighing produce

Behind the scenes: weighing the produce as it comes in

Around about the same time, they embarked on the lengthy process of owning a wind turbine, raising loans from local residents. Generating an income from the wind is important, because the grants that helped the cafe get started are not such a renewable resource. Support by Environment Wales for a part-time project manager post, now in its fourth year, was key to getting the project started, and the Jobs Growth Wales scheme helped to get some young people onto the staff, which together with support from the group’s voluntary directors meant that they could run on volunteers to begin with.

The cafe has also been supported by the Wales Cooperative Centre, who funded a business plan, and  itwon the 2014 Sustainable Communities competition at the Hay Festival which provided a grant. Takings have grown and it is becoming more financially viable, but it still needs grants to cover some of its running and labour costs, including some part-time kitchen staff who provide continuity for the volunteers who assist with food preparation, record keeping and service at the counter.

The cafe is not just a means of turning surplus food into affordable meals. It is also a training facility, where volunteers, catering students and others with learning disabilities can acquire skills in a safe environment. It is a social hub where anyone can come for a healthy meal during the day from Tuesday to Friday, and at many out-of-hours events. It runs play sessions for families with young chidren, craft sessions for older children and adults, and drop-in sessions for Welsh learners. It also distributes food parcels on behalf of the Pembrokeshire food bank scheme PATCH, which means that some see it as a place ‘for poor people’, but it has always drawn in people from a wide cross-section of society, using food as a point of connection to drive social change.

The Fishguard Transition Cafe shows what can be done when food businesses, big and small, identify with their local area (in this case, within a 15-mile radius) and make common cause with community groups, so that surplus food builds social capital. There are other examples, like the Pay as You Feel cafe in Bethesda, Gwynedd,and the Real Junk Food cafe in Cardiff , each with a different take on the theme.

Wouldn’t it be great if every neighbourhood in Wales had one?

Our fragile food system

Tony Little has been involved in sustainable food and farming for nearly 20 years and was a key member of staff at Organic Centre Wales for 14 of those. He is actively involved in the Organic Growers Alliance and the Community Supported Agriculture Network UK, and recently set up the Sustainable Farming Consultancy.Tony Little

I spend a lot of time thinking about the agriculture in Wales, and I spend a lot of time listening to Welsh Government and other commentators on its future. One word crops up again and again and that word is resilience. And rightly so, for our food and farming system is fragile in the extreme.

Consider this. Practically all Welsh agriculture is based on just three products; lamb, beef and milk, and we export nearly all of it. Any ‘shocks’ to any one of these  – price volatility, collapse of export markets, animal health crises, fluctuations in exchange rates, regulation changes, exit from the EU – have disproportionately larger impacts on Wales compared to other countries with a wider production base. Of course many of these things are not independent of one another, so they can and do happen all at the same time to more than one sector.

In case anyone thinks I’m having go a livestock producers, I’m not. They are vital for nourishing the nation, cycling nutrients on the farm, habitat management, biodiversity and a great deal more. However, if we want a more resilient system, basing it on a very small number of products, whose fortunes are dictated by factors by and large outside our sphere of influence, is not the way I would go about it.

Diversifying the production base by strengthening arable and horticultural production, has to be the way to go, and there is massive potential to do so in Wales. There are over 4,000 ha of Grade 1 and 2 land in Wales, over 95% of which is currently under grass, and many more thousands of hectares of Grade 3 land that could grow crops, albeit in more challenging conditions. We grew crops in these areas in the past, and there is no technical reason why we could not again.

I don’t pretend that it’s easy – I’m in the process of introducing horticulture to an upland sheep system, so I know! Access to machinery, lack of skills and knowledge after a generation of specialised livestock production, the relatively high risk associated of horticultural enterprises and other factors conspire to make to it all rather challenging.

But it is absolutely necessary. No one really thinks the status quo is satisfactory. Over the 14 years I have been working in Wales I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of farmers I’ve spoken to who think that specialised beef and sheep production is a sound foundation for a profitable, and therefore resilient, business, and the annual farm income figures from the Farm Business Survey at IBERS tend to bear me out on this.

If our farming and food businesses are going to live, thrive and survive into the future – and our communities with them – we have to make fundamental changes. We’d be well advised to start now, before the wheels really come off.